South America has a long and tumultuous history. It was the birthplace of one of the world's great empires, sadly brought to ruin upon the European arrival, and the destination for millions of men, women and children who were enslaved and brought over from Africa. The drive toward independence freed the continent from foreign rule, though it did little to address the yawning divide between rich and poor. Homegrown social justice movements were later crushed in the 20th century when military dictatorships ruled much of the continent.
There are various competing theories about how the indigenous peoples arrived in the Americas. Until recently, it was generally believed that early inhabitants traveled from present-day Siberia to Alaska over a land bridge across the Bering Strait. Some scholars estimate this epic migration occurred around 14,000 years ago. In the last several decades, new evidence of older sites in the southern reaches of South America has challenged the land-bridge theory. Early humans may have arrived by a combination of foot and boat travel following the coastline south as early as 23,000 years ago. In Monte Verde, Chile, scientists have discovered some of the oldest undisputed evidence of human occupation in the Americas. Apparently, early peoples were seafarers (or at least seafood lovers): among the artifacts found were 10 different species of seaweed.
The earliest peoples were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups. Agriculture likely developed around 5000 BC with the planting of wild tubers such as manioc and sweet potato under systems of shifting cultivation. About the same time, highland people began to farm seed crops, such as beans, and to domesticate animals, such as the llama. One of South America's greatest foodstuffs is the humble but versatile potato, a root crop domesticated in the Andean highlands. Today, more than 6000 varieties of potato are cultivated there.
Complex societies first developed in the valleys of coastal Peru. Their growth was unsustainable, however – it's thought that the population of some of these valleys grew until all the cultivable land was occupied. The need to expand into neighboring valleys led the inhabitants to organize, innovate and conquer. Not dissimilar from what would happen after the Europeans arrived, conquerors became the rulers and the conquered became their subjects, thus developing the social and economic hierarchies of these early states and beyond.
These embyronic societies ultimately developed into major civilizations, such as the Wari empire of the Peruvian central highlands, the Tiahuanaco culture of highland Bolivia, the Chimú of northern Coastal Peru and the Inca empire of Cuzco.
According to legend, the Inca civilization was born when Manco Cápac and his sister Mama Ocllo, children of the sun, emerged from Lake Titicaca to establish a civilization in the Cuzco Valley. Whether Manco Cápac was a historical figure is up for debate, but what is certain is that the Inca civilization was established in the area of Cuzco at some point in the 12th century. The reign of the first several incas (kings) was largely unremarkable, and for a couple of centuries they remained a small, regional state.
Expansion took off in the early 15th century, when the ninth king, Inca Yupanqui, defended Cuzco – against incredible odds – from the invading Chanka people to the north. After the victory, he took on the boastful new name of Pachacutec (Transformer of the Earth) and spent the next 25 years bagging much of the Andes. Under his reign, the Incas grew from a regional fiefdom in the Cuzco Valley into a broad empire of about 10 million people known as Tawantinsuyo (Land of Four Quarters). The kingdom covered most of modern Peru, in addition to pieces of Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. The empire traversed the Andes with more than 8000km of highways and managed to control peoples from 100 separate cultures and 20 different language groups for about a century. This was made more remarkable by the fact that the Incas, as an ethnicity, never numbered more than about 100,000.
Pachacutec allegedly gave Cuzco its layout in the form of a puma and built fabulous stone monuments in honor of Inca victories, including Sacsaywamán, the temple-fortress at Ollantaytambo and possibly Machu Picchu. He also improved the network of roads that connected the empire, further developed terrace agricultural systems and made Quechua the lingua franca.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot on the South American continent. In 1500 a fleet of 12 Portuguese ships carrying nearly 1200 men dropped anchor near what is today Porto Seguro. There they erected a cross and held Mass in the land they baptized Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross) before taking to the waves once again. Over the next century, the Portuguese set up coastal colonies in present-day Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and other coastal areas. There they harvested the profitable pau brasil (brazilwood), which gave the country its name.
Over the following centuries a four-front war was waged on the indigenous way of life. It was a cultural war, as well as a physical, territorial and biological one. Many indigenous peoples fell victim to the bandeirantes – groups of roaming raiders who spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploring Brazil’s interior, pillaging indigenous settlements as they went. Those who escaped such a fate were struck down by the illnesses which traveled from Europe, against which they had no natural resistance. Others were worked to death on sugar plantations.
Defeat of the Incas
The vast Inca Empire was in trouble even before the Spanish arrived in present-day Peru. Smallpox and other epidemics transmitted by European soldiers were sweeping through the entire American continent. Thousands of indigenous people were killed by the disease – including, in all likelihood, that of Inca emperor Huayna Cápac, who died in 1525.
