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South America

South America

The South American continent stretches from about 10° above the equator to almost 60° below it, encompassing an area of 6,880,706 sq mi (17,821,028 sq km). This is almost 12% of the surface area of the earth. It is about 3,180 mi (5,100 km) wide at its widest point, and is divided into 10 countries. The continent can be divided into three main regions with distinct environmental and geological qualities: the highlands and plateaus of the east, which are the oldest geological feature in the continent; the Andes Mountains, which line the west coast and were created by the subduction of the Nazca plate beneath the continent; and the riverplain, between the highlands, which contains the Amazon River. The South American climate varies greatly based on the distance from the equator and the altitude of the area, but the range of temperatures seldom reaches 36°F (20°C), except in small areas.

The Eastern highlands and plateaus are the oldest geological region of South America, and are thought to have bordered on the African continent at one time, before the motion of the earth's crust and continental drift separated the continents. The Eastern highlands can be divided into three main sections, the Guiana Highlands, the Brazilian Highlands, and the Patagonian Highlands. The Guiana Highlands are found in the Guianan states, south Venezuela, and northeastern Brazil. Their highest peak, Roraima, reaches a height of 9,220 ft (2,810 m). This is a moist region with many waterfalls; it is in this range, in Venezuela, that the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, is found. Angel Falls plummets freely for 2,630 ft (802 m).

The Brazilian Highlands make up more than one half of the area of Brazil, and range in altitude between 1,000 and 5,000 ft (3051524 m). The highest mountain range of this region is called Serra da Mantiqueira, and its highest peak, Pico da Bandeira, is 9,396 ft (2,864 m) above sea level.

The Patagonian Highlands are in the south, in Argentina. The highest peak reaches an altitude of 9,462 ft (2,884 m), and is called Sierra de Cordoba.

The great mountain range of South America is the Andes Mountains, which extends more than 5,500 mi (8,900 km) all the way down the western coast of the continent. The highest peak of the Andes, called Mount Aconcagua, is on the western side of central Argentina, and is 22,828 ft (6,958 m) high. The Andes were formed by the motion of the earth's crust and its different tectonic plates. Some of them are continental plates, which are at a greater altitude than the other type of plate, the oceanic plates. All of these plates are in motion relative to each other, and the places where they border each other are regions of instability where various geological structures are formed, and where earthquakes and volcanic activity is frequent. The western coast of South America is a subduction zone , which means that the oceanic plate, called the Nazca plate, is being forced beneath the adjacent continental plate. The Andes Mountains were thrust upwards by this motion, and can still be considered "under construction" by the earth's crust. In addition to the Nazca plate, the South American and Antarctic plates converge on the west coast in an area called the Chile Triple Junction, at about 46° south latitude . The complexity of plate tectonics in this region sparks interest for geologists.

The geological instability of the region makes earthquakes common all along the western region of the continent, particularly along the southern half of Peru.

The Andes are dotted with volcanoes; some of the highest peaks in the mountain range are volcanic in origin, many of which rise above 20,000 ft (6,100 m). There are three major areas in which volcanoes are concentrated. The first of these appears between latitude 6° north and 2° south, straddles Colombia and Ecuador, and contains active volcanoes. The second, and largest region, lies between latitudes 15° and 27° south; it is about 1,240 mi (2,000 km) long and 62124 mi (100200 km) wide, and borders Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This is the largest concentration of volcanoes in the world, and the highest volcanoes in the world are found here. The volcanic activity, however, is low and it is generally geysers that erupt here. The third region of volcanic concentration is also the most active. It lies in the central valley of Chile, mostly between 33° and 44° south.

The climate in the Andes varies greatly, depending on both altitude and latitude, from hot regions, to Alpine meadow regions, to the glaciers of the South. The snowline is highest in southern Peru and northern Chile, at latitude 1520° south, where it seldom descends below 19,000 ft (5,800 m). This is much higher than at the equator, where the snowline descends to 15,000 ft (4,600 m). This vagary is attributed to the extremely dry climate of the lower latitude. In the far south of the continent, in the region known as Tierra del Fuego, the snowline reaches as low as 2,000 ft (600 m) above sea level.

The Andes are a rich source of mineral deposits, particularly copper, silver, and gold. In Venezuela, they are mined for copper, lead, petroleum , phosphates, and salt; diamonds are found along the Rio Caroni. Columbia has the richest deposits of coal , and is the largest producer of gold and platinum in South America. Columbia is also wealthy in emeralds, containing the largest deposits in the world with the exception of Russia. In Chile, the Andes are mined largely for their great copper stores in addition to lead, zinc, and silver. Bolivia has enormous tin mines. The Andes are also a source of tungsten, antimony, nickel, chromium, cobalt, and sulfur.

The Amazon basin is the largest river basin found in the world, covering an area of about 2.73 million sq mi (7 million sq km). The second largest river basin, which is the basin of the River Zaire in the African Congo, is less than half as large. The water resources of the area are spectacular; the volume of water that flows from the basin into the sea is about 11% of all the water drained from the continents of the earth. The greatest flow occurs in July, and the least is in November. While there are many rivers flowing through the basin, the most important and well known of these is the Amazon. The width of the Amazon ranges from about 1 mi (1.6 km) to as wide as 56 mi (56 km), and although it is usually only about 2040 ft (612 m) deep, there are narrow channels where it can reach a depth of 300 ft (100 m).

The Amazon basin was once an enormous bay, before the Andes were pushed up along the coasts. As the mountain range grew, they held back the ocean and eventually the bay became an inland sea. This sea was finally filled by the erosion of the higher land surrounding it, and finally a huge plain, crisscrossed by countless waterways, was created. Most of this region is still at sea level, and is covered by lush jungle and extensive wetlands. This jungle region contains the largest extant rain forest in the world. Despite the profusion of life that abounds here, the soil is not very rich; the fertile regions are those which receive a fresh layer of river silt when the Amazon floods , which occurs almost every year.

The climate of South America varies widely over a large range of altitudes and latitudes, but only in isolated regions is the temperature range greater than about 36°F (20°C). The coldest part of the continent is in the extreme southern tip, in the area called Tierra del Fuego; in the coldest month of the year, which is July, it is as cold as 32°F (0°C) there. The highest temperature of the continent is reached in a small area of northern Argentina, and is about 108°F (42°C). However, less than 15 days a year are this warm, and the average temperature in the same area for the hottest month of the year, which is January, is about 84°F (29°C).

Colombia borders Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, and encompasses an area of 440,831 sq mi (1,141,748 sq km). It is found where Panama of Central America meets the South American continent, and its location gives it the interesting feature of having coastal regions bordering on both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans . It is a country of diverse environments, including coastal, mountain, jungle, and island regions, but in general can be considered to consist of two major areas based on altitude: the Andes mountains and the lowlands.

The Andes in Colombia can be divided into three distinct ranges, which run approximately from north to south in parallel ridges. The Cordillera Occidental, or westernmost range, attains a maximum altitude of about 10,000 ft (3,000 m). The Cordillera Oriental, which is the eastern range, is much higher, and many of its peaks are covered with snow all year round. Its highest peak is about 18,000 ft (5,490 m) high, and it has many waterfalls, such as the Rio Bogota, which falls 400 ft (120 m). The Cordillera Central, as its name implies, runs between the Occidental and Oriental Cordilleras. It contains many active volcanoes as well as the highest peak in Colombia, Pico Cristobal Colon, which is 19,000 ft (5,775 m) high.

The lowlands of the east cover two thirds of Colombia's land area. It is part of the Orinoco and Amazon basins, and thus is well watered and fertile. Part of this region is covered with rich equatorial rain forest. The northern lowlands of the coastal region also contain several rivers, and the main river of Colombia, the Magdalena, begins there.

