South America was populated by an early immigration from North America over the Panamá-owned area some 14,000 years ago. The southern tip was reached when the inland ice had receded. The tropical forests were probably populated by coastal areas and highlands.
The first agriculture probably originated as an independent invention; most important was the cultivation of cotton for fishing nets and bottle pumps for float nets. In the north, guinea pigs were tamed for extra food supplements. Villages and small towns with a permanent settlement grew up around 2500 BCE.
Sometime later, the cultivation of corn, beans and cucumber pumpkins began. About rivers from the eastern side of the Andes were fertile areas where intensified agriculture gradually grew. In these areas, religious centers and city-states emerged with craftsmen who operated pottery and made metal works in gold, silver, copper and bronze. In our time, two important centers arose, Moche in the north and Nazca in the south on the coastal strip in the west. The first more comprehensive state formation was Tihuanaco in present-day Bolivia. This area was later conquered by Chimu on the north coast, which was again incorporated by the Incasin their empire.
The incarceration of Cuzco as the main city dominated in the Andean region from 1438 to 1533. It had between nine and 14 million people linked by a 25,000 kilometer long road system. Cities like Machu Picchu were built of stone on many levels in mountain terrain, and terracing was an important part of agriculture. The Incas had no written language, but used quipu, a system of knotted strings, to store information.
Following earlier voyages to the Caribbean and Central America, Kristoffer Columbus arrived on his third voyage to the coast of present-day Venezuela in 1498. By the Treaty of Tordesillas four years earlier, the easternmost part of South America had fallen to Portugal and the rest of the continent of Spain. The agreement became important for Portuguese rule in later Brazil and Spanish colonies in most of South America.
Brazil was discovered by Pedro Álvarez Cabral in 1500 and taken possession of by him for Portugal. Alonso de Hojeda and Amerigo Vespucci explored the north and east coasts of South America in 1499-1502. Ferdinand Magellan sailed through the strait between the continent and the Fire Land, and then followed the west coast in 1519-1522. Francisco de Orellana explored the Amazon in 1541-1542 while searching for the legendary El Dorado. Jacob le Maire and Willem Schouten sailed around Cape Horn in 1616.
The military conquest of much of South America was led by ‘caudillos’ who, with their flocks, left areas under the Spanish crown, which assumed the right to rule over the territories and peoples there. Francisco Pizarro laid the empire under Spain in 1531-1535. Great riches of gold and silver, especially in the Inca area, were plundered, the indigenous cultures suppressed, and the populations reduced by the exertion and epidemic diseases brought by the Europeans. Nevertheless, indigenous people remained vigorous in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Colombia. Other European powers were stuck in the north and east, but only the division of Guyana between Britain, the Netherlands and France became permanent.
From the 1540s, the Spaniards ruled the possessions of South America as the Viceroy of Peru with Lima as its capital, except Venezuela which was under the Viceroy of New Spain in Central America. The administration was expanded in the 18th century to the Vice-Kingdom of New Granada, where Bogotá was the capital, and included the later states of Panamá, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Lake Titicaca is South America’s largest lake. It is located in the Andes, on the border between Peru and Bolivia, 3812 meters above sea level. The picture shows Indians with their characteristic reef boats. The image is taken from the paper lexicon Store Norwegian Lexicon, published 2005-2007.
The Viceroy of Río de la Plata further south included the later Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Here was the capital of Buenos Aires. Brazil became Portuguese viceroy in 1760.
As the ties to Spain and Portugal were weakened during the Napoleonic wars in Europe, nationalism in South America grew stronger. A number of local uprisings took place, and in 1811 Paraguay became the first South American country to declare independence. Under the leadership of nationalist military leaders such as Simón Bolívar in Venezuela, Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, José de San Martin in Argentina and José de Sucre in Colombia, the Spanish colonies gained independence in Chile from 1817 to the last Spanish. The garrison in Callao in Peru surrendered in 1826. In the northwest of South America, in 1818-1830, an attempt was made to create a larger state, the Republic of Greater Colombia.
Brazil gained independence when the king of Portugal’s son Pedro appointed himself emperor of Brazil in 1822. The other South American states were republics, and in a revolution in 1899, Brazil became so. Panamá detached from Colombia in 1903. Two of the colonies became independent after World War II : the British as Guyana in 1966 and the Dutch as Surinam in 1975. In 1946, French Guiana became an overseas French ministry. Trinidad and Tobago separated from the United Kingdom in 1962.
The borders between the South American states were changed a number of times in the course of wars. During the war between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in 1865-1870, Peru lost much of its territory. In the so-called Salpeter war between Bolivia, Chile and Peru in 1879–1883, Chile prevailed, and in the Chaco war between Paraguay and Bolivia, Paraguay prevailed. A war in the 20th century was the short-lived Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982, with the latter as the victorious party.
Violent power takeovers became more common than political choices, and violence was used to maintain power for alliances between major landlords, the army and the church. The poor majority did not get better living conditions.
Towards the end of the 19th century, many southern Europeans immigrated to Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina where there was land for settlers and industrial development.
In the 19th century, the United States established itself as an imperialist, mostly economic, power in parts of South America. The production of oil in Venezuela and copper in Chile, for example, was aimed at the US market.
After the economic crisis of 1929, which also affected the countries of South America, political movements emerged that strongly appealed to the working class. This was a populism with contemporary parallels to Germany and Italy. In Argentina, populist dictator Juan Perón, Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas, and Ecuador’s José Ibarra ruled for two or three decades. At the same time, South America was heavily economically and militarily dependent on the United States.
The era of military dictatorships began with the coup in Brazil in 1964. Radical politicians and union leaders received harsh treatment in many South American countries. The military regime in Brazil began to colonize the Amazon, and several indigenous communities perished. There were military coups in Peru in 1968, in Chile in 1973 and in Argentina in 1976, with political killings and other extreme human rights violations. From the 1990s, guerrilla movements in Peru, Colombia and Uruguay have marked these countries.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a left turn led to a more stable democratic development. It ranged from Chile’s social democracy, following a European model, to Venezuela’s left-wing populism under President Hugo Chávez. Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took a leadership role in the new development, but was challenged by Chávez. One common denominator was to curb American influence in South America.
Female presidents were elected in Chile with Michelle Bachelet in 2006-2010 and in 2014–2018, and in Brazil with Dilma Rousseff in 2011–2016. The first female president was Isabel Perón in Argentina in 1974–76.
In several South American countries, economic growth is good today, but the gap between rich and poor is still very deep and is a lasting problem.