As a continent, South America is larger in physical area than Europe, Antarctica, or Australia but is smaller in physical area than Africa or Asia. The South American continent is located farther east than North America and is smaller in physical area.
Almost the entire landmass of South America lies to the east of the same meridian that runs through Miami, Florida. The Atlantic Ocean borders the continent to the east and the Pacific Ocean borders the continent on the west. The narrow Isthmus of Panama creates a natural break between the South American continent and its neighbors to the north. The Caribbean Sea creates the northern boundary.
The continent covers an extensive range of latitude. The equator cuts through the northern part of the continent directly through the mouth of the mighty Amazon River.
The country of Ecuador is located on the equator—hence its name. The equatorial region is dominated by the tropical climates of the immense Amazon Basin. The Tropic of Capricorn runs directly through the latitude of São Paulo, Brazil, and Chile’s Atacama Desert, which reveals that most of the continent is in the zone of the tropics to the north.
South of the Tropic of Capricorn is the Southern Cone of South America, home to the physical regions of the Pampas and Patagonia.
Tierra del Fuego is the southern tip of the realm with territory in both Argentina and Chile. On the south side of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago is Cape Horn, which is considered the southernmost land point of the continent. The Diego Ramírez Islands south of Cape Horn mark the southern boundary of South America.
The high relief of South America has created distinct agricultural and livestock zones, known as altitudinal zonation. As altitude increases, temperature decreases, and thus each altitudinal zone can support different crops and animals. The hot, coastal area known as the tierra caliente, for example, can support tropical crops like bananas and rice. Past the tree line in the higher elevation of the tierra helada, animals like llamas can graze on cool grasses. In this way, even countries with a relatively small land area can support a wide variety of agricultural activities.
South America’s Andes Mountains, which stretch from Venezuela down to Chile and Argentina, were formed from the subduction of the Nazca and Antarctic plates below the South American plate. They are the highest mountains outside of Asia.
Situated in the Andes is the Altiplano, a series of high elevation plains. The word altiplano means “valley” in Spanish. These wide basins were central to early human settlement of the continent.
Lake Titicaca is a large freshwater lake about 120 miles long and 50 miles wide and is located in the Altiplano. The surface is at an elevation of about twelve thousand feet above sea level, and the lake is more than nine hundred feet deep in some areas. Usually at such high elevations, the temperature would dip below freezing and restrict agriculture. However, the large lake acts as a solar energy collector by absorbing energy from the sun during the day and giving off that energy in the form of heat during the night. The energy redistribution allows for a moderate temperature around the lake that is conducive to growing food crops. With abundant fresh water and the ability to grow food and catch fish, the Altiplano Region has supported human habitation for thousands of years.
The rest of South America is relatively flat. The Amazon basin is the other key geographic feature of the continent. The Amazon River is South America’s longest river and is the largest river in the world in terms of discharge.
The Amazon carries about a fifth of all river water in the world. The Amazon and its many tributaries drain the entire interior region of the continent, covering 40 percent of South America. During the rainy season, the Amazon River can be more than one hundred miles wide. No bridges span the Amazon River. Its source is a glacial stream located high in the Peruvian Andes, about 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
A variety of ancient cultures were found in South America prior to colonization. These indigenous groups settled in a variety of environments, some in the coastal plains and others in the Amazon basin. One group, the Inca, primarily settled in the altiplano of Peru beginning in the 13th century. The Inca Empire was the largest of the pre-Colombian, referring to before Columbus’ arrival, civilizations. Initially, the Inca founded the city-state Kingdom of Cusco, but over time, expanded to encompass four territories stretching 2,500 miles and included over 4 million people.
In 1494 CE, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing up territory in the New World between the two colonial empires. The Spanish would control territory to the west of the line while Portugal would control territory to the east.
Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro reached the Inca by 1526 CE. The empire, already weakened by smallpox and infighting, was conquered by the Spanish soon after. Portugal meanwhile conquered much of eastern South America in present-day Brazil.