Venezuela covers an area of 352,144 sq mi (912,0250 sq km). It is the most northern country of South America, and can be divided up into four major regions. The Guiana Highlands in the southeast make up almost half of Venezuela's land area, and are bordered by Brazil and Guyana. It is here that the famous Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, is found. The Northern Highlands, which are a part of the Andes Mountains, contain the highest peak in VenezuelaPico Bolivar, which reaches a height of 16,427 ft (5,007 m). This range borders on much of the coastal region of Venezuela, and despite its proximity to both the Caribbean and the equator, it has many peaks that are snow-covered year-round. The Maracaibo basin, one-third of which is covered by Lake Maracaibo, is found in the northwest. It is connected to the Caribbean Sea, and although it contains fresh water at one end of the lake, as it nears the ocean it becomes more saline. Not surprisingly, most of the basin consists of wetlands. The Llanos de Orinoco, which borders on Colombia in the southwestern part of Venezuela, is watered by the Orinoco River and its tributaries. The Orinoco has a yearly discharge almost twice as large as that of the Mississippi, and from June to October, during the rainy season, many parts of the Llanos are inaccessible due to flooding.

Ecuador received its name from the fact that it straddles the equator. Its area is 103,930 sq mi (269,178 sq km), making it the smallest of the Andean countries. Its eastern and western lowlands regions are divided by the Andes Mountains, which run through the center of the country. This part of the Andes contains an active volcano region; the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, which reaches an altitude of 19,347 ft (5,897 m), is found here. The western lowlands on the coast contain a tropical rain forest in the north, but become extremely dry in the south. The eastern lowlands are part of the Amazon basin, and are largely covered by tropical rainforest. The rivers Putumayo, Napo, and Pastaza flow through this area.

Ecuador also claims the famous Galapagos Islands, which lie about 650 mi (1,040 km) off the coast. These 12 islands are all volcanic in origin, and several of the volcanoes are still active. The islands are the home of many species unique to the world, including perhaps the most well-known of their numbers, the Galapagos tortoise.

Peru covers an area of 496,225 sq. mi (1,285,216 sq. km), making it the largest of the Andean countries. Like Ecuador, it is split by the Andes Mountains into two distinct sections. The eastern coastal region is mostly covered with mountains, and in many places, the ocean borders on steep cliffs. In the northern part, however, there is a relatively flat region that is suitable for agriculture. In the east, the lowlands are mostly covered by the thick tropical rain forest of the Amazon basin. The southern part of the Andes in Peru contain many volcanoes, some of which are still active, and Lake Titicaca, which is shared by Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is remarkable for, among the large lakes with no ocean outlet, Titicaca is the highest in the world. It is 125 mi (200 km) at its largest length and 69 mi (110 km) at its largest breadth, which is not quite half as large as Lake Ontario; but it lies at an altitude of 12,507 ft (3,812 m) above sea level.

Bolivia has an area of 424,164 sq mi (1,098,581 sq km), and is the only landlocked country in South America besides Paraguay. The western part of the country, which borders on Ecuador and Chile, is covered by the Andes Mountains, and like most of this part of the Andes, it contains many active volcanoes. In the southern part of the range, the land becomes more arid, and in many places salt marshes are found. Among these is Lake Poopo, which lies 12,120 ft (3,690 m) above sea level. This saline lake is only 10 ft (3 m) deep. In the northern part of the range, the land becomes more habitable, and it is here that Lake Titicaca, which is shared with Peru, is found.

The eastern lowlands of Bolivia are divided into two distinct regions. In the north, the fertile Llanos de Mamore is well watered and is thickly covered with vegetation. The southeastern section, called the Gran Chaco, is a semiarid savanna region.

Chile is the longest, narrowest country in the world; although it is 2,650 mi (4,270 km) long, it is only about 250 mi (400 km) wide at its greatest width. It encompasses an area of 284,520 sq mi (736,905 sq km). The Andes divides into two branches along the eastern and western edges of the country. The eastern branch contains the highest of the Andean peaks, Aconcagua, which is 20,000 ft (6,960 m), and the highest point on the continent. The Andes in Chile has the greatest concentration of volcanoes on the continent, containing over 2,000 active and dormant volcanoes, and the area is plagued by earthquakes.

In the western coastal region of north and central Chile, the land meets the ocean in a long line of cliffs which reach about 8,800 ft (2,700 m) in altitude. The southern section of this coastal mountain range moves offshore, forming a group of about 3,000 islands extending in a line all the way to Cape Horn, which is the southernmost point on the continent. The coast in this area is quite remarkable in appearance, having numerous fjords . There are many volcanic islands off the coast of Chile, including the famous Easter Island, which contains some unusual archeological remains.

The southern part of the coastal region of Chile is a temperate area, but in the north it contains the Atacama Desert , which is the longest and driest desert in the world. Iquique, Chile, which lies in this region, is reported to have at one time suffered 14 years without any rain at all. The dryness of the area is thought to be due to a sudden temperature inversion as clouds move from the cold waters off the shore and encounter the warmth of the continent; this prevents water from precipitating from the clouds when they reach the shoreline. It has been suggested also that the sudden rise of the Andes Mountains on the coast contributes to this effect.

Argentina, the second largest of the South American countries, covers an area of 1,073,399 sq mi (2,780,092 sq km). The Andes Mountains divide western Argentina from Chile, and in the south, known as Tierra de Fuego, this range is still partly covered with glaciers.

A large part of Argentina is a region of lowlands and plains. The northern part of the lowlands, called the Chaco, is the hottest region in Argentina. In the northwestern part of Argentina near the Paraguayan and Brazilian borders, are found the remarkable Iguassa Falls. They are 2.5 mi (4 km) wide and 269 ft (82 m) high. As a comparison, Niagara Falls is only 5,249 ft (1,599 m) wide and 150164 ft (4650 m) high. The greatest part of the lowland plains is called the Pampa, which is humid in the east and semiarid in the west.

The southern highlands of Patagonia, which begins below the Colorado River, is a dry and mostly uninhabited region of plateaus. In the Tierra del Fuego the southernmost extension of the Andes is found. They are mostly glaciated, and many glacial lakes are found here. Where the mountains descend into the sea, the glaciers have shaped them so that the coast has a fjord-like appearance.

The Falkland Islands lie off the eastern coast of Argentina. They are a group of about 200 islands consisting of rolling hills and peat valleys, although there are a few low mountains north of the main islands. The sea around the Falkland Islands is quite shallow, and for this reason they are thought to lie on an extension of the continental shelf .

Paraguay, which has an area of 157,048 sq mi (406,752 sq km), is completely landlocked. About half of the country is part of the Gran Chaco, a large plain west of the Paraguay River, which also extends into Bolivia and Argentina. The Gran Chaco is swampy in places, but for the most part consists of scrubland with a few isolated patches of forest. East of the Paraguay River, there is another plain which is covered by forest and seasonal marshes. This region becomes a country of flat plateaus in the easternmost part of Paraguay, most of which are covered with evergreen and deciduous forests .

Uruguay, which is 68,037 sq mi (176,215 sq km) in area, is a country bounded by water. To the east it borders the Atlantic Ocean, and there are many lagoons and great expanses of dunes found along the coast. In the west, Uruguay is bordered by the river Uruguay, and in the south by the La Plata estuary . Most of the country consists of low hills with some forested areas.

With an area of 3,286,487 sq mi (8,511,965 sq km), Brazil is by far the largest country in South America, taking up almost half of the land area of the continent. It can be divided into two major geographical regions: the highlands, which include the Guiana Highlands in the far north and the Brazilian Highlands in the center and southeast, and the Amazon basin.

The highlands mostly have the appearance of flat tablelands, which are cut by deep rifts, and clefts that drain them; these steep river valleys are often inaccessible. In some places, the highlands have been shaped by erosion so that their surfaces are rounded and hill-like, or even give the appearance of mountain peaks. Along the coast, the plateaus plummet steeply to the ocean to form great cliffs, which can be as high as 7,0008,000 ft (2,1002,400 m). Except for the far north of Brazil, there are no coastal plains.

The lowlands of Brazil are in the vast Amazon basin, which is mostly covered with dense tropical rain forest, the largest tract of unbroken rainforest in the world. The many rivers and tributaries that water the region create large marshes in places. The Amazon is home to many indigenous peoples and as yet uncounted species of animals and plants found nowhere else in the world.

