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Native Americans of Middle and South America

Native Americans of Middle and South America, indigenous peoples of Middle America (Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies) and South America. Native Americans were the first humans to inhabit these regions, arriving thousands of years before European explorers laid claim to the “New World.”
The story of Native Americans begins in the ancient past. Scientists believe that the first human settlers of the Americas migrated from northeastern Asia during the last ice age, which ended 10,000 years ago. Whereas today the waters of the Bering Strait separate Asia and North America, during the ice age sea levels were much lower, and a wide land bridge, called Beringia, connected the continents. Anthropologists believe one or more waves of people crossed this bridge to North America, and through countless generations, eventually made their way down to Central America and across the Isthmus of Panama into South America.

In what in evolutionary terms was a brief flash of time, the descendants of those first migrants adapted to nearly every environment throughout Middle and South America, from the temperate highlands of Mexico and tropical rain forest of the Amazon Basin to the grassy pampas of Argentina and frigid islands of southernmost Chile. In Middle America and in the Andes mountains of South America, Native Americans began to grow maize (corn), beans, squash, and many other crops. As agriculture and food production intensified, populations soared, eventually developing into great states and empires of immense size, wealth, and complexity. The largest and best known of these were the Maya civilization, the Aztec Empire, and the Inca Empire. Other important civilizations included the Olmec, Teotihuacán, Toltec, and Zapotec cultures of Middle America; and the Chavín, Moche, Nazca, Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco), and Chimú cultures of the Andes.
When Italian-Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492, he thought he had reached islands off the eastern coast of Asia, which was then known as the Indies. Perhaps because of this belief, he called the villagers who greeted him indios, which later became the English word Indian. During the colonial period in Spanish-speaking Middle and South America, many indigenous peoples came to detest the name indio because it was accompanied by their subjugation and maltreatment at the hands of European conquerors. Although the use of indio persists to the present, anthropologists today generally use the term indigenous peoples when referring to the native inhabitants of Latin America and their ancestors; some also use the English terms Indian or Native American in scholarly writing. Like their counterparts in North America, the indigenous peoples themselves prefer to be identified by their specific tribal name, such as Huichol, Maya, Ynomamö, or Aymara. This article uses the terms Native Americans, indigenous peoples, and native peoples interchangeably when referring generally to the indigenous inhabitants of Middle and South America.
Intermarriage between Native Americans and Europeans began almost immediately from the time of European conquest. The children of these unions became known as mestizos. Mestizos now constitute a large proportion of the population in many Latin American countries, including Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. It is often very difficult to distinguish people who are of pure indigenous ancestry from those who are mestizo. In fact, the classification of people as indigenous is usually more of a cultural distinction than a biological one, counting only those people who have not yet abandoned their indigenous ways of life. Today, the majority of indigenous people in Middle and South America live in villages away from urban areas.
This article divides its discussion of Native Americans into three main parts. The Culture Areas section describes indigenous cultures and ways of life, primarily as they existed before European contact, in seven geographic regions. The History section chronicles the earliest migrations to Middle and South America, the rise of civilizations, the European conquests, and the modern history of indigenous groups. The Native Americans Today section discusses many of the political, social, and cultural issues that indigenous people face in contemporary Middle and South America.
For a discussion of the indigenous peoples of North America, see Native Americans of North America.

In anthropology, the term culture refers to a society or group of people with shared beliefs, customs, practices, and social behaviors. When European explorers began arriving in Middle and South America in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, hundreds of indigenous cultures existed across the land, from present-day Mexico to the southern tip of South America. The people of these diverse cultures had, over the centuries, developed ways of life well suited to the physical environment in which they lived.
To study these diverse cultures in a meaningful way, many anthropologists divide Middle and South America into different culture areas, distinct geographic regions whose inhabitants shared many cultural traits. The concept of culture areas assumes that geography and culture are intimately connected, and that cultures are best understood by reference to their environment. For example, a principal reason why complex states arose in Mesoamerica and the central Andes is the higher food productivity these regions had compared to other areas, which was due in part to the richness of the soil, rainfall patterns, and temperature. Intensive agriculture produced enough food to support large, dense populations, and with greater numbers of people there arose a corresponding need for more complex social and political systems.
However, neither a perfect nor totally predictable correlation exists between geographic areas and the societal types or cultural traits found within them. For example, if we follow the culture area concept too blindly we might tend to think of Mesoamerica as a place where only states or empires existed in ancient times. The fact is that there existed isolated groups, especially near the northern and southern boundaries of Mesoamerica, that never went beyond the village level of sociopolitical organization. Thus, culture areas provide a way of studying the general characteristics of people in a large geographic area, but at the risk of overlooking some of the details of cultural variability in that area.
This article divides Middle and South America into seven culture areas. These are Mesoamerica, the Caribbean and Northern Andes, the Central and Southern Andes, the Amazon Basin, the Brazilian Highlands, the Gran Chaco, and Southern South America.

This section gives a broad overview of the Mesoamerica culture area. For a more detailed treatment, see Mesoamerica.

