The peoples of the New World have, by this date, domesticated a much greater range of plants than have those of the Old; however, only in a few areas have food crops become an important part of the economy. Most of South America is still inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers. It is only along the coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic, and along the rivers of Amazonia, that permanent villages have become established, benefiting from access to abundant aquatic foods such as fish and shellfish, as well as the more normal land-based animals and plants.
The largest and most numerous villages are to be found on the coasts of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, due to the Pacific Ocean currents here which produce a rich harvest of marine foods. By this date these communities are shifting to a more agricultural economy, and their populations are growing. The inhabitants of some of the larger villages are beginning to construct ceremonial platforms, a feature which will be very prominent in later South American civilization.
Over the past thousand years, on the Pacific coast of Peru and Ecuador, improvements in farming have led to increases in population and the spread of permanent farming villages. These developments have been accompanied by the appearance of pottery, the invention of loom weaving and the beginnings of a more class-based society. The largest villages house up to 4000 people. Here, large temple-mounds are starting to be built, evidence for the development of a priestly elite able to control the labour of the rest of the population. This is also apparent in the irrigation systems now being developed.
Elsewhere, the shift to farming has been much slower. However, in Amazonia, proto-agricultural villages are beginning to appear, and pottery is spreading throughout the region.
Changes are also taking place in the high Andes, where the hunter-gatherer way of life is giving way to llama- and alpaca-herding. A growing network of trade routes links the high mountain regions with the villages of the Pacific coast.
For the past thousand years, the people of the Pacific coast of Peru have, making strides towards true civilization, as larger and more complex societies have begun to emerge. Towns have appeared in the river valleys, dependent upon irrigation farming for their sustenance. The focus of their communal life are the ever-larger temple platforms being constructed in their centres.
The trade routes linking these coastal communities with the peoples of the high Andes is transmitting this cultural package into this region as well, so that the two geographical zones are increasingly forming one unified cultural area.
Elsewhere in South America, the transition from a mainly hunter-gatherer way of life to one based on farming is gradually taking place, though much of the continent will be home to hunter-gatherers right up until post-Conquest times.
At this time the Amazonian basin sees the beginnings of a large-scale expansion of Arawak-speaking peoples from their homeland somewhere in the north-east of the region. This may have been caused by some agricultural innovation, such as the adoption of new root crops, highly suited to forest agriculture, or improvements in their slash-and-burn agricultural practices.
In the lowlands of the Atlantic coast, communities are choosing to use refuse middens which have built up over hundreds of years as habitation mounds, as well as for ritual platforms.
Farming, weaving, pottery and pyramids have all appeared in this region by this dateclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1500BC
The ancestors of the Polynesians are beginning to settle the islands of the Pacificclick to view Oceania 1500BC
Farming is spreading to eastern USAclick to view North America 1500BC
Over recent centuries the trade networks linking the high Andes and the coastal plains of Peru have been expanding. This is creating a single cultural sphere, and, together with increases in agricultural productivity, is moving it rapidly towards full urban civilization.
In the Amazon basin communities of Arawak-speaking peoples continue to disperse over an ever larger area. The fact that these settlements are small, coupled with the rapid evolution of multiple Arawak dialects at this period, suggests that the dispersal is carried out by small groups which, once settled in a particular location, soon send out off-shoots to establish new colonies. This in turn suggests some type of internal "colonizing" dynamic within their culture, such as is found amongst the Polynesians of roughly the same period: here, the founding of new settlements confers royal, semi-divine status upon a leader and his descendants.
The settlements on the Atlantic coast built on ancient midden-mounds continue to flourish, and similar mounds start to appear in the central Amazonian river basin, usually (but not always) on a smaller scale than on the coast.
On the Pacific coast maize has become the staple cropclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1000BC
A new phase in technology is beginning in Australia, and the migration has begun from south China of the ancestors of the Polynesiansclick to view Oceania 1000BC
The Olmec civilization has appeared in North Americaclick to view North America 1000BC
Over the past few centuries, in the highlands of Peru, the first urban civilization in South American history has appeared. This is the Chavin civilization. It sees the construction of substantial temple complexes and the production of fine textiles and pottery.
In the Amazon basin, the Arawak diaspora continues, and is now beginning to lead to the development of various regional cultures, such as the Saladoid and Barrancoid ceramic cultures which have emerged in the middle Orinoco river plains by this date.