French Guiana encompasses an area of 35,900 sq mi (93,000 sq km), and is found north of Brazil. The area furthest inland is a region of flat plateaus that becomes rolling hills in the central region of the country, while the eastern coastal area is a broad plain consisting mostly of poorly drained marshland. Most of the country is covered with dense tropical rain forest, and the coast is lined with mangrove swamps. French Guiana possesses a few island territories as well; the most famous of these, Devil's Island, was the former site of a French penal colony.

North of French Guiana lies Suriname, another tiny coastal country that has an area of 63,251 sq mi (163,820 sq km). The southern part of the country is part of the Guiana Highlands, and consists of very flat plateaus cut across by great rifts and steep gullies. These are covered with thick tropical rain forest. North of the highlands is an area of rolling hills and deep valleys formed by rivers and covered with forest. The extreme north of Suriname lies along the coast and is a flat swamp. Several miles of mangrove swamps lie between this region and the coast.

East of Suriname is the country of Guyana, with a land area of 83,000 sq mi (215,00 sq km). The Guiana Highlands are in the western and southern parts of Guyana. As with Suriname and French Guiana, these are cut up deeply by steep and sudden river valleys, and covered with dense rain forest. The western part of the Guiana Highlands are called the Pakaraima Mountains, and are much higher than the other plateaus in Guyana, reaching an altitude of as much as 9,220 ft (2,810 m). The highlands become a vast area of rolling hills in the central part of Guyana due to the effects of erosion; this sort of terrain takes up more than two thirds of the country. In the north along the coast is a swampy region as in Suriname and French Guiana, with many lagoons and mangrove swamps.

See also Continental drift theory; Delta; Depositional environments; Desert and desertification; Earth (planet); Forests and deforestation; Orogeny; Rapids and waterfalls; Rivers; Seasonal winds; Volcanic eruptions

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South America


SOUTH AMERICA. South America is a continent composed of twelve countries and one French colony. The Spanish-speaking countries are: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. (Portuguese-speaking Brazil is treated separately in this encyclopedia.) The former colonies of Guyana and Suriname use English and Dutch, respectively, as their official languages, although many in their populations speak indigenous languages. The same can be said for the French colony of Guiana, the home of the cayenne pepper, where French is the official language. The geography of South America is even more varied than that of North America, with long coastlines, lowlands, highlands and mountains, and tropical rain forests. The climate varies from tropical, lying as the continent does across the Equator, to alpine in the high Andes, the backbone of the continent.

The cookery of South America reflects this rich diversity of culture and geography. The indigenous cookeries of pre-Columbian South America have gradually merged with imported cuisines from Europe and Asia. While the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors introduced their own culinary traditions to the native peoples of South America, indigenous ingredients changed the cuisines of the Old World. The South American contributions included chocolate, vanilla, maize (corn), hot peppers (called ají in South America), guavas, sweet potatoes, manioc (cassava), tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, beans, squash (particularly the ancestor of zucchini), peanuts, quinine, and papayas, as well as turkeys.

Maize plays a key role in the cuisine of South America, and it is genetically different from the maize now grown in the Old World, manifested most obviously in its characteristically large kernels. The potato is another vegetable indigenous to South America that has played an important role in cooking worldwide. There are also many vegetables in South America largely unknown beyond the continent, including ahipa, arracacha, maca, yacon, olluco, and oca.

The demographics of South America are critical for understanding the diversity of its cuisines. In countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, the indigenous populations predominate, and their foods and foodways are the most important cuisines. In contrast, Argentina's cookery was heavily influenced by a large European immigration dominated by Spaniards and Italians. Throughout South America, there is also an African influence due to the slave trade, which has added to the culinary mix.


Venezuela was discovered in 1498 by Columbus when he found the mouth of the Orinoco River. In 1499 the Venezuelan coast was explored by Alonzo de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci, coming upon an island in the Gulf of Maracaibo, called it Venezuela because, according to legend, the native villages were built above the water on stilts. Venezuela rises from lowlands to highlands with coffee plantations ascending to the white-capped Andean peaks. It has a mild climate due to its proximity to the Caribbean. Caracas, Venezuela's capital, is the cultural, commercial, and industrial hub.

Local dishes. Venezuelan cuisine relies heavily on maize. The two most important preparations are hallacas and arepas. Hallacas traditionally eaten during holidays, especially Christmasare boiled dumplings wrapped in banana leaves, but there are innumerable variations, depending on region and family tradition. Hallacas are made with a dough made of maize flour mixed with water, which is then filled with meat, vegetables, and spices. Arepas are versatile flatbreads, also made of maize flour, that can be baked, grilled, fried, or steamed and served either sweet or savory.

Black beans, called caviar criollo, are a Venezuelan favorite. They are served with arepas and are also part of the national dish, pabellón caraqueño. A hearty dish, it is said to resemble the national flag (pabellón ), because of the colors of the beef, beans, rice, and plantains in it.

The most popular fish in Venezuela is pargo, a red snapper found in semitropical waters, which is a member of the family Lutjanidae. Imported salt cod, brought to the region by the conquistadors, is also important in the cuisine. A favorite dish throughout South America is chicken with rice, but in Venezuela cooks add olives, raisins, and capers to the rice.

Arequipe, milk pudding (milk cooked with sugar until very thick), is a favorite dessert in Venezuela, as it is throughout South America. It has different names in different places, but is perhaps best known in the United States as dulce de leche.

The traditional beverages of Venezuela are chicha, made of fermented maize, and masato.


Colombia has two coastlines, one on the Pacific and the other on the Caribbean, that provide the country with a large choice of seafood. Colombia rises from the Pacific coast through a series of plateaus to the capital, Bogotá. Colombian cooks have a wide range of foods to choose from, including bananas and plantains, papayas, sugarcane, avocados, potatoes (especially in the Andes), and such tropical root vegetables as the sweet potato, taro, cassava (manioc), and arracacha. Apricots, pears, grapes, apples, and peaches all grow in Colombia as well.

Local dishes. In Colombia, coconut milk is used with great imagination in cooking fish, for example, herring simmered in coconut milk. One very popular soup is sancocho de pescado, a fish stew consisting of a variety of ingredients such as plantains, manioc (cassava), herbs, and coconut milk. Stews, usually served with rice, are the preferred way to cook meat, usually beef, especially with vegetables and fruits. Another traditional dish is gallineta en barro, an unplucked guinea fowl marinated in spices and lime juice and wrapped in an envelope of clay. It is then buried in hot coals and baked for approximately two hours. When the clay shell is broken, the skin is clean and golden brown and the meat is tender and flavorful.

During colonial times, sugarcane was introduced in Cartagena, one of the most important port cities in the Spanish empire. Due to its wealth as a mercantile city, Cartagena became a center of luxury cookery in which sugar figured as the main ingredient. Modern Colombia has inherited this rich confectionery tradition.


Ecuador, as the name implies, straddles the equator, which can be reached from the capital, Quito, in about half an hour. Home to two ranges of the Andes, Ecuador is quite mountainous, although the hot and humid Pacific coast lies to the west of the Andes and the rain forest falls largely to the east. Quito (elevation ten thousand feet) is known all over the world for its architectural beauty and cultural refinement. Unfortunately, for outsiders the elevation can cause discomfort. The city lies within a short distance of the extinct volcano, Pichincha. On clear days, a ring of eight volcanoes can be seen from Quito, among them the fabled Chimborazo and Cotopaxi.

Local dishes. Ecuador has two cuisines: a highland cuisine of the Andes and a lowland cuisine of the coast. Potatoes, indigenous to the Andes, play a central role in Ecuadorian highland cooking, and its magnificent vegetables and fruits are used liberally in recipes. Locro, a thick potato and cheese soup, is sometimes served with avocado slices. Another popular soup, sopa de maní, is made from peanuts. Peanuts also figure in salsa de maní, a dip consisting of unsweetened peanut butter, hot peppers (ají ), achiote (annatto), tomatoes, lime juice, garlic, and onions. The paste is also used to flavor meats and vegetables.

Fish is plentiful and most commonly prepared as seviche. One popular seviche from the coastal city of Guayaquil consists of shrimp, ají, and vegetables marinated in lime juice. Once the shrimp are ready to serve, they are garnished with toasted corn kernels (cancha ), which add an interesting texture and flavor. Stews are popular in the highlands. The spicy and flavorful pork stew, seco de chanco, is colored with achiote oil and cooked with beer.

