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Back in the salad days (sometime between 12, 500 and 70, 000 years ago), humans migrated from Asia to Alaska over a land bridge across the Bering Strait and slowly hunted and gathered their way south. Settled agriculture developed in South America between 5000 BC and 2500 BC in and around present-day Peru, and the emerging societies ultimately developed into major civilizations, of which the Inca empire was the most sophisticated.

Enter the Spanish

At the time of the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century, the Inca empire had reached the zenith of its power, ruling over millions of people from northern Ecuador to central Chile and northern Argentina, where native peoples of the Araucanian language groups fiercely resisted incursions from the north.

The Spanish first arrived in Latin America in 1492, when Christopher Columbus, who was bankrolled by Queen Isabella of Spain to find a new route to Asia’s spice islands, accidentally bumped into the Caribbean islands. Meanwhile, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama founded the new sea route to Asia. These spectacular discoveries raised the stakes in the brewing rivalry between Spain and Portugal, and to sort out claims of their newly discovered lands, they decided it was treaty time.

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Dividing & conquering

Spanish and Portuguese representatives met in 1494 to draw a nice little line at about 48° west of Greenwich, giving Africa and Asia to Portugal and all of the New World to Spain. Significantly, however, the treaty placed the coast of Brazil (not discovered until six years later) on the Portuguese side of the line, giving Portugal access to the new continent.

Between 1496 and 1526, Spanish exploration from Panama intensified. Rumors surfaced of a golden kingdom south of Panama, prompting Francisco Pizarro to convince Spanish authorities to finance an expedition of 200 men.

When Pizarro encountered the Inca, the empire was wracked by dissension and civil war and proved vulnerable to this invasion by a very small force of Spaniards. Pizarro’s well-armed soldiers terrorized the population, but his deadliest weapon was infectious disease, to which indigenous people lacked any immunity. The Inca ruler Huayna Capac died, probably of smallpox, in about 1525.

Lima, founded in 1535 as the capital of the new viceroyalty of Peru, was the base for most of the ensuing exploration and conquest, and became the seat of all power in Spanish South America. By 1572 the Spanish had defeated and killed two successive Inca rulers – Manco Inca and Tupac Amaru – and solidified Spain’s dominance over much of the continent.

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Silver, slavery & separation

Following the conquest, the Spaniards, who above all else wanted gold and silver, worked the indigenous populations mercilessly in the mines and the fields. Native American populations declined rapidly, however, due to introduced diseases. In several parts of the continent, African slaves were introduced to make up for the lack of indigenous labor, notably in the plantations of Brazil and the mines of Bolivia.

The movement for independence by the Spanish colonies began around the end of the 18th century, when Spain, devoting its energy and troops to the war against France, began to lose control of the colonies. By the end of the war in 1814, Venezuela and Argentina had effectively declared independence from Spain, and over the next seven years, the other Spanish colonies followed suit. Brazil became autonomous in 1807 and declared independence in 1822.

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Independence & dependence

After independence, conservative rural landowners, known as caudillos, filled the power vacuum left by the departed colonial regime. Strong dictatorships, periods of instability and the gross inequality between powerful elites and the disfranchised masses have since characterized most South American countries.

After WWII, which marked the beginning of industrialization throughout South America, most countries turned to foreign loans and investment to make up for their lack of capital. This set the stage for the massive debt crises of the 1970s and 1980s, as South American governments accelerated their borrowing, and profits from industry and agriculture made their way into Western banks and the pockets of corrupt South American officials. Dictatorships provided a semblance of stability, but oppression, poverty and corruption bred violent guerrilla movements in many countries, most notably (and most recently) in Peru and Colombia. Many of the problems facing South America today are a direct result of foreign debt and the systems of corruption and inequality that date back to colonial and post-independence years. The recent upsurge of populist and nationalist leaders is largely a democratic response to unpopular austerity measures forced upon South American countries by the IMF and World Bank.

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