The Arawak settlement design will have a long history throughout the Amazon basin. Fortified villages are constructed around large circular plazas; they look much like stockades, and may well have had a clear defensive purpose. The plaza was the natural centre for communal life, and the design of these settlements may hint at the social and military characteristics which gave the Arawak speakers the advantage over their neighbours. The inhabitants were nourished by an agriculture based on manioc as the staple crop. However, the growing of maize in the region has recently begun to spread.
The Chavin civilization has appearedclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 500BC
The ancestors of the Polynesians have reached as far east as Fijiclick to view Oceania 500BC
The influence of the Olmec civilization now covers much of Central Americaclick to view North America 500BC
Major settlements are appearing in the central Amazonian basin, evidence that complex regional societies are developing. One major factor in this is the spread of maize in the region. This effectively enables the colonization of the fertile flood plains of the Amazon and its major tributaries. During this period, populations are expanding and hierarchical societies are developing. Settlements extending for several kilometres along river banks are growing up, centres of militarized chiefdoms which organize large workforces to dig canals and build massive defensive earthworks, raise ceremonial platforms and mounds for habitation.
Cultural influences seem to be entering the region from the Andes civilization. Small regional chiefdoms, situated in the forests of Bolivia and Ecuador near to the highland civilization, build earth and stone ceremonial structures.
In the north, the Arawak diaspora spills over into the Caribbean. The colonization of much of the Caribbean seems to have occurred relatively quickly between 500 and 200 BC, leading to the development of those Caribbean chiefdoms which the European explorers would encounter more than a millennium later.
Chavin civilization seems to be in declineclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 200BC
A distinctive Polynesian culture is now evolvingclick to view Oceania 200BC
Several post-Olmec civilizations are emerging in different parts of Central Americaclick to view North America 200BC
Over the past centuries, localized cultures have continued to flourish in various valleys of the high Andes and the desert coasts of Peru. One culture, the Nazca, is today particularly famous for vast figures traced in the desert, depicting animals and geometric shapes, whose purpose is unknown.
The Arawak-speaking peoples are now spread across a vast portion of northern South America. However, their widely-dispersed fortified settlements and warlike chiefdoms exist side-by-side with many smaller groups of mobile hunter-gatherers, who often raid the crops of the settled farmers.
The Chavin civilization has given way to numerous local culturesclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 30BC
A new phase of Polynesian expansion in the Pacific is occurringclick to view Oceania 30BC
The Mayan civilization is emergingclick to view North America 30BC
In Amazonia, the Arawak-speaking diaspora continues, and will shortly reach its widest expanse. In many places a new phase is beginning, as newcomers and local peoples began to merge and form regionally-rooted societies. Early examples of complex regional societies are emerging at this time in the mountains and plains of the north-west, probably receiving some influences from the advanced civilizations of the high Andes.
The Moche civilization is now flourishingclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 200AD
Distinctive Polynesian societies are evolving on the various Pacific islandsclick to view Oceania 200AD
The Mayan civilization is now emergingclick to view North America 200AD
Elsewhere in the continent, the Arawak-speaking diaspora has now more or less reached its limits. In Amazonia, large, densely populated regional chiefdoms are now established on the floodplains of the great rivers of the region. At the Amazon's vast mouth, on the island of Marajo, a flourishing culture has emerged, which will last until the final period of Pre-Columbian America. This culture is known for its beautiful multicoloured ceramics, and for the large platform mounds it constructs.
The past two centuries have seen the Moche and Nazca civilizations vanish in the Andes region, to be replaced by two empires which now dominate much of the central and southern Andes and parts of coast. These empires - centred on the cities of Tiwanaku and Wari - share a single art style, which suggests they also shared a common religion.
The mound-building cultures of lower Amazonia are at their height around now, although some of the mounds will be used for ceremonial purposes for centuries to come. In the central Amazon, the large, well-populated regional chiefdoms shared in intensifying systems of trade and cultural exchange. Items such as precious stones, metals, ceramics and other objects were exchanged over a wide area. This is also apparent in the rise of a unified decorative pottery style throughout the region, called the Amazonian Polychrome Tradition, which spread from the Amazon's mouth as far as Peru.
