Chapter 5: South America

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.

National Geographic Kids: South America | Destination World

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.

Map of South America
Map of South America
The Atacama Desert

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.

Vicuña in the Atacama Desert
Vicuña in the Atacama Desert

South of the Tropic of Capricorn is the Southern Cone of South America, home to the physical regions of the Pampas and Patagonia. 

The Pampas (from the Quechua: pampa, meaning "plain") are fertile South American lowlands.
The Pampas (from the Quechua: pampa, meaning “plain”) are fertile South American lowlands.
Cormorants (or shags) rest along the rocky shores of fjords and on small islands in the channels throughout southernmost Argentina. (Patagonia).
Cormorants (or shags) rest along the rocky shores of fjords and on small islands in the channels throughout southernmost Argentina. (Patagonia).
The Patagonia region is in both Chile and Argentina.
The Patagonia region is in both Chile and Argentina.

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.

South America's climate is varied.
South America’s climate is varied.

The high relief of Central 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.

 Altitudinal zonation in South America
Altitudinal zonation in South America

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.

The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world.
The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world.
Map of South America showing the Andes running along the entire western part (roughly parallel to the Pacific coast) of the continent
Map of South America showing the Andes running along the entire western part (roughly parallel to the Pacific coast) of the continent

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.

The Altiplano
The Altiplano is an area of inland drainage (endorheism) lying in the central Andes, occupying parts of northern Chile and Argentina, western Bolivia and southern Peru. Its height averages about 3,750 meters (12,300 feet), slightly less than that of the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike conditions in Tibet, the Altiplano is dominated by massive active volcanoes.

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.

Great Big Story: The Man-Made, Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
La Paz, Bolivia, is the largest city located in the Altiplano.
La Paz, Bolivia, is the largest city located in the Altiplano.

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.

Amazon River drainage basin
Amazon River drainage basin
Could You Pass the Bullet Ant Test? | National Geographic

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.

TEDEd: The rise and fall of the Inca Empire – Gordon McEwan

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.

Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494
Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494

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:

South America's cultural regions
South America’s cultural regions
  • 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.
 Kaieteur Falls in Guyana
Kaieteur Falls in Guyana
  • 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.
A woman in the  Rural Amerindian Region of Peru sells handicrafts.
A woman in the Rural Amerindian Region of Peru sells handicrafts.

  • 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.
An uncontacted indigenous tribe in Brazil
An uncontacted indigenous tribe in Brazil (in the Amazon Basin)
RealLifeLore: Why Hundreds of Uncontacted Tribes Still Exist in South America
  • 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.
Paraguay is in the  Mixed Mestizo Region.
Paraguay is in the Mixed Mestizo Region.
  • 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.

SOUTH AMERICA EXPLAINED (Geography Now!)

Key Takeaways:

✎ 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 Columbia and Ecuador

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Image and additional information credits:

Andes altitudes
By Chris.urs-o; Maksim; Anita Graser – Wikipedia de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5905197
South America map
By Cacahuate, amendments by Joelf and Globe-trotter, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22696351
Amazon River basin
By Kmusser – Own work using Digital Chart of the World and GTOPO data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4745680
Treaty of Trodesillas
By Ultimadesigns at English Wikibooks – Transferred from en.wikibooks to Commons by Adrignola using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10889289
Atacama Desert
By CIA – CIA World Factbook, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10044233
Vicuna in the Atacama Desert
By Jess Wood – Vicuña, Atacama Desert, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74484753
Cormorants in Patagonia
By Atsme – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79852010
Patagonia map
By Redgeographics – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64083266
Pampas map
By Jjw – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2102665
Pampas grasslands
By Alex Pereira – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3391826
Andes Mountains
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
By Carlos A Arango – free data depot arcGIS, quantum GISThis PNG graphic was created with QGIS., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2609409
Altiplano
By TBjornstad 18:03, 25 November 2006 (UTC) – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1403141
Altiplano
By Sayri – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10046303
La Paz
By EEJCC – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50659880
Colonial south america
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/6-1-introducing-the-realm/
Guianas
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/6-1-introducing-the-realm/
Kaieteur Falls in Guyana
By Bill Cameron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1709024
South American cultural zones
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/6-1-introducing-the-realm/
Handicraft seller in Peru
By Maasaak – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38583156
Uncontacted tribe in Brazil
By Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre – https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotosdoacre/3793962870/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24286128
Paraguay
By Eco reserva Mbatoví – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83957397
South America climate map
By Enhanced, modified, and vectorized by Ali Zifan. – Derived from World Köppen Classification (with authors).svg., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47085775

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