Although the people of Ecuador mainly eat fruit as dessert, a richly flavored pumpkin (or winter squash) cake is very popular.


Bolivia, a high landlocked country in central South America, is bordered by Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. The famous Lake Titicaca, between Bolivia and Peru, lies at 12,500 feet. Legend has it that an island in the lake is the ancestral home of the Incas. Near the lake's southeastern end are the ruins of Tiahuanaco, a pre-Incan city. After the conquest, Bolivia became part of Peru and was known as El Alto Peru, highland Peru. With independence, the name was changed to Bolivia to honor the liberator, Simón Bolívar.

Local dishes. Bolivians like their food hot, and ajíes (hot peppers) are widely used. In addition to familiar grains like wheat and corn, quinoa, an indigenous grain that the Incas called "sacred mother grain," is still commonly consumed. The Spanish prohibited the cultivation of quinoa, but it never entirely lost its appeal to the native population. It is hardy and well suited to poor conditions, such as cold weather and high altitudes. Beef and pork, introduced by the Spaniards, are important foods, as are farm-raised guinea pigs (cuys ), a native dish popular in Bolivia and Peru. In the native culture of Bolivia, the potato played such a significant role that it was used for predicting the future, among other things. In fact, Bolivians categorized potatoes as male or female, depending on their shape, and were used accordingly in their cuisine.

In Bolivia, many food traditions remain from pre-Columbian times. One of the relics of the Inca empire is chicha, a popular alcoholic drink made from fermented maize.


The second largest nation in South America, Argentina extends from the subtropics to Tierra del Fuego. Although now a separate country, Argentina was once part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (River Plate) with Uruguay. The pampas are primarily cattle country and famous for ranching and farming, but this fertile land also produces good crops and fine wine.

Local dishes. Finger foods are very popular and are served in cafés, called whiskerias, that evolved from tea shops. Empanadas, stuffed pies, are popular throughout South America, and in Argentina they come in various sizes and are eaten as hors d'oeuvres, for light lunches, or with cocktails. One popular filling combines meat and fruit.

Meat is grilled or prepared in stews (carbonadas ). The Argentines are fond of combining meat and fruit in their stews, but the most famous meat dish is churrasco (barbecue), beef, with large salt crystals embedded in it for flavor, is marinated in spices and lime juice and grilled on spits over an open fire. Viscacha, a large wild rabbit or hare, is also appreciated on the pampas. Although the focus is on meat in Argentina, excellent fish are harvested from the waters off the coast and prepared in all the usual ways, including seviche and escabeche (pickled fish).

Dulce de leche (milk pudding) is particularly popular in Argentina and throughout neighboring Chile and Uruguay.

Maté, also called yerba maté, a popular tea in Argentina, is made from the dried leaves of the evergreen, Ilex paraguariensis, which is indigenous to South America. The name comes from the Inca word for the calabash that was used as a container. Maté can be served either hot or cold.


A long, narrow country stretching down between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Chile is noted for its copper mines as well as for its wines. The cold Humboldt Current gives Chile the most unusual seafood in the world, including the erizo de mar (sea urchin) and locos (abalone). The middle third of the country, where table and wine grapes and other fruits and vegetables are raised, enjoys a temperate climate and is very fertile. Seafood and vegetables and fruits are more important in the diet than meat because of the relative lack of land for grazing. Because the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere, socalled winter fruitsapples, pears, and grapesare exported to North America.

Local dishes. Empanadas, often served with the local wine, are popular. Chileans like soups, and, since their fruits and vegetables are plentiful and particularly good, and are enjoyed raw or cooked, many are used for soupcabbage, for example, and tomatoes. Fish and shellfish are plentiful along the coast and are cooked every conceivable way. One of the finest fish is congrio, the conger eel, unique to Chilean waters. Chicken and guinea pig, both raised at home, are family fare. Meat is not so popular, though Chilean meatballs, made with veal rather than beef, are very special.

The fertile soil produces beautiful fruits, which make admirable desserts. Pisco, a powerful brandy made from grapes, is served both as an aperitif and as an afterdinner drink.


A wedge of a nation tucked between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast, Uruguay is one of the smallest countries in South America and, after Ecuador, the most densely populated. The climate is generally warm, with an even distribution of rainfall throughout the seasons. Rolling grasslands of black, potash-rich soil make raising cattle and sheep the lifeblood of the nation's economy, and roads are edged with fenced driveways for livestock. The capital, Montevideo, is home to a large percentage of Uruguay's population. Much of its industry is centered on processing wool, meat, and hides.

Local dishes. Like other South Americans, Uruguayans favor soups and stews. The Atlantic supplies some seafood, and the River Plate (Río de la Plata) is a source of freshwater fish and large frogs, both often used for soup. Meat remains paramount, however. Beef and lamb are grilled as well as braised. Albóndigas, fishballs or meatballs, are very popular, particularly when served with a barbecue sauce enriched with wine. Humitas, a seasoned corn puree, is sometimes steamed in corn husks, like tamales.

Fresh fruit is abundant and popular for dessert, especially feijoa (also called "pineapple guava"), an eggshaped fruit with a wonderful perfume.

Gin Fizz (pronounced "jeen feez"), as made in Montevideo, has been described as the great glory of Uruguayan drinks. The secret probably lies in the delicate flavor of the local lemons and limes.


A small landlocked country, bordered by Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, Paraguay is known as much for its arts and culture as for its food. Asunción, the capital and by far the largest city in Paraguay, is also the cultural center of the country. The landscape is quite diverse, with lush grasslands, rolling hills, and dense forests, as well as the Chaco prairie in the west. Cattle raising and the industries associated with it are economically significant. Guaraní, the local Indian language, and Spanish are the primary languages of the country, although most Paraguayans learn Guaraní before Spanish.

Local dishes. In Paraguay, manioc (cassava), the staple food, is consumed at least twice a day, but maize is also important in the diet. Soups and stews, whether vegetable-, beef-, or fish-based, are quite popular. So'oyosopy (sopa de carne or beef soup) is more of a stew than a soup; it is so robust that little more is needed than a light dessert to make a complete meal. It is usually accompanied with sopa paraguaya, which is not a soup at all but a cheese cornbread that is also served with grilled meats. Very good fish are harvested from the Paraguay River, particularly dorado, a firm-fleshed white fish.

Bananas are widely used in Paraguay, fresh and cooked in desserts. Tereré is a refreshing tea mixed with cold water and aromatic herbs such as mint, traditionally drunk during the midmorning or early afternoon break for relief from the heat. Maté (also yerba maté ), which has a great deal of caffeine, is pleasantly stimulating and traditionally drunk in the morning.


The Andes, which rise from sea level on the Pacific coast to 22,500 feet, dominate this country. Peru was once the center of the Inca Empire, which extended more than 2,500 miles along the Pacific coast of South America. The capital, Lima, is on the coast. Most of the people of the empire were Quechuas. Although the term "Inca" is commonly used to describe the people of the empire, "Inca" originally referred only to the emperor. The Incas terraced and irrigated a difficult terrain, and built roads to link the parts of the empire, enabling farmers to come to town with their produce. The architecture of the Incas is known for its great size and skillful construction. Machu Picchu, one of their most famous cities, stands on a heavily forested mountaintop in the Andes. The Incas were also well known for their administrative skills.

The Incas cultivated thousands of varieties of potatoes many thousands of years ago, and figured out ways to preserve them at high altitudes, either by drying or freeze-drying. The Quechuas also raised quinoa, a hardy plant that thrives where corn cannot grow. The Quechuas had few animals except for the cameloids (the llama and the alpaca) and the cuy (guinea pig). The cuy is an excellent food animal, and the llama provides wool, leather, fat, and dung for fertilizer, fuel, and building material, as well as meat. Llama meat is made into ham, and charqui, or dried llama meat, has remained popular among the native population.

