Native American Civilizations: South America

Figure 1.--Here we see a Native American boy from the Amazon basin in Brazil with his face painted. We're not sure about the tribe.

Besides the Inca, there were many other Native American tribes in South America. Many were centered in the Andes or along the narrow coastal plain to the west of the Andes. The Inca were highly civilized, but it should be remembered that they were still a pre-literate stone age people. Even so the developed an agricultural ststem that supported a larger population than is the case of many Andean regions today. The Inca conquered many of the tribes in or along the Andes from Colombia south to Chile. The principal Andean tribe that they did not conquer was the Chincha in what is now Colombia. There were also tribes to the east of the Andes. The coastl tribes in what is now Peru were particularly developed. The primitive tribes in the Amazon still exist, although there numbers are now very small. Scholars differe as to the Native American population and level of civilization in the Amazonian basin before the European Conuest. Other tribes existed south of the Amazonin Basin, both east and west of the Andes. There were also tribes to the north. All of these peoples experienced a catastrophic collapse after the European conquest. Spanish and Portuguese policies were brutal and explotive, but norgig was more destructive than the introduction of European disases to which these people had no immunity.

Chrnological Development

In South America it was the Andes and adjacent coastal areas that proved the most fertile ground for the rise of high culture. Northern Peru was especially important in this process. Here corn-based agriculture was suplemented by the addition of the potato, a crop which was also of enormous consequence. It is not entirely clear why the most advanced civilzations developed in the Andes rather than the river valleys. South America is the only continent where high civilization developed in mountaneous areas. And adding to the puzzel, this occurred in South America and not North America where the Native Americans reached first and had much more fertile ground than the mountanous Andes. We have not yet seen this topic addressed by scholars, but presumnably some one has. We would be intetested in any insights readers may have. We suspect that the humble potato is part of the reason. A key factor in the success of any early civilization was the agricultural productivity they were able to genetate. The potato had enormous caloric counts thus making agriculture in mountabneous areas tremedously productive. An exception was some of the coastal civilizations in Peru. Here the prodigious bounty of Peruvian waters as a result of upwelling was an important factor. The Inca are by far the best known of the South American Andean groups, but there are several other important groups. There is some debate about the level of Amazonian culture before the arrival of the Europeans.

Geographic Development

The question of how people came to the Americas has long been settled, the crossed over a Bearing Sea ice bridge when Beringia was created during the last Ice Age. It is believed that a very small population of Siberian hunters (at most a few thousand) arrived in Beringia during the Last Glacial Maximum. The ice bridge allowed them to pass over to North America. This was the population that would begin to expand into the Anmer-Indian settlement of the Americas sometime after 16,500 years BP. This began as the North American glaciers blocking the way south began melted, but before the ice bridge as a esult ifrising sea levels were was covered by the sea (about 11,000 years BP). This is fairly settled science. The rest of the story is not at all settled and the subject of internse scientific debate. The North American story was once thought to be roughly known by the Clovis First dicrune. This is now widely believed to be faulty. Perhaps the greates unknown is the role of sea movements in the movement south from Bringia which could have begun even before the melting glaciers open a land route south. The same issue bedevils the population story of South America. Some bands moving south presumably crossed over from Central America to South America over the rugged, swappy Darien Gap south of the Udtmuds of Panama. It is also likely that some bands mafe a sea passage. The relative importance is unknown. What we do know is that the Caribbean was settled by people who crossed the Andes and traveled east along river systems of the Pampas into the Antilles. The rest of the story is a virtual open book. And it is complicated by the fact that there is evidence of human settlement in the far south from a very early period. We know that the first advanced civilization appeared along the coast of northern Peru. This suggsts to us the importance of sea travel south. It is notable that all of the advanced civilization of South Anmerica developed in the Andes or the narrow coaastal strip west of the Andes. These were hardly the most inviting enviroments in South America. And another issue is what was going on in the Amazonian Basin which dimibates the continent. Some anthroplogists believe hat the emphasis on monumental architecture may be missing the civilzations that develoed there.