Without a clear plan of succession, the emperor’s untimely death left a power vacuum. The contest turned into a face-off between two of his many children: the Quito-born Atahualpa, who commanded his father’s army in the north, and Huáscar, who was based in Cuzco. The ensuing struggle plunged the empire into a bloody civil war, reducing entire cities to rubble. Atahualpa emerged as the victor in April 1532. But the vicious nature of the conflict left the Incas with a lot of enemies throughout the Andes – which is why some tribes were so willing to cooperate with the Spanish when they arrived just five months later.
While the Portuguese were battling for control over the eastern half of the continent, the Spaniards set their sights on South America's Pacific coast. Following rumors of golden splendor in the interior, Francisco Pizarro led an exploratory journey to the north coast of Peru in 1528. There, near Tumbes, a crew of welcoming indigenous people offered them meat, fruit, fish and corn beer. To their delight, a cursory examination of the city revealed an abundance of silver and gold. The group quickly returned to Spain to court royal support for a bigger expedition.
They returned in September 1532, with a shipload of arms, horses and slaves, as well as a battalion of 168 troops. Tumbes, the rich town he had visited just four years earlier, had been devastated by epidemics, as well as the recent Inca civil war. Atahualpa, in the meantime, was in the process of making his way down from Quito to Cuzco to claim his hard-won throne. When the Spanish arrived, he was in the highland settlement of Cajamarca, enjoying the area’s mineral baths.
Pizarro quickly deduced that the empire was in a fractious state. He and his men charted a course to Cajamarca and approached Atahualpa with royal greetings and promises of brotherhood. But the well-mannered overtures quickly devolved into a surprise attack that left thousands of Incas dead and Atahualpa a prisoner of war. (Between their horses, their armor and the steel of their blades, the Spanish were practically invincible against fighters armed only with clubs, slings and wicker helmets.)
In an attempt to regain his freedom, Atahualpa offered the Spanish a bounty of gold and silver. Thus began one of the most famous ransoms in history – with the Incas attempting to fill an entire room with the precious stuff in order to placate the unrelenting appetites of the Spanish. But it was never enough. The Spanish held Atahualpa for eight months before executing him with a garrote at the age of 31.
The Inca empire never recovered from this fateful encounter. The arrival of the Spanish brought on a cataclysmic collapse of the indigenous society. It is estimated that the local population – around 10 million when Pizarro arrived – was reduced to 600,000 within a century.
The Dark Era of Slavery
The slave trade practiced by early European traders from the 1500s to 1866 enslaved as many as 12.5 million people – with just around 10.7 million surviving the grueling journey from Africa to the Americas. Only a fraction (around half a million) ended up in North America. The rest were destined for Latin America and the Caribbean with the majority (as many as six million) ending up in Brazil, most of them working on the backbreaking sugarcane plantations. They were torn from a variety of tribes in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea, as well as the Sudan and Congo. Whatever their origins and cultures, their destinations were identical: slave markets such as Salvador’s Pelourinho or Belém’s Mercado Ver-o-Peso. Elsewhere, smaller numbers of Africans were taken to Peru, Colombia, the Guianas and all along the Caribbean coast.
For those who survived the ordeal of removal and transfer, arrival in the Americas meant only continued suffering. A slave’s existence was one of brutality and humiliation. Kind masters were the exception, not the rule, and labor on the plantations was relentless. Slaves were required to work as many as 17 hours each day, before retiring to the squalid senzala (slave quarters), and with as many as 200 slaves packed into each dwelling, hygiene was a concept as remote as the distant coasts of Africa. Dysentery, typhus, yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis and scurvy were rife; malnutrition a fact of life.
Syphilis also plagued a slave population sexually exploited by its masters. Sex slavery was so common that a large mixed-race population soon emerged. Off the plantations there were greater numbers of white men than white women, and many black or indigenous women were used by white men as live-in sex slaves.
Many slaves escaped from their masters to form quilombos, communities of runaway slaves that quickly spread across the countryside. The most famous, the Republic of Palmares, which survived through much of the 17th century, was home to some 20,000 people before it was destroyed by federal troops.
Most countries in South America banned slavery between 1816 and 1831, but in Brazil, it wasn't until 1888 that slavery was finally outlawed. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make a huge immediate difference to the welfare of the 800,000 freed slaves, who were largely illiterate and unskilled. Thousands were cast into the streets without any kind of infrastructure to support them. Many died, while others flooded to Brazil’s urban centers, desperately in search of jobs.
Critics point out that the end of slavery didn't really bring justice to newly freed people. Gross inequalities continued to plague South America up to the present day. One 2015 study in Brazil showed that people of color earn 59% of what whites earn, and that 132% more Afro-Brazilians than whites are killed by violence each year.