Local dishes. Peru has a real food culture. Peruvians like to eat at home and on the street. For example, in Lima the best place to buy anticuchos (skewered beef heart) is from stalls outside the plaza de toros, built in the 1700s. At home, they make an excellent hors d'oeuvre. Fish and shellfish are enormously popular on the coast and are prepared in myriad ways, including seviche. Along the shore, cebicherias serve fresh seviche night and day. Fowl have been known since pre-Columbian days, and the Quechuas knew how to freeze-dry duck. Turkey is very popular, especially for special occasions. The Europeans brought their domestic animals with them, and these have had enormous impact in Peru and elsewhere in South America. Besides grilled meats, Peruvian city folk are fond of chicharrones, pork rinds fried in lard, sold by street vendors.

In addition to potatoes and the local large-kernel maize, Peruvians cultivate many other vegetables, including a number of special hot peppers (ajíes ), which they use in soups and stews, often serving them alone as well. Although Peruvians like sweetshomemade puddings and cakes, store-bought pastries, and convent sweets (although that tradition is dying out in Peru)they are generally prepared and eaten outside the home, as they are in Europe. Dessert at the end of a meal is more likely to be fresh fruit. Pisco, the potent Peruvian brandy, is enjoyed straight or in a pisco sour.

See also American Indians: Prehistoric Indians and Historical Overview ; Brazil ; Caribbean ; Central America ; Coffee ; Columbian Exchange ; Fruit ; Iberian Peninsula ; Inca Empire ; Maize ; Mexico ; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian ; Vegetables .


Aguilar de la Cruz, Isolina. Comidas Típicas del Cusco. Lima: Papeles y Anexos, 1994.

Arnold, Denise Y., and Juan de Dios Yapita, eds. Madre Melliza y Sus Crías = Ispall Mama Wawampi: Antología de la Papa. La Paz, Bolivia: Hisbol/Ediciónes, 1996.

Consultor Culinario, por Pascal. Montevideo, Uruguay: A. Barreiro y Ramos, 1917.

Cox, Beverly, and Martin Jacobs. Spirit of the Earth: Native Cooking from Latin America. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2001.

Hermann, Michael, and Joachim Heller. Andean Roots and Tubers. Rome: International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, 1997.

Fonde Vallecaucana. Cocina Vallecaucana. Cali, Colombia: Imprenta Deptal, 1960.

Foppiani, Luis. Moderno Manual de Cocina Criolla. Lima: Editorial "Fenix," 1950.

Llano Restrepo, María Clara, and Marcela Campuzano Cifuentes. Chicha: Una Bebida Fermentada Atraves de la Historia. Bogotá, Colombia: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología, 1994.

Muchnik, Jacobo. Especialidades de la Cocina Criolla. Buenos Aires: Bibliotheca de Mucho Gusto, 1958.

Páez de Salamé, Beatriz. Hallacas: Aromas de una Tradición. Caracas, Venezuela: Derrelieve, 1995.

Paz Lagarrigue A., María. Recetas de las Rengifo. Santiago, Chile: Editorial del Pacífico, 1961.

Pazos Barrera, Julio. Cocinemos lo Nuestro. Quito, Ecuador: Corporación Editora Nacional, 1991.

Rosay, E. Nuevo Manual de la Cocina Peruana. Lima: Librería Francesa Cientifíca, 1926.

Un Libro de Cocina. Montevideo, Uruguay: E. Miguez, 1933.

Vélez de Sánchez, Maraya. Postres y Pastelería de la Cocina Europea y Americana. Paris: Cabaut, 1928.

Villegas, Benjamin. The Taste of Colombia. Bogotá, Colombia: Villegas Editores, 1997.

Wilson del Solar, Luisa. Mi Cocina. Valparaiso, Chile: Imprente Victoria, 1959.

Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz With contributions by Enrique Balladares-Castellón

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South America


[Note: See the related article on Native North Americans in the entry America. ]

South American Indians

Throughout South America, the magician caste analogous to the medicine men or shamans of North America were known as piaies or piaes. Of those of British Guiana (now Guyana), W.H. Brett gives the following account in The Indian Tribes of Guiana (1868):

"They are each furnished with a large gourd or calabash, which has been emptied of its seeds and spongy contents, and has a round stick run through the middle of it by means of two holes. The ends of this stick projectone forms the handle of the instrument, and the other has a long string to which beautiful feathers are attached, wound round it in spiral circles. Within the calabash are a few small white stones, which rattle when it is shaken or turned round. The calabash itself is usually painted red. It is regarded with great awe by the heathen Indians, who fear to touch it, or even to approach the place where it is kept.

"When attacked by sickness, the Indians cause themselves to be conveyed to some friendly sorcerer, to whom a present of more or less value must be made. Death is sometimes occasioned by those removals, cold being taken from wet or the damp of the river. If the patient cannot be removed, the sorcerer is sent for to visit him. The females are all sent away from the place and the men must keep at a respectful distance, as he does not like his proceedings to be closely inspected. He then commences his exorcisms, turning, and shaking his marakka, or rattle, and chanting an address to the yauhahu. This is continued for hours, about midnight the spirit is supposed to be present, and a conversation to take place, which is unintelligible to the Indians, who may overhear it. These ceremonies are kept up for successive nights.

"If the patient be strong enough to endure the disease, the excitement, the noise, and the fumes of tobacco in which he is at times enveloped, and the sorcerer observes signs of recovery he will pretend to extract the cause of the complaint by sucking the part affected. After many ceremonies he will produce from his mouth some strange substance, such as a thorn or gravel-stone, a fish-bone or bird's claw, a snake's tooth, or a piece of wire, which some malicious yauhahu is supposed to have inserted in the affected part. As soon as the patient fancies himself rid of this cause of his illness his recovery is generally rapid, and the fame of the sorcerer greatly increased. Should death, however, ensue, the blame is laid upon the evil spirit, whose power and malignity have prevailed over the counteracting charms. Some rival sorcerer will at times come in for a share of the blame, whom the sufferer has unhappily made his enemy, and who is supposed to have employed the yauhahu in destroying him. The sorcerers being supposed to have the power of causing, as well as of curing diseases, are much dreaded by the common people, who never willfully offend them. So deeply rooted in the Indian's bosom is this belief concerning the origin of diseases, that they have little idea of sickness arising from other causes. Death may arise from a wound or a contusion, or be brought on by want of food, but in other cases it is the work of the yauhahu.

"I once came upon a Warau practising his art upon a woman inflicted with a severe internal complaint. He was, when I first saw him, blowing violently into his hands and rubbing them upon the affected part. He very candidly acknowledged his im-posture when I taxed him with it, put up his implements, and went away. The fate of the poor woman, as it was related to me some time afterwards, was very sad. Though a Venezuelan half-breed, and of the Church of Rome, she was wedded to the Indian superstitions, and after trying the most noted sorcerers without relief, she inflicted on herself a mortal wound with a razor in the vain attempt to cut out the imaginary cause of her internal pain.

"Some have imagined that those men have faith in the power of their own incantations from their performing them over their own children, and even causing them to be acted over themselves when sick. This practice it is indeed difficult to account for. The juggling part of their business is such a gross imposture as could only succeed with a very ignorant and credulous people; but it is perhaps in their case, as in some others, difficult to tell the precise point where credulity ends and im-posture begins. It is certain that they are excited during their incantations in a most extraordinary way, and positively affirm that they hold intercourse with spirits; nor will they allow themselves to be laughed out of the assertion however ridiculous it may appear to us.

"The Waraus, in many points the most degraded of the tribes, are the most renowned as sorcerers. The huts which they set apart for the performance of their superstitious rites are regarded with great veneration.

"Mr. Nowers, on visiting a Warau settlement, entered one of those huts, not being aware of the offense he was committing and found it perfectly empty, with the exception of the gourd, or mataro, as it is called by the tribe. There was, in the centre of the hut, a small raised place about eighteen inches high, on which the fire had been made for burning tobacco. The sorcerer being asked to give up the gourd, peremptorily refused, saying that if he did so his two children would die the same night."