The Tiwanaku and Wari empires now dominate Peruclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 750AD
The Polynesian colonization of the major Pacific islands is in its final phaseclick to view Oceania 750AD
The Pueblo culture is now developingclick to view North America 750AD
In the Andes region, the Wari and Tiwanaku empires continue to flourish, but a third power, located on the northern Pacific coast, is growing. This is the kingdom of Chimor, centred on the impressive city of Chan-Chan.
In the Amazonian region, full-blown chiefdoms - quite possibly even well-organized kingdoms, now cover much of the region. There is a fairly dense pattern of settlements throughout the region, with sites separated by only a few kilometres. At least one of these settlements, Santarem, seems to have been a very large town covering several square miles, as large as such Pre-Columbian cities as Chan-Chan, Teotihuacan and Cahokia.
The Chimor empire has now emergedclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 979AD
Long-distance voyages remain a part of the Polynesian way of lifeclick to view Oceania 979AD
The Mayan civilization is now in decline, while the Mississippian culture is risingclick to view North America 979AD
Over the past two centuries, the Huari and Tiwanaku kingdoms have vanished. The Chimu empire has become the leading state in the Andean region. It is a highly centralized empire, with a well-developed road network spreading out from its imposing capital, Chan-Chan, and extensive irrigation and drainage systems. It is, in fact, developing many of the imperial policies which the Incas, who at this time form a small kingdom in the High Andes, will later take over and extend throughout a much vaster area. In the arts, the Chimu use highly developed techniques in metal working, textiles and the mass-production of pottery.
In Amazonia, several large towns and cities are now flourishing, the centres of powerful kingdoms and extensive trading networks. Their fine ceramics, figurines and jewellery indicate the existence of a class of professional craftsmen serving a cultured urban elite.
The Wari and Tiwanaku empires have collapsedclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1215AD
Polynesian colonists discover New Zealandclick to view Oceania 1215AD
The Toltec empire has vanished, and the Mexica people have appeared in historyclick to view North America 1215AD
The past centuries have seen the Chimu empire continue to dominate the northern areas of the Andes civilization. However, a new power is on the rise, that of the Incas. The Inca tribe settled a valley in the High Andes of Peru in around 1200, where they founded their capital, Cuzco. It was not until 1438 that they became a strongly centralized state, but they have now begun their great series of conquests.
Meanwhile, the towns and states of central Amazonia continued to be home to complex, hierarchical societies. Well-organized chiefdoms are also to be found on the fringes of the Amazon region, both to north and south.
Elsewhere in South America, on the eve of European contact, people live in small farming villages or mobile hunter-gatherer groups, much as they have done for hundreds or thousands of years.
The Chimor empire is at the height of its powers, but the Inca empire will soon challenge itclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1453AD
Amazonia is home to powerful states and complex societiesclick to view Brazil 1453AD
Powerful chiefdoms have formed in this regionclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1453AD
Easter Island statues getting larger!click to view Oceania 1453AD
The Aztecs are now building their empire in Central Americaclick to view North America 1453AD
During the past two centuries, the peoples of South America have seen vast changes. The Inca conquered the Chimu empire in the 1470's; and more conquests followed, until they ruled an enormous empire, covering most of western South America.
This great state suddenly disintegrated on the arrival of the Spaniard Francisco Pizzaro in 1532, with his horse-riding, firearms-toting soldiers. This launched a new phase in South American history, with much of the continent rapidly coming under European - mainly Spanish and Portuguese - control. In the decades following European contact, disease, enslavement and land seizure destroyed the advanced civilizations of the continent, both in the Andes and the Amazon regions, sending the surviving inhabitants back to a far simpler social organization.
The Spanish empire in South America runs from Venezuela in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south. Spanish rule is bolstered by the Catholic Church. Colonial society in the Spanish empire is dominated by the great landowners, descendants of the Conquistadores. The silver mines of Peru, Colombia and Bolivia are the empire's chief economic asset.
On the west coast, neglect by the Portuguese of their Brazilian possessions has led other Europeans, notably the Dutch, to establish their own colonies in the region.