In the rural areas of South America, land was taken from indigenous groups, as it had been in Middle America, and transformed to the benefit of colonial interests. The main interest of the conquering group was to extract riches with little thought given to fostering local development and regional connectivity. Even today, many of the rural areas of South America remain highly isolated and the indigenous descendants of conquered Amerindian groups among the poorest in the region.
In coastal South America, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom established colonies. These colonial possessions were largely extensions of the Central American rimland with large plantations and slave labor. Portugal, too, established plantations along coastal Brazil. As colonialism expanded, the colonial empires prospered. Lima, for example, in present-day Peru, became one of the wealthiest cities in the word due to its silver deposits.
It is impossible to understand the current conditions in South America without first understanding what occurred to create those conditions. This is why studying European colonialism is so important. Colonialism changed the ethnicity, religion, language, and economic activities of the people in South America. The past five hundred years have tempered, stretched, and molded the current states and regions of the South American continent. To identify standards of living, ethnic majorities, and economic conditions, it is helpful to map out South America’s various cultural regions.
In South America, five main cultural regions indicate the majority of ethnic groups and the main economic activities:
- Tropical Plantation Region – This area has a tropical climate and agricultural economy. The local people were forced into slavery, but when the local people died off or escaped, millions of African slaves were brought in to replace them. After slavery was abolished, indentured servants from Asia were brought to the Guianas to work the plantations. The Tropical Plantation Region has a high percentage of people of African or Asian descent.
- Rural Amerindian Region – The Rural Amerindian Region includes the countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The ruling Mestizo class that inherited control from the European conquistadors mainly lives in urban areas. Most of the rural Amerindian population lives in mountainous areas with type H climates and ekes out a hard living in subsistence agriculture. This is one of the poorest regions of South America, and land and politics are controlled by powerful elites. The extraction of gold and silver has not benefited the local Amerindian majority, which holds to local customs and speaks local languages.
- Amazon Basin – The Amazon Basin, which is characterized by a type A climate, is the least-densely populated region of South America and is home to isolated Amerindian groups. Development has encroached upon the region in the forms of deforestation, mining, and cattle ranching. Large deposits of iron ore, along with gold and other minerals, have been found in the Amazon Basin. Conflicts over land claims and the autonomy of Amerindian groups are on the rise.
- Mixed Mestizo Region – The Mixed Mestizo Region includes the coastal area of the west and the interior highlands of the north and east. This region between the Tropical Plantation Region and the Rural Amerindian Region includes a majority of people who share a mixed European and Amerindian ethnicity. It is not as poor as the Rural Amerindian Region and yet not as wealthy as the European-dominated region to the south.
- European Commercial Region (Southern Cone) – European ethnic groups dominate this region and include not only Spanish and Portuguese but also German, Austrian, Italian, and other European ethnic heritages. Fertile soils and European trade provided early economic growth, and the region attracted industry and manufacturing in the later decades of the twentieth century. There are not many Amerindians or people of African descent here. More than 90 percent of all the people in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay are of European descent and live in urban areas. With a highly urbanized population and with trade connections to a globalized economy, it is no surprise that the Southern Cone is home to South America’s most developed economies.
There is so much more I could write about South America, but here’s a video about the countries in South America to wrap things up, and then we’ll take a closer look at some of the South American countries.
✎ The extensive Andes Mountain chain and the massive Amazon River dominate the realm’s physical geography.
✎ The Spanish and the Portuguese were the two main colonial powers that dominated South America. The Guianas were the only part of the continent not dominated by these two European powers.
✎ Identifying the majority ethnic groups in South America can be helpful in classifying the various cultural regions of the realm.
Next: 5.1 Colombia and Ecuador
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South America map
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Amazon River basin
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Treaty of Trodesillas
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Vicuna in the Atacama Desert
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Cormorants in Patagonia
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By Jorge Láscar from Melbourne, Australia – The Andes as seen from an airplane, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66233561
Andes Mountains map
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Colonial south america
Kaieteur Falls in Guyana
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South American cultural zones
Handicraft seller in Peru
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Uncontacted tribe in Brazil
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South America climate map
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