Franz Keller, in Amazon and Madeira Rivers (1874), observes of the Brazilian tribes as follows:

"As with the shamans of the North Asiatic nations, the influence a Pajé may secure over his tribe depends entirely on the success of his cures and his more or less imposing personal qualities. Woe to him if by some unlucky ministration or fatal advice he forfeits his prestige. The hate of the whole tribe turns against him, as if to indemnify them for the fear and awe felt by them until then; and often he pays for his envied position with his life.

"And an influential and powerful position it is. His advice is first heard in war and peace. He has to mark the boundaries of the hunting-grounds; and, when quarrels arise, he has to decide in concert with the chieftain, sometimes even against the latter's wishes. By a majestically distant demeanour, and by the affectation of severe fasting and of nightly meetings with the spirits of another world, these augurs have succeeded in giving such an appearance of holiness to the whole caste, that their influence is a mighty one to the present day, even with the Indians of the Aldeamentos, where contact with the white race is sure by-and-by to produce a certain degree of scepticism.

"When I was at the Aldeamento of San Ignacio, on the Paranapanema, Cuyaba, chieftain and Pajé of an independent horde of Cayowa Indians made his appearance, and I had the honour of being introduced to this magnificent sample of a conjurer. He was a man of about fifty, with large well-cut features, framed within a dense, streaming mane of long black hair. The long xerimbita on his under lip (a long, thin, cylinder of a resin resembling amber), a great number of black and white beads covering his chest in regular rows like a cuirass, and a broad girdle holding his cherapi (sort of apron), which was fringed all round with rich, woven ornaments, gave him quite a stately, majestic appearance."

The Chileans called their magicians gligua or dugol, and they were subdivided into guenguenu, genpugnu, and genpiru, meaning respectively "masters of the heavens," "of epidemics," and "of insects or worms." There was also a sect called calcu, or "sorcerers," who lived in caves, and who were served by ivunches, or "man-animals," to whom they taught their terrible arts.

The Araucanians believed that these wizards had the power to transform themselves at night into nocturnal birds, to fly through the air, and to shoot invisible arrows at their enemies, besides indulging in the malicious mischief with which folklore credits the wizards of all countries. They believed their priests possessed numerous familiars who were attached to them after deathsimilar to the beliefs of the magicians of the Middle Ages. These priests or diviners were celibate, and led an existence apart from the tribe, in some communities being dressed as women. Many tales are told of their prowess in magic, that indicate that they were either natural epileptics or ecstatics, or that disturbing mental influences were brought about by the use of drugs. The Araucanians also held that to mention their real personal names gave magic power over them that might be turned to evil ends. Regarding the wizards of the inhabitants of the territory around the River Chaco in Paraguay, Barbrook Grubb records as follows in An Unknown People in an Unknown Land :

"The training necessary to qualify an Indian to become a witch-doctor consists, in the first place, in severe fastings, and especially in abstention from fluid. They carry this fasting to such an excess as to affect the nervous system and brain. Certain herbs are eaten to hasten this stage. They pass days in solitude, and, when thoroughly worked up to an hysterical condition, they see spirits and ghosts, and have strange visions. It is necessary, furthermore, that they should eat live toads and some kinds of snakes. Certain little birds are plucked alive and then devoured, their power of whistling being supposed to be thus communicated to the witch-doctor. There are other features in the preliminary training which need not be mentioned, and when the initiatory stage has been satisfactorily passed, they are instructed in the mysteries under pledge of secrecy. After that their future depends upon themselves.

"It is unquestionable that a few of these wizards understand to a slight degree the power of hypnotism. They appear at times to throw themselves into a hypnotic state by sitting in a strained position for hours, fixing their gaze upon some distant object. In this condition they are believed to be able to throw their souls outthat is, in order to make them wander. It seems that occasionally, when in this state, they see visions which are quite the opposite of those they had desired. At other times they content themselves with concentrating their attention for a while upon one of their charms, and I have no doubt that occasionally they are sincere in desiring to solve some perplexing problems.

"One of the chief duties of the wizard is to arrange the weather to suit his clansmen. If they want rain it is to him they apply. His sorceries are of such a kind that they may be extended over a long period. He is never lacking in excuses, and so, while apparently busy in combating the opposing forces which are hindering the rain, he gains time to study weather signs. He will never or rarely venture an opinion as to the expected change until he is nearly certain of a satisfactory result. Any other Indian could foretell rain were he to observe signs as closely as does the wizard. The killing of a certain kind of duck, and the sprinkling of its blood upwards, is his chief charm. When he is able to procure this bird he is sure that rain cannot be far off, because these ducks do not migrate southwards until they know that there is going to be water in the swamps. These swamps are filled by the overflowing of the rivers as much as by the local rainfalls, and the presence of water in the rivers and swamps soon attracts rain-clouds.

"The wizards also observe plants and animals, study the sky and take note of other phenomena, and by these means can arrive at fairly safe conclusions. They are supposed to be able to foretell events, and to a certain extent they succeed so far as these events concern local interest. By judicious questioning and observation, the astute wizard is able to judge with some amount of exactitude how certain matters are likely to turn out.

"After we had introduced bullock-carts into their country, the people were naturally interested in the return of the carts from their periodical journeys to the river. When the wizards had calculated carefully the watering-places, and had taken into consideration the state of the roads, the character of the drivers, and the condition and number of the bullocks, all that they then required to know was the weight of the loads and the day on which it was expected that the carts would leave the river on their return journey. The last two items they had to obtain from us. When they had these data, by a simple calculation they could make a very shrewd guess, not only at the time when they might be expected to arrive at the village, but also at what particular part of the road they might happen to be on any given day. A great impression was made upon the simple people by this exhibition of power, but when we discovered what they were doing, we withheld the information, or only gave them part, with the result that their prophecies either failed ignominiously or proved very erroneous. Their reputation accordingly began to wane.

"The wizards appear to be authorities on agricultural matters, and when application to the garden spirit has failed, the witch-doctor is called in. He examines the crop, and if he thinks it is likely to be a poor one, he says it is being blighted by an evil spirit, but that he will use what sorceries he can to preserve it. If, on the other hand, he has reason to believe that the crop will be a good one, he spits upon it here and there, and then assures the people that now they may expect a good harvest.

"Some of the chief duties of the witch-doctor consist in laying ghosts, driving off spirits, exorcising kilyikhama in cases of possession, assisting wandering souls back to their bodies, and generally in the recognising of spirits. When a ghost is supposed to haunt a village, the wizard and his assistants have sometimes an hour's arduous chanting in order to induce the restless one to leave. When he considers that he has accomplished this, he assures the people that it is done, and this quiets their fears. Evil spirits frequenting a neighbourhood have also to be driven off by somewhat similar chanting."

Through the twentieth century, practices first described in the nineteenth century by anthropologists have been integrated into the Spiritualist groups of the countries of South America, especially Brazil.


Brett, William H. The Indian Tribes of Guiana. London, 1868.

Grubb, W. Barbrook. An Unknown People in an Unknown Land. London, 1911.

Keller, Franz. Amazon and Madeira Rivers. London, 1874.

McGregor, Pedro. Jesus of the Spirits. New York: Stein & Day, 1966.

Playfair, Guy Lyon. The Flying Cow. London, 1975. Reprinted as The Unknown Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1975.

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South America

South America, fourth largest continent (1991 est. pop. 299,150,000), c.6,880,000 sq mi (17,819,000 sq km), the southern of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere. It is divided politically into 12 independent countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela—and the overseas department of French Guiana. The continent extends c.4,750 mi (7,640 km) from Punta Gallinas, Colombia, in the north to Cape Horn, Chile, in the south. At its broadest point, near where it is crossed by the equator, the continent extends c.3,300 mi (5,300 km) from east to west. South America is connected to North America by the Isthmus of Panama; it is washed on the N by the Caribbean Sea, on the E by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the W by the Pacific Ocean.

Topography and Geology

Topographically the continent is divided into three sections—the South American cordillera, the interior lowlands, and the continental shield. The continental shield, in the east, which is separated into two unequal sections (the Guiana Highlands and the Brazilian Highlands) by the Amazon geosyncline, contains the continent's oldest rocks. Geologic studies in South America have supported the theory of continental drift and have shown that until 135 million years ago South America was joined to Africa; a Brazil-Gabon link has been established on the basis of tectonic matching. Extending down the middle of the continent is a series of lowlands running southward from the llanos of the north, through the selva of the great Amazon basin and the Gran Chaco, to the Pampa of Argentina.

