South America

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World map showing South America
World map showing South America
A satellite composite image of South America
A satellite composite image of South America

South America is a continent situated in the Western Hemisphere between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Most of it is in the Southern Hemisphere.

Commonly referred to as part of the Americas, like North America, South America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first European to suggest that the Americas were not the East Indies, but a previously undiscovered New World.

South America has an area of 17,820,000 km² (6,880,000 sq mi), or almost 3.5% of the Earth's surface. As of 2005, its population was estimated at more than 371,200,000. South America ranks fourth in area (after Asia, Africa, and North America) and fifth in population (after Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America).


Map of South America. (1750) Geograph: Robert de Vaugondy.
Map of South America. (1750) Geograph: Robert de Vaugondy.

Geographically, South America is generally considered a continent forming the southern portion of the American landmass, south and east of the Panama Canal transecting the Isthmus of Panama. Depending on source, South and North America are sometimes considered a single continent or supercontinent, while constituent regions are infrequently considered subcontinents. Geopolitically, all of Panama – including the segment east of the Panama Canal in the isthmus – is often considered a part of North America alone and among the countries of Central America.

It became attached to North America only recently (geologically speaking) with the formation of the Isthmus of Panama some 3 million years ago, which resulted in the Great American Interchange. The Andes, likewise a comparatively young and seismically restless mountain range, run down the western edge of the continent; the land to the east of the Andes is largely tropical rain forest, the vast Amazon River basin. The continent also contains drier regions such as Patagonia and the extremely arid Atacama desert.

The South American continent also includes various islands, most of which belong to countries on the continent. The Caribbean territories are grouped with North America. The South American nations that border the Caribbean Sea – including Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana – are also known as Caribbean South America.

Major natural resources are copper, iron ore, tin, and oil. The many resources of South America have become useful around the world. However, they often have hindered the development of diversified economies. This has lead to major highs and lows in the economy of South American states, often also causing political instability.

South America is home to many interesting species of animals including parrots, tarantulas, snakes, and mammals.

The largest country in South America by far, in both area and population, is Brazil, followed by Argentina. Regions in South America include the Andean States, the Guianas, the Southern Cone, and Eastern South America.


South America is thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering strait, though there are also suggestions of migration from the southern Pacific Ocean.


The Chavín established a trade network and developed agriculture by 900 BC, according to some estimates and archeological finds. Artifacts were found at a site called Chavín de Huantar in modern Peru at an elevation of 3,177 meters. Chavín civilization spanned 900 BC to 300 BC.


Holding their capital at the great city of Cusco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tahuantinsuyu, or "the land of the four regions," in Quechua, the Inca culture was highly distinct and developed. Cities were built with precise, unmatched stonework, constructed over many levels of mountain terrain. Terrace farming was a useful form of agriculture. There is evidence of excellent metalwork in Inca civilization.

European colonization

The imaginary lines of the Treaty of Tordesillas.
The imaginary lines of the Treaty of Tordesillas.

In 1494, Portugal and Spain, the two great maritime powers of that time, on the expectation of new lands being discovered in the west, signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, by which they agreed that all the land outside Europe should be an exclusive duopoly between the two countries. The Treaty established an imaginary line along a north-south meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands, roughly 46° 37' W. In terms of the treaty, all land to the west of the line (which is now known to comprehend most of the South American soil), would belong to Spain, and all land to the east, to Portugal. As accurate measurements of longitude were impossible at that time, the line was not strictly enforced, resulting in a Portuguese expansion of Brazil across the meridian.

Beginning in the 1530s, the people and natural resources of South America were repeatedly exploited by foreign conquistadors, first from Spain and later from Portugal. These competing colonial nations claimed the land and resources as their own and divided it into colonies.

European diseases ( smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus) to which the native populations had no resistance, and cruel systems of forced labor, such as the infamous haciendas and mining industry's mita, decimated the American population under Spanish control. After this, African slaves, who had developed immunities to these diseases, were quickly brought in to replace them.

The Spaniards were committed to converting their American subjects to Christianity, and were quick to purge any native cultural practices that hindered this end. However, most initial attempts at this were only partially successful, as American groups simply blended Catholicism with their traditional beliefs. On the other hand, the Spaniards did not impose their language to the degree they did their religion, and the Catholic Church's evangelization in Quechua, Nahuatl and Guaraní actually contributed to the expansion of these American languages, equipping them with writing systems.

Eventually the Natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. These and the original Americans were often forced to pay unfair taxes to the Spanish government and were punished harshly for disobeying their laws. Many native artworks were considered pagan idols and destroyed by Spanish explorers. This included the many gold and silver sculptures found in the Americas, which were melted down before transport to Europe.

Physical map of South America
Physical map of South America


The Spanish colonies won their independence in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the South American Wars of Independence. Simon Bolivar and José de San Martín led their independence struggle. In Brazil, a Portuguese colony, Dom Pedro I (also Pedro IV of Portugal), son of the Portuguese king Dom João VI, proclaimed the country's independence in 1822 and became Brazil's first Emperor. This was peacefully accepted by the crown in Portugal. Although Bolivar attempted to keep the Spanish-speaking parts of the continent politically unified, they rapidly became independent of one another as well, and several further wars were fought, such as the War of the Triple Alliance and the War of the Pacific.

A few countries did not gain independence until the 20th century:

French Guiana remains part of France as of 2006, and hosts the European Union's principal spaceport, the Centre Spatial Guyanais.

Recent history

The continent, like many others, became a battlefield of the Cold War in the late 20th century. The government of Chile was overthrown in the early 1970s, as a late (and peculiar) development of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Peru suffered from internal conflicts (see Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement and Shining Path). Other revolutions and military dictatorships have been common, but starting in the 1980s a wave of democratization came through the continent, and democratic rule is widespread now. Allegations of corruption remain common, and several nations have seen crises which have forced the resignation of their presidents, although normal civilian succession has continued.