Andean Highlands

The greatest South American civilizations emerged in the Andean Highland. This is in sharp contrast to the general pattern of human civilizations. The first importnt civilizations generally emerge in river vallies where agriculture is possible with only primitive agriculture. The Andean highlands were fertile, but required more advanced technology. As a result the great Andean civikizations developed t a reltively late date. The firt was the Tiwanaku (c400 BC - c1000 AD). Tiwanaku was one of the first two great Native American civilizations in South America. The Neolithic Revolution occurred here centuries after it did in Meso-America, but apparently independently. The city state of Tiwanaku was settled on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca (about 800 BC). It was one of many such settlements. It begins to emerge as the most important (about 400 BC), Thus the cradel of civilization in South America was the cold waters of Lake Titicaca. While this does not seem the most ideal place for civilization to develop., the lake waters was not frigid and the Titicaca Basin warmer than the the High Andes and Altiplano. Tiwanaku itself had a great advantage. Not only could they benefit from the bounty of the Lake, but they were situated so as to command tradebetween the Altiplano and Pacific coast. This helped finance the growth of great civilization. The Wari (c700-c1000AD)are the second of the two great early Native American civilizations in South America. They wre not precisely an Andean people, but staddeled the Higlands and coast. The Wari or Huari Empire dominated the coast and foothills of what is now Peru (700-1000 AD). The War were not a vast trading network like Tiwanaku, but the first great warrior people of South America. Their armies conquered neigboring states and imposed their culture on the subject people. Thus these cultures disappeared as Wari culture spread over a large area. Their capital was the modern city of Ayachuco, but Wari outposts and cities have been found throughout Peru. Wari cities were meticulosly contructed in a grid patter, rather like American cities. To unite their far-flung empire, they built an extensive road system. The Inca are the best known and pre-Colombian Andean people. until the early 15th century were but one of a large number of tribes situated in the Andes and narrow coastal plain from Chile north to Colombia. The tribes shared many common cultural cahracteristoics. The Inca were possessed with a messianic creed which taught that they were destined to dominate the world. They proceeded to conquer and assimilate neighboring tribes in southern Peru around Lake Titicaca. at the beginning of the 15th entury the Inca was just one of large number of Andean and costal tribes. Then there was an amazing explosioin out of their mountain domain and within 100 years carved out an emense empire. Theh absorbed conquered peoples relatively beningly as long as thy accepted the Inca Sun God. The Inca had a genius for public administration, enineering, as well as military strategy. One of their mostal notable inovations was the construction of a road network allowing the rapid movement of armies. Runners operating rather like pony express riders moved messages with great rapidity from th most remote imperial outposts to the capital at Cuzco. Eventually this network streached the length of South America from cebtral Chile to southern Colombia--over 2,500 miles. Terraces were carved out of steep mountains, creating cultivateable land. These teraces were notable engineering achievements. The Inca were master weavers. The nobility wore garments woven from vicuña. The common people wore garments wove from the more course llama wool. The most sophisticated Native American civilization in thevnorthern Andes (what is now Colombia) was the Chibcha culture. They were one of the few Andean peoples not yet conquered by the expanding Inca Empire. The Chincha dominated the highland basins and valleys of the Cordillera Oriental in what is now Colombia. The Chibcha are less well known than the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, but were an important culture. The Chibcha inhabited the Andean valleys around Bogotá and Tunja in centrl Colombia. The population has been estimated at 0.5 million people. They are believed to have been one of the most politically centralized of the Native Americans, with the exception of the highly centralized Inca Empire. Over time the process of war and alliances had unified the Chibcha into two major states and several smaller ones ones, each with its own hereditary chief. The Inca Empire was a much larger state, but a a result of rapid expansion not as coherent a state as the Chincha. The Chibcha like other Native Americans were a stone-age people, but a highly developed one. The economy was based on intensive highland agriculture. There were crafts, most notably gold working. They were also a trading society. The larger villages held weekly markets where aricultural produce, pottery, and cloth were traded. Gold was used for personal ornamentation and religious offrings. . The arrival of the Spanish cut short the further development and centralization of the Chibcha. The Spanish crushed the Chibcha militarily and by the 18th century the Chibcha language disappeared.

Pacific Coastal Tribes

The Native American population was the greatest in the fertile Andean highlands. There were, however, also tribes in the narrow coastal strip. And the first South American civilizations appear to have developed along the coast, although there is considerable uncertaunty as to the history of the Amazonian people. When people first reached the area it may have been somwwhat less arid than the case today. But the rivers running down from the Sierra provided fertile fields and the development of civilization much as was the case of the great river valley civilizaions in the Old World. The best known such tribe is the Nazca people because if their famous lines. They mzy have arrived by sea, possibly by coastal routes. Legends suggest sea people. There is no genetic ecidence of Polynesian transit across the Pacifific. Important sitrs such as Chan-Chan are much less known than the Andean pople, but predated Andean civlizaton. There coastal civilization appears to have collapsed because of a combination of climate change, El Niñös, an Tusamis. At the time of the Spanish Conquest there were still Native America tribes living in the narrow coastal strip west of the Andes, some recently conquered by the Incas. Two of the most important were the Mochica and later the Chimú. The Chimú left the extensive Chan-Chan site. The tribes along the coast of what is now Peru had achieved an impresive cultural level, learing to irrigate arid areas with the water flowing down from the highlands. Given the arid or desert conditions along the coast and the highly productive ocean environment, many of the tribes exploited the sea to a far greater extent than most Native America civilizations. The Inca were of Andean origins and conqered the coastal area and tribes in the years just before the arrival of the Spanish. .