By the early 19th century, criollos (creoles, born in South America to Spanish parents) in many Spanish colonies had grown increasingly dissatisfied with their lack of administrative power and the crown’s heavy taxes – leading to revolutions all over the continent. Argentine revolutionary José de San Martín led independence campaigns in Argentina and Chile (1818), before sailing up the coast to take Lima in 1821. From the opposite direction came Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who had been leading independence fights in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
The two liberators met in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1822. At this famous meeting, the apolitical San Martín found himself in conflict with Bolívar, who had strong political ambitions. San Martín considered the installation of a powerful leader, even a monarch, as essential to avoid the disintegration of Peru, while Bolívar insisted on a constitutional republic. In a complicated exchange, which aroused ill-feeling in both camps, Bolívar won the day and San Martín returned to the south. In the long run, both were disappointed. The proliferation of caudillos (local warlords) set a deplorable pattern for most of the 19th century.
Ever in its own world, Brazil followed quite a different path to independence. Unlike its neighboring countries, Brazil had a European monarch living within its borders in the early 1800s. Brazil became a temporary sanctuary to the Portuguese royal family, who fled from the advance of Napoleon in Iberia in 1807. The prince regent – and future king, Dom João VI – fell in love with Rio, naming it the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. His affection for Brazil was so strong that he didn't want to return to Portugal even after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. He finally returned to Europe six years later, leaving his son Pedro as prince regent. When the Portuguese parliament attempted to restore Brazil to its previous status as subservient colony, Dom Pedro rebelled and declared Brazil independent, declaring himself the country’s head as Emperor Dom Pedro I. Portugal was too weak to fight its favorite son, so without spilling blood, Brazil attained its independence in 1822.
The 20th century was a tumultuous period for South America, with political turmoil and economic crises paving the way for the rise of military dictatorships. The social unrest that followed the Great Depression of 1929 provided justification for the army to intervene in countries across the continent. In Argentina, the pro-fascist general José Félix Uriburu seized control during a military coup in 1930, ushering in the so-called Infamous Decade. Likewise the 1930s saw military coups and repressive regimes rise in Peru and Chile. In Brazil, it was the era of the autocratic Getulio Vargas, when rival political parties were banned, the press was muzzled and opponents were imprisoned.
Unfortunately, this was just the beginning, with far more horrifying dictatorships on the horizon. The 1960s and 1970s were an even darker period in South America when military dictatorships ruled in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay. Student- and worker-led movements crying out for social justice were met with increasing brutality.
In the late 1960s and ’70s in Argentina, anti-government feeling was rife and street protests often exploded into all-out riots. Armed guerrilla organizations emerged as radical opponents of the military, the oligarchies and US influence in Latin America. In 1976, the army general Jorge Rafael Videla seized power, ushering in a bloody seven-year period known as the Dirty War. Security forces went about the country arresting, torturing and killing anyone on their hit list of suspected leftists. As many as 30,000 people were 'disappeared' – that is, murdered.
In Chile, there was hope for a brighter future when socialist candidate Salvador Allende was elected in 1970. This was soon crushed, however, when Augusto Pinochet led a coup in 1973. Ruling until 1989, he would become Latin America's most notorious dictator, with thousands of suspected leftists jailed, tortured and executed, and hundreds of thousands fleeing the country.
Meanwhile in Brazil, military dictators ran the show from 1964 to 1984. Though not as brutal as the Chilean or Argentine regimes, it was still a period when dissent was crushed, political parties were banned and the media was muzzled. Things remained grim throughout South America until the early 1990s when democracy at last returned to most of the continent.
The 21st Century
Towards the end of the 1990s and into the 21st century, things took a remarkable turn for the better in South America. A rising middle class, falling poverty rates and strong economies were hallmarks of the early 2000s. As the continent veered to the left, wage disparities fell slightly and social justice seemed to be the hot topic of the day.
Progressives like former Brazilian president Lula helped pave the way, demonstrating that you could both grow an economy and help lift people out of poverty. Machismo took a blow, with the first female presidents in South America helping to break down barriers. Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile all recently served as presidents of some of South America's largest economies. Leaders from indigenous backgrounds also emerged on the political stage, including Evo Morales of Bolivia and Alejandro Toledo of Peru.
On other fronts, there have been equally dramatic changes in recent years. Gay marriage has been legalized in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and three other countries (Chile, Colombia and Ecuador) have a form of same-sex civil union. Gay marriage is also legal in French Guiana, which is considered part of France.
On the downside, political corruption remains pervasive in South America. In Brazil, one of the largest scandals in the nation's history (a staggering US$3 billion bribery and money-laundering scheme) brought down many politicians and heads of industry, and led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. In Argentina, former president Cristina Kirchner had to deal with damaging allegations that she and her late husband (who was president before her) enriched themselves at taxpayers' expense. Likewise, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has also found herself embroiled in a corruption scandal – involving abuse of power by her son – which has led to her plummeting popularity ratings.
In recent years, South American economies have struggled with falling currencies and rising unemployment. Rural poverty remains a gripping problem in every country in South America, with many families still struggling with basic needs: adequate nutrition, health care and clean water. And one in seven still live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than US$2.50 per day.