International indebtedness became a notable problem, as most recently illustrated by Argentina's default in the early 21st century.


As of 2002, South America's unemployment rate was 10.8 %.

Due to histories of high inflation in nearly all South American countries, interest rates and thus investment remain high and low, respectively. Interest rates are usually double that of the United States. For example, interest rates are about 22 % in Venezuela and 23 % in Suriname. The exception is Chile, which had a head start from 1973 under Augusto Pinochet.

The South American Community of Nations is a planned continent-wide free trade zone to unite two existing free-trade organizations— Mercosur and the Andean Community.

In South America, the gap between the rich and the poor is tremendous. In Venezuela, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and many other South American countries, the richest 20 % may own over 60 % of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 20 % may own less than 5 %. This wide gap can be seen in many large South American cities where makeshift shacks and slums lie next to skyscrapers and upper-class luxury apartments.


Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion. French Guiana also has a large number of Protestants. Guyana and Suriname are exceptions, with three major religions: Christianity in general, Hinduism, and Islam.

Portuguese and Spanish are the primary languages of the continent. The majority of South Americans (51%) speak Portuguese. However, most South American countries are Spanish-speaking, and nearly all of the continent's lusophones reside in Brazil. Among other languages used by many South Americans are:

  • Aymará in Bolivia and Peru.
  • Quechua in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.
  • Guaraní in Paraguay.
  • English in Guyana.
  • Hindi in Guyana and Suriname.
  • Dutch and Indonesian in Suriname.
  • Italian in certain pockets across southern South America in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, German in certain pockets in Brazil, Chile and Paraguay.

South American nations have a rich variety of music. Some of the most famous genres include samba from Brazil, tango from Argentina and Uruguay and cumbia from Colombia.

Because of South America's ethnic mix, South American cuisine takes on African, American Indian, and European influences. Bahia, Brazil, is especially well-known for its West African-influenced cuisine.


Ethnic groups of South America include:

Indigenous peoples make up the majority of the population in Bolivia and Peru, and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies. Exceptions to this include Argentina and Uruguay. At least three of the Amerindian languages ( Quechua in Peru and Bolivia, Aymara also in Bolivia, and Guarani in Paraguay) are recognized along with Spanish as national languages.


"Mestizo" is a term of Spanish origin used to designate the peoples of mixed European and Amerindian racial strain inhabiting the region spanning the Americas.

Mestizos officially make up the majority of the populations of Chile (60%), Colombia (58%), Ecuador (65%), Paraguay (95%) and Venezuela (67%). Figures in other countries are Argentina (about 13%), Bolivia (30%), Brazil (about 12%), Uruguay (8%) and Peru (37%).

African ancestry

Africans first arrived with the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century. Most were brought as slaves and delivered to Brazil and the Caribbean. Brazil now has about 60 million black people. Venezuela, Colombia, and Guyana also have significant black populations. All the American and Caribbean countries have seen important contributions by Afro-Latin Americans. Historical research on this subject has become more and more prevalent during the last four decades.

Mulato is a term of Spanish origin ( Mulatto in English) describing Latin Americans of mixed African and White racial descent.

Zambo is a term of Spanish origin describing Latin Americans of mixed African and Amerindian racial descent. The feminine form is zamba.

Territories and divisions

Name of territory,
with flag
Population density
(per km²)
Argentina Argentina 2,766,890 39,537,943 14.3 Buenos Aires
Bolivia Bolivia 1,098,580 8,857,870 8.1 La Paz, Sucre
Brazil Brazil 8,511,965 186,112,794 21.9 Brasília
Chile Chile 756,950 15,980,912 21.1 Santiago, Valparaíso
Colombia Colombia 1,138,910 42,954,279 37.7 Bogotá
Ecuador Ecuador 283,560 13,363,593 47.1 Quito
Falkland Islands Falkland Islands ( UK) 12,173 2,967 0.24 Stanley
French Guiana French Guiana (France) 91,000 195,506 2.1 Cayenne
Guyana Guyana 214,970 765,283 3.6 Georgetown
Paraguay Paraguay 406,750 6,347,884 15.6 Asunción
Peru Peru 1,285,220 27,925,628 21.7 Lima
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Georgia and
South Sandwich Islands
3,093 Grytviken
Suriname Suriname 163,270 438,144 2.7 Paramaribo
Uruguay Uruguay 176,220 3,415,920 19.4 Montevideo
Venezuela Venezuela 912,050 25,375,281 27.8 Caracas
Total 17,821,601 371,274,004 20.8


  1. ^ La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia; Sucre is the judicial seat.
  2. ^ Santiago is the administrative capital of Chile; Valparaíso is the site of legislative meetings.
  3. ^ Claimed by Argentina.
  4. ^ The South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are commonly associated with Antarctica (due to proximity) and have no permanent population, only hosting a periodic contingent of about 100 researchers and visitors.
* Depending on definitions, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago have territory in one or both of South and North America.


Amongst people in some English-speaking countries, there is sometimes a tendency to confuse the linguistic and geographic divisions of the Americas: thus, Mexico, some Central American and Caribbean territories are mistakingly included in South America. The term Latin America is correctly used when referring to those territories whose official or national languages come from Latin ( French, Portuguese, and Spanish). Conversely, Anglo-America is used to refer to areas whose major languages are Germanic (English or Dutch) such as Guyana, Suriname, Belize, Jamaica, and much of the West Indies. Similarly, areas where English is prominent are considered part of the Anglosphere.

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