Northern Non-Andean Tribes

The major ethnic group along the northern coast, both the Caribbean (Colombia and Venezuela) and the Atlantic coasts (Guianas) and inland waterays like the Orionoco was the Caribs. The Caribs were not politically centralized people and thus there are many different tribes of Carib origins. In Colomobia alone there are 84 indigenous people, most of Carib origins. One such tribe is the Molitones Bari [singular Molitón Bari] live in the region of Catatumbo (Northern department of Santander. Catatumbo is a strategic region. It is near of the boundary with Venezuela. In the region there is also a lot of oil and coal. Through the time the exploitation of oil and coal caused land expropriations. Today the Molitones Bari's culture could disappear. This is the reason for a 2008 protest marches. Another major tribe is the Arawaks. The relationship between the Caribs and Arawaks is not fully understood. The Arawaks from northeastern South America peopled much of the Caribbean. At the time the Europeans arrived the Caribs were reportedly in the process of conquering the Arawaks on manu\y islands. Some modern scholars are suspicious of this assessment. At a realatively early pont, howevert, both Arawak and Carib populations were decimated by European mistreatmrnt and disease. The Arawaks and Caribs on the islands had no where to retreat to escape from the Spanish and other Europeans. On the continent, the Arawaks and Caribs could retreat into the vastness of the interior and thus survive today in small numbers.

Amazonian Tribes

Native Americans in the Amazonian Basin are a very complicated topic which in recent years have become a matter of intence scholarly debate. Anthropologists for years thought seeing the promitive people of the Amazon that there no avanced cultures developed there. One ongoing mystery is that Spanish sources report a very substantial population in the Amazon basin during the 16th century. Francisco de Orellana set out on a quest for gold and soon found himself just trying to survive. He was the first European to travel the entire length of the Amazon and he reported a huge population of highly productive farmers. Historians at first dismissed the Spanish account as fanciful. Modern anthropolgists have begun to reassess this judgement. Some believe there indeed once was a very large population in the Amazon basin practing sophisticated agriculture. The question becomes, why de we now see only primitive hunter-gathers in the Amazon. Some historins believe that the drepedations of Spannish and Portuguese slave hunters drove Amazinian farmers deep into the frst and forced them to adopt hunter-gatherer cultures. Other historians note advances such as pottery first made in the Amazonian Basin as well as cultural exchanges with Pacific coast people that seem to suggest the existetance of advanced civilizations in themazon when civilization aling the Pcific coast and andes wa still in a formative state.

Southern Tribes

Many tribes lived south of the Amazonin Basin, both east and west of the Andes. We do not know a great deal about these tribes. Many were quite small. The Mapuche inhabited yhe coastal areas west of the Andes in what is now now central and southern Chile. They are probably the best known because they sucessfully resisted Inca armies and then after the conquest the Spanish conquistadores. (Historical and literary accounts often use the term Araucanians.) Without the centralized orhanization of the Inca, they proved more difficult for the Spanish to conquer. The Mapuche even managed to kill Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia (1553). The Mapuche did not have the gold that so attracted the Spanish, but they did control the highly productive Central Valley of central Chile. There are a large number of smaller tribes. Estimates vary because it was often difficult to tell whether related bands were separate tribes or not. The Alacaluf (Halakwulup, Kawésqar, or Kaweskar) was a small tribe living at the tip of South America along and around the Strait of Magellan, including the Brunswick Peninsula, and Wellington, Santa Inés, and Desolación islands). They were a seagoing people which had a society based on fishing and hunting marime mammals. Anoter southern tribe were the Yaghan. They lived even further south than the Alacaluf. They were a very pimitive tribe which despite the cold climate did not develop clothing before contact with the Europeans.


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Created: 5:52 AM 11/24/2006
Last updated: 11:29 PM 2/12/2014