Peru now lies at the heart of the vast Spanish empire in South Americaclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1648AD
The complex societies of Amazonia have vanishedclick to view Brazil 1648AD
North-west South America remains comparatively under-developedclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1648AD
The Spanish have been unable to subdue the indigenous peoples of central Chileclick to view Chile 1648AD
This region is an isolated backwater, thousands of miles from the main centres of Spanish ruleclick to view Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay 1648AD
The first European sailors have now appeared in Oceaniaclick to view Oceania 1648AD
North America is now being colonized by Europeansclick to view North America 1648AD
Over the past century and a half most regions of Spanish South America have now been brought under the firm control of the Spaniards. Until fairly recently the east coast has remained under-developed; Buenos Aires has been a struggling port, and this region of the continent has been poor and sparsely populated. With the rise of transatlantic trade, however, the fortunes of Buenos Aires and surrounding areas has markedly improved, and the region now forms its own viceroyalty. Buenos Aires is now equal in status with Lima, in Peru, and Mexico City, in Mexico, as a Spanish American capital.
By this date, racial categorization in Spanish South America is breaking down, with people of mixed descent filling all but the very highest positions in society. The Spanish government's habit of placing most of the top colonial offices in the hands of European-born officials is a source of growing resentment amongst members of the locally-born elite, the great majority of whom are by now creoles.
In the Portuguese empire, Brazil’s sugar exports have been losing out to those of the British and French Caribbean, but coffee-growing is becoming more important to the economy. This, plus the mining in the region, has turned the south of the country into the wealthiest part, with Rio de Janeiro as Brazil’s chief city and seat of government.
Peru has experienced administrative and economic declineclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1789AD
The region around Rio de Janeiro has become the main centre of Brazilian economy and societyclick to view Brazil 1789AD
The north-west region of South America has seen much development during the 18th centuryclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1789AD
Chile remains one of the most isolated regions of Spanish Americaclick to view Chile 1789AD
This region of South America has assumed much greater importance than beforeclick to view Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay 1789AD
The first permanent European settlement has been established in Oceania, in south-west Australia, which has been claimed for the British empireclick to view Oceania 1789AD
The USA is now an independent nationclick to view North America 1789AD
In the late 18th century, several factors – economic rigidities in the Spanish colonial system, lack of political freedom, and the example, first of the American Revolution and then of the French Revolution - created a restive climate amongst the educated classes in South America. Growing calls for independence led to armed revolts breaking out in various regions from 1810. Over the next fifteen years the Spanish colonial presence was driven from all parts of South America, in a process which in some places was marked by no more than a declaration of independence, but in others involved long, hard fighting under charismatic leaders such as Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin.
With independence won, the challenges facing the new states only just began. Most countries find it hard to develop a stable government, and descend into chaos, out of which emerge strongmen - caudillos - who take over the government. Their power is seldom secure, however, and they have a tendency to fall victim to new strong men who rise to challenge them.
The independence of Brazil has come in a dramatically different way to that of the rest of the continent - not through armed struggle but through a separation of one branch of the Portuguese royal family from the other.
Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia have fallen under the control of caudillosclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1837AD
Brazil is now independent from Portugal under a branch of the Portuguese royal familyclick to view Brazil 1837AD
Colombia and Venezuela are now independent countriesclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1837AD
Chile has won its independence from Spain thanks largely to Bernardo O'Higginsclick to view Chile 1837AD
Since independence, Paraguay and Uruguay have split away from Argentinaclick to view Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay 1837AD
European missionaries and traders are active throughout the Pacificclick to view Oceania 1837AD
The USA has purchased a vast territory from the Frenchclick to view North America 1837AD
In the past decades, most South American countries have been unable to achieve political stability, and are ruled by a succession of caudillos. In many places, this instability is compounded by strife between liberal and conservative factions. It is hardly surprising that most South American governments fail to solve problems of economic stagnation and chronic poverty.
There are exceptions to this discouraging picture. Both Chile and Argentina have made steady economic progress, and both have experienced large-scale immigration from Europe.
In Portuguese-speaking South America, Emperor Pedro II has ruled Brazil for the past 40 years, and under him the huge country has known great economic progress.
Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have been ruled by numerous caudillosclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1871AD
Under Emperor Pedro II, Brazil's economy has greatly expandedclick to view Brazil 1871AD
Colombia and Venezuela experience violent political instabilityclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1871AD
Chile has experienced political stability and economic progressclick to view Chile 1871AD
Paraguay has been utterly ruined by a war with its neighbours
The Pacific islands are falling under European controlclick to view Oceania 1871AD
The USA almost tore itself apart in civil warclick to view North America 1871AD
During the past decades, military dictatorships, factional strife, civil wars and growing inequality have all hampered South American countries from fulfilling their potential. This is by no means the whole picture, however. In Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil there are moves towards more democracy; in Brazil's case, the country has exiled its emperor (1891) and become a federal republic with a constitution modelled on that of the USA.