Paralleling the Pacific shore is the great cordillera composed of the Andes ranges and high intermontane valleys and plateaus. The Andes rise to numerous snowcapped peaks; Mt. Aconcagua (22,835 ft/6,960 m) in Argentina is the highest point in the Western Hemisphere. The Andes region is seismically active and prone to earthquakes. Volcanoes are present but mostly inactive. Patagonia, a windy, semiarid plateau region, lies to the E of the Andes in S Argentina. On the Pacific coast, the land between the Andes and the sea widens northward from the islands of S Chile. In N Chile lies the barren Atacama Desert.

There are few good natural harbors along the South American coast. The continent's great river systems empty into the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea; from north to south they are the Magdalena, Orinoco, Amazon, and Paraguay-Paraná systems. Only short streams flow into the Pacific Ocean. Excluding Lake Maracaibo, which is actually an arm of the Caribbean Sea, Lake Titicaca, on the Peru-Bolivia border, is the largest of the continent's lakes. South America embraces every climatic zone—tropical rainy, desert, high alpine—and vegetation varies accordingly.


Native peoples constitute a significant portion of the continent's Andean population, especially in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay. Elsewhere in South America the population is generally mestizo, although Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and S Brazil have primarily European populations. There are sizable populations of African descent in NE Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia. Immigration since 1800 has brought European, Middle Eastern, and Asian (especially Japanese) peoples to the continent, particularly to Argentina and Brazil.

With the exception of Brazil and Ecuador, the national capitals have the largest populations and are the economic, cultural, and political centers of the countries. Since World War II, the urban population has rapidly expanded. São Paulo, Brazil, whose population is nearly 10,000,000, is the largest city of South America and one of the fastest growing cities of its size in the world. Squatter settlements have multiplied around urban areas as the poor and unskilled flock to the cities; widespread unemployment is common. Outside the cities the population density of the continent is very low, with vast portions of the interior virtually uninhabited; most of the people live within 200 mi (320 km) of the coast.


Beginning in the 17th cent., the exploitation of the continent's resources and the development of its industries were the result of foreign investment and initiative, especially that of Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, but since World War II the nations of South America have sought greater economic independence. An increasing number of South American industrial centers have developed heavy industries to supplement the light industries on which they had previously concentrated.

An early obstacle to industrial growth in South America was the scarcity of coal. The continent has therefore relied on its petroleum reserves, most notably in Venezuela and also in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, as a source of fuel. South Americans also have gradually developed their natural-gas reserves; hydroelectric plants produce most of the continent's electricity. Iron-ore deposits are plentiful in the Guiana and Brazilian highlands, and copper is abundant in the central Andes mountain region of Chile and Peru. Other important mineral resources include tin in Bolivia, manganese and gold in Brazil, and bauxite in Guyana and Suriname.

Subsistence farming is widespread, with about 30% of the people working about 15% of the land. Dense forests, steep slopes, and unfavorable climatic conditions, along with crude agricultural methods, limit the amount of cultivable land. Commercial agriculture, especially of the plantation type, fares better in terms of production because of the large scale and the opportunity to use modern, mechanized methods. Among the agricultural exports are coffee, bananas, sugarcane, tobacco, and grains. Meat is also an important export. In the interior, hunting and gathering of forest products are the chief economic activities of the indigenous peoples. Fishing is also a central industry. In the more accessible areas, forest products are removed for export.

Outline of Modern History

European exploration and penetration of South America started at the beginning of the 16th cent. Under the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal claimed what is now Brazil, and Spanish claims were established throughout the rest of the continent with the exception of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. An Iberian culture and Roman Catholicism were early New World transplants—as were coffee, sugarcane, and wheat. The subjugation of the indigenous civilizations was a ruthless accompaniment to settlement efforts, particularly those of Spain. The Inca Empire, centered at Cuzco, Peru, was conquered (1531–35) by Francisco Pizarro; other native cultures quickly declined or retreated in the face of conquest, conversion attempts, and subjugation. Spain and Portugal maintained their colonies in South America until the first quarter of the 19th cent., when successful revolutions resulted in the creation of independent states.

The liberated countries generally struggled with political instability, with revolutions and military dictatorships common and economic development hindered. Between 1820 and 1920, the continent received almost 6 million immigrants, nearly all from Europe. Guyana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966 and Suriname from the Netherlands in 1975. French Guiana is an overseas department of France.

Beginning in the 1970s, road building and the clearing of land led to the destruction of large areas of the Amazonian rain forests. International pressure and changes in government policy, especially in Brazil, resulted in a decrease in the deforestation rate since the late 1980s, although burning and illegal logging continue. Efforts to combat the illegal drug trade have been largely ineffective. Peru is one of the world's largest growers of coca leaves, and Colombia is a center for the drug trade.

Economic problems and social inequality have led to considerable unrest and political instability. Many indigenous peoples, angered by centuries of domination by a primarily European-descended upper class, have demanded a more equal distribution of land and power. Despite the increasing industrialization of some countries, notably Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina, and the widespread introduction of free-market reforms in the 1990s, high inflation and huge foreign debt continued to be major problems for many South American countries. Such economic problems led to a rise in populist political parties and movements in the region in the early 21st cent., most notably in Venezuela and Bolivia.

See also Americas, antiquity and prehistory of the; Natives, South American.


See C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947, repr. 1963); K. E. Webb, Geography of Latin America (1972); G. Philip, The Military in South American Politics (1985); J. D. Hill, ed., Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past (1988); G. P. Atkins, ed., South America into the 1990s (1988); S. Bunker, Underdeveloping the Amazon (1988); A. Daniels, Coups and Cocaine: Journeys in South America (1988); A. Cullison, The South Americans (1990).

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South America

South America

South America, the fourth largest continent on Earth, encompasses an area of 6,880,706 square miles (17,821,028 square kilometers). This is almost 12 percent of the surface area of Earth. At its widest point, the continent extends about 3,200 miles (5,150 kilometers). South America is divided into 12 independent countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. French Guiana, an overseas department (territory) of France, also occupies the continent.

The continent of South America can be divided into three main regions with distinct environmental and geological qualities. These are the eastern highlands and plateaus, the large Amazon River and its basin in the central part of the continent, and the great Andes mountain range of the western coast.

The highlands and plateaus

The eastern highlands and plateaus are the oldest geological region of South America. They are believed to have bordered on the African continent at one time, before the motion of the plates that make up Earth's crust began separating the continents about 140 million years ago. The eastern highlands and plateaus can be divided into three main sections.

The Guiana Highlands are in the northeast, in south Venezuela and northeastern Brazil. They are about 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) long and from 200 to 600 miles (320 to 965 kilometers) wide. Their highest peak, Mount Roraima, reaches a height of 9,220 feet (2,810 meters). This is a moist region with many rivers and waterfalls. It is in this range, in

Venezuela, that the highest waterfall in the world is found. Called Angel Falls, it cascades freely for 3,212 feet (980 meters).

The great Plateau of Brazil covers more than one-half of the area of Brazil, and ranges in altitude between 1,000 and 5,000 feet (305 and 1524 meters). The highest mountain range of this highland region is called Serra da Mantiqueira, and its highest peak, Pico das Agulhas Negreas, is 9,141 feet (2,786 meters) above sea level.

The Plateau of Patagonia is in the south, in Argentina. The dominant mountain range of this highland area is Sierras de Cordoba. Its highest peak, Champaqui, reaches an altitude of 9,459 feet (2,883 meters).

The Amazon basin

The Amazon basin (the area drained by the Amazon River) is the largest river basin in the world. It covers an area of about 2,500,000 square miles (6,475,000 square kilometers), or almost 35 percent of the land area of South America. The volume of water that flows from the basin into the Atlantic is about 11 percent of all the water drained from the continents of Earth. The greatest flow occurs in July, and the lowest in November.