The late 19th century and early 20th century were years of strong economic expansion for Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The development of steamships and refrigeration has opened up European markets to the cattle ranchers of the Argentine Pampas, and Chile has enjoyed a nitrate boom since the 1860's (this brought it to war with its neighbours, Peru and Colombia, which Chile won). All three countries have attracted heavy investment from Europe (above all Britain) and, later, the USA.
Argentina in particular continues to attract mass immigration: over two million Italians, Spaniards and other Europeans (including a Welsh colony) settle in the country to participate in its new prosperity.
Peru and Bolivia have been defeated in the War of the Pacificclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1914AD
In Brazil, the empire has been replaced by a republicclick to view Brazil 1914AD
Colombia and Venezuela experience unrest and chaos - but also economic expansionclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1914AD
Chile has extended her borders in the War of the Pacificclick to view Chile 1914AD
Argentina has attracted European investment on a large scaleclick to view Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay 1914AD
Canada and the USA have experienced huge industrial expansionclick to view North America 1914AD
All the Pacific islands have fallen under foreign controlclick to view Oceania 1914AD
The recent decades have seen most South American countries stand aloof from the great events of the 20th century. Most remained neutral during World War 1, and played little part in World War 2. The immediate post-World War 1 period was a boom time, as the demand for consumer goods in Europe and America fuelled exports. The notable exception to this was Chile, where the nitrate boom came to a sudden end, leading to severe economic contraction.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed hit South American economies hard. This led to the rise of populist figures like Colonel Peron in Argentina (president 1946-55, his popularity bolstered by that of his wife, Eva), and in many other countries, dictatorships. Some of these, like Brazil's, presided over economic recovery; others, in Peru and Colombia for example, were unable to establish political stability and the conditions in which the economic and social problems they faced could be dealt with properly. Uruguay has stood out as a country admired throughout the world for its democracy and prosperity.
Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have all experienced intense political instabilityclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 1960AD
click to view Brazil 1960AD
Both Colombia and Venezuela have become democraciesclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 1960AD
Chile has experienced social, economic and political turmoilclick to view Chile 1960AD
The charismatic figure of Eva Peron has added colour to Argentine politicsclick to view Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay 1960AD
The USA and Canada have fought in the two world wars togetherclick to view North America 1960AD
Many Pacific islands were caught up in the fierce fighting of World War 2click to view Oceania 1960AD
Depressed prices for many of South America's exports in the 1960's and 70's led to economic and political problems. Military dictatorships seized power in several countries, including Brazil (1964), Argentina (1976), Chile (1973) and Uruguay (1973). In the following decade, however, the tide turned and, despite continuing economic volatility, democratic government was restored in Brazil (1985), Argentina (1983), Chile (1988) and several other countries at about the same time. In 1993, democracy came to Paraguay for the first time in its history.
Economic problems have plagued most South American countries at some time during these decades, largely due to their reliance upon a small range of export commodities. However, economic reforms in some countries - notably Brazil and Chile - have led to significant and enduring economic gains.
The countries which have missed out on prosperity most dramatically have been those experiencing widespread terrorist activity, such as Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. In two of these, Peru and Ecuador, the insurgencies have been largely defeated, but Colombia's remains very much alive (as of 2005).
Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have all become democraciesclick to view Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia 2005AD
Brazil has experienced economic and social progressclick to view Brazil 2005AD
Colombia has been troubled by drugs warsclick to view Venezuela, Colombia and the Guianas 2005AD
Chile is now one of the most prosperous countries in South Americaclick to view Chile 2005AD
Argentina has experienced continuing economic upheavalclick to view Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay 2005AD
The NAFTA trade agreement is benefitting the economies of all North American countriesclick to view North America 2005AD
Many new independent nations now dot the Pacific Oceanclick to view Oceania 2005AD
Hover MAP for summary and tap to zoom. MAP < and > buttons change date. TIMELINE icons jump to date. See below for historical summary.