The Amazon basin was once an enormous bay, before the Andes Mountains were pushed up along the coast by the movement of the crust-forming plates. As the mountain range grew, it held back the ocean and eventually the bay became an inland sea. This sea was finally filled by the erosion of the higher land surrounding it, and finally a huge plain, crisscrossed by countless waterways, was created. Most of this region is still at sea level and is covered by lush jungle and extensive wetlands. This jungle region contains the largest rain forest in the world, which is home to an uncounted number of plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.

While there are many rivers flowing through the basin, the most important and well-known of these is the Amazon River. It runs for about 3,900 miles (6,275 kilometers), from the Andes Mountains in northern Peru to the Atlantic Ocean near Belem, Brazil. When it enters the ocean, the Amazon discharges about 7,000,000 cubic feet (198,240 cubic meters) of water per second. The width of the Amazon ranges from about 1 to 8 miles (1.6 to 13 kilometers). Although the Amazon is usually only about 20 to 40 feet (6 to 12 meters) deep, there are narrow channels where it can reach a depth of 300 feet (91 meters). Almost every year, the Amazon floods, filling a flood plain up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) wide. The fresh layer of river silt deposited by the flood makes the surrounding region extremely fertile.

The Andes

The Andes Mountains constitute South America's great mountain range. They extend more than 5,000 miles (8,045 kilometers) up the western coast of the continent, passing through seven countriesArgentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. The highest peak of the Andes, called Mount Aconcagua, is on the western side of central Argentina, and is 22,835 feet (6,960 meters) high. Lake Titicaca, the world's highest large freshwater lake, is located in the Andes on the border between Peru and Bolivia at a height of 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level.

The Andes were formed by the motion of crustal plates. Millions of years ago, the South American plate (on which the continent sits) broke away from the African plate. When the western edge of the South American plate met the eastern edge of the Nazca plate under the Pacific Ocean, the Nazca plate subducted or slid under the South American plate. (Since continental plates are less dense than oceanic plates, they ride over them.) This motion caused the western edge of the South American plate to buckle, fold, and be thrust upwards, forming the Andes Mountains. As the Nazca plate continues to sink under the surface, its leading edge is melted by the extreme temperatures and pressures inside Earth. Molten rock then rises to the surface, lifting and deforming it. To this day, the Andes are still rising.

This geological instability makes earthquakes common all along the western region of the continent. The Andes are dotted with volcanoes. Some of the highest peaks in the mountain range, which rise above 20,000 feet (6,100 meters), are volcanic in origin. The Andes in Chile contain the greatest concentration of volcanoes on the continent: over 2,000 active and dormant volcanoes. The area is plagued by earthquakes.

The climate in the Andes varies greatly, depending on both altitude and latitude, from hot regions to Alpine meadow regions to glacier regions. The snowline is highest in southern Peru and northern Chili, where it seldom descends below 19,000 feet (5,800 meters). In the far south of the continent, in the region known as Tierra del Fuego, the snowline reaches as low as 2,000 feet (600 meters) above sea level.

The Andes are a rich source of mineral deposits, particularly copper, silver, tin, iron, and gold. The Andes in Colombia yield rich deposits of coal, while in Venezuela they contain petroleum. The largest deposits of emeralds in the world, outside of Russia, are found in the Colombian Andes. The Andes are also a source of tungsten, antimony, nickel, chromium, cobalt, and sulfur.

[See also Plate tectonics ]

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South America

South America Fourth-largest continent, the southern of the two continents of America, in the Western Hemisphere, connected to North America by the isthmus of Panama.


South America is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea (n), the Atlantic Ocean (e), and the Pacific Ocean (w). Politically, it divides into 12 independent nations: Brazil and Argentina (the two largest), Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, Uruguay, and Venezuela, plus the French overseas department of French Guiana. It is c.7650km (4750mi) long (Punta Gallinas, Colombia to Cape Horn, Chile), and at its widest (near the Equator) c.5300km (3000mi).

Structure and geology

South America's w edge towers above the rest of the continent, which slopes downwards towards the Atlantic Ocean, except for the Guiana and Brazilian Highlands which form the continental shield. The Andes, which stretch from Colombia to Chile, contain the highest peaks of the Americas, and Aconcagua (Argentina) is the tallest mountain outside Asia. Patagonia, a semi-arid plateau composed of rocky terraces, lies to the e of the Andes. A series of lowlands, including the Gran Chaco, marks the middle of the continent. The Atacama Desert, a coastal strip in n Chile, is the driest place on Earth. Major islands include the Falkland Islands (a British Crown Colony) and the Galápagos Islands (a territory of Ecuador).

Lakes and rivers

Excluding Lake Maracaibo (13,512sq km/5217sq mi) as an extension of the Gulf of Venezuela, the largest lake in South America is Lake Titicaca, on the Peru-Bolivia border, covering 8290sq km (3200sq mi). Lengthy rivers combine to form three major systems that reach the Atlantic. The Amazon is the world's second-longest river (after the Nile). With its many substantial tributaries, it drains the biggest of the world's river basins. Flowing s is the Paraguay-Paraná system, and ne is the Orinoco.

Climate and vegetation

Except in the mountains and the s, the climate remains generally warm and humid. Much of the n supports tropical rainforest, while lowlands in the extreme n and the central region have a cover of tropical grass. The Pampas, s of the Tropic of Capricorn, are temperate grasslands, but vegetation is scarce to the far se of the mountains. Pine and other temperate forests grow along the sw coast. People Some Incas (Quechuas) still remain in the Andes, as do some Mapucho (Araucanians) in Chile. But the majority of the population is mestizo (of dual Indian and European descent), except in Argentina, s Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, whose population is primarily European. Since the early 19th century, many Europeans (especially Italians) and Asians (particularly Japanese) migrated to Argentina and Brazil. Sizeable black populations exist in Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, and Venezuela – descendants of slaves brought from Africa to work in the sugar cane, coffee, rubber and cotton plantations. The majority of South Americans live in urban areas close to the coast. São Paulo is the world's fastest-growing city. Latin American Spanish and Portuguese are the dominant languages and Roman Catholicism is the major religion.

Recent history

The early 1900s saw a number of conflicts within and between countries of the region. Notable among these were the territorial Chaco Wars (1928–30, 1932–35) between Bolivia and Paraguay. South American republics only became world powers after World War 2, helped by the formation of the United Nations in 1945, and the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948. Many countries swung between military dictatorships and democratic governments, mainly caused by wildly fluctuating economic fortunes, which in turn brought about extremes of wealth and poverty, leading to unrest and instability. The periodic repressive regimes have been the focus for international condemnation of human rights abuses. In the 1980s and 1990s, international pressure, particularly from the USA, was brought to bear on those governments, notably Bolivia and Colombia, who were either unwilling or unable to control the production and export of vast quantities of cocaine.


Subsistence farming is important, with c.30% of the workforce working 15% of the land, most of which is owned by Europeans. Chief exports include cash crops, such as coffee, bananas, sugar cane, and tobacco. The drugs industry is also important: Peru and Colombia are major cultivators of coca leaves, and Colombia supplies more than 50% of the world's illegal trade in cocaine. Historically, Europe and the USA dominated industrial development and mineral exploitation. Since 1945, South American countries sought greater economic independence, yet reliance on banking finance often led to a burden of debt. Another drawback is the scarcity of continental coal reserves and the overdependence on petroleum, especially from Venezuela's Maracaibo region. The Guiana and Brazilian highlands have large deposits of iron ore, and the Andes range has many copper reserves. Bolivia has large tin mines, and Brazil has reserves of manganese. However, despite the industrialization of some countries, particularly Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, most countries remain industrially underdeveloped. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rush for economic growth and industrialization was often at the expense of the continent's rainforests. Worldwide treaties in the 1990s attempted to slow down the deforestation, but with little success. Also, industrialization exacerbated South America's high inflation and huge debt crises. Total area: c.17,793,000sq km (6,868,000sq mi); Highest mountain Aconcagua 6960m (22,834ft) Longest river Amazon 6450km (4010mi) Population (2001) 351,000,000 Largest cities population (metropolitan area) São Paulo 17,878,703; Buenos Aires 13,755,993; Rio de Janeiro 10,894,156.

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