Land and Habitat
The Mesoamerica culture area stretches from present-day central Mexico southeast through much of Central America. It includes the Yucatán Peninsula; all of Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador; and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The primary geographic features of Mesoamerica include a lowland belt of tropical rain forest that runs along the Gulf of Mexico, and a cooler, drier highland belt parallel to it. Within the highland belt are the central Mexican highlands, including the Valley of Mexico; the southern Mexican highlands, including the Valley of Oaxaca; and the hills and valleys of the southeastern highlands of Guatemala.
No major rivers are found in Mesoamerica, in contrast to other areas of the world where early civilizations arose. Ample rainfall occurs throughout the region, however. A line that snakes across central Mexico near the Tropic of Cancer forms the northern boundary of Mesoamerica; north of this line rainfall sharply declines and the climate is much drier. The ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica all arose and developed in the area between this line and the Guatemalan highlands far to the south. Rich volcanic soils are found throughout much of the region.

People and Languages
Mesoamerica was a great melting pot, home to many peoples and interrelated cultures. In the centuries before European contact, it was the most densely populated region in the Americas. Nearly 40 distinct indigenous languages were spoken in Mesoamerica, including dialects of the following language families and stocks: Chinantecan, Manguean, Mayan, Mixe-Zoquean, Mixtecan, Otomian, Popolocan, Tequistlatecan, Tlapanecan, Totonacan, Uto-Aztecan, and Zapotecan.
The best-known Mesoamerican cultures include—in roughly sequential order from 1500 bc to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in ad 1519—the Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacán, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec. Civilizations would flourish for a time, sometimes in tandem, and then decline as other cultures rose to dominance. Great cities were built and inhabited by successive groups, then abandoned. Forms of art and religion developed and shared by earlier groups profoundly influenced cultures that followed.

Early Peoples
The human history of Mesoamerica reaches back many thousands of years. The first inhabitants of the region were nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose ancestors are believed to have migrated from Asia. Stone spearpoints found with ancient animal remains, including mammoth, provide evidence that early Mesoamericans hunted large game for at least part of their diet. By about 8000 bc, at the beginning of what is known as the Archaic period, Mesoamericans began to make numerous specialized tools and ceremonial objects, and they hunted a wide variety of game, including pronghorn antelope, rabbits, and gophers. They were expert foragers and harvested fruits, nuts, and the seeds of wild plants.
Drawing on their extensive knowledge of edible wild plants, Archaic Mesoamericans gradually learned to cultivate a variety of food crops, including maize (see Corn). Precisely when farming began in Mesoamerica is unknown, but agriculture had become widespread in the region by 4000 bc. Over time, Mesoamerican peoples came to rely on farming as their primary food source, and they settled in permanent villages. By about 2000 bc, many peoples of Mesoamerica were living principally on varieties of maize, beans, and squash. Intensive agriculture supported large populations and complex societies began to develop.
After about 1500 bc Mesoamericans began to build ceremonial pyramids and temples in the larger towns, and these settlements grew into religious and political centers. As towns grew in size, Mesoamerican tribes became increasingly complex, and fixed classes of priests, bureaucrats, merchants, and craftspeople emerged. Some towns had many thousands of citizens; empires with millions of subjects were established. Agricultural wealth fostered a network of trade. Merchants in urban centers sold tools, cloth, and luxury items imported over long land and sea routes. Great heights were achieved in the arts and sciences. Ancient Mesoamericans developed systems of writing and highly accurate calendars based on their astronomical observations.

Diet and Subsistence
Agriculture provided the principal source of food throughout Mesoamerica, with the variety of crops increasing toward the south. The main staple everywhere was maize, but other crops were important as well, especially beans and squash. Eaten together, maize, beans, and squash offered a diet rich in vegetable protein and carbohydrates.
Mesoamerican farmers cultivated many other plant species. Among the better known are tomatoes, sweet potatoes, chili peppers, tobacco, cotton, and peanuts. Lesser-known plants include amaranth, bottle gourd, and a type of edible cactus called prickly pear. The sap of the century plant, a species of agave, was fermented to make alcoholic beverages, including a drink called pulque. A plant called manioc (also known as cassava or yucca), was used, among other things, to make tapioca. Mesoamerican peoples also exploited many native fruits, including papayas, avocados, and cacao (to make chocolate). Fruit-producing trees were frequently planted in high concentrations in and around Mesoamerican cities.
In the tropical lowlands, Mesoamericans practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, in which areas of jungle were cleared and burned to make fields for crops. When the soil was depleted and crop yields declined, the plots were abandoned and new ones were cleared. In some highland areas, particularly in the Valley of Mexico, the people constructed irrigation systems and established gardens on artificially made islands, known as chinampas, in lakes and swampy areas. Wild plants, game, and domesticated animals, including dogs, turkeys, ducks, geese, and quail, were also used as food in various areas. Fish and shellfish were eaten along the coasts.

Social and Political Organization
During the long Archaic period, which lasted until about 2000 bc, small villages of extended families were at the center of Mesoamerican society. Village resources were generally shared, and permanent social classes did not exist. Families directed the growing of corn and other village work, and most adult villagers were capable of performing all the tasks required to sustain life.
As agriculture became more intensive and efficient, and helped to ensure a stable food supply, Mesoamerican village life became more diverse. New gods that could assure bountiful crops—including deities believed to control rainfall, flooding, or fertility—grew in importance. At the same time, knowledge of various crafts—including weaving, basketry, and pottery—expanded, and a specialization of labor slowly emerged.
The first signs of social stratification in Mesoamerica appeared shortly after 1000 bc. At Olmec sites in the swampy rain forests of eastern Mexico, for example, the ancient architecture signals the beginning of a division of society into elite and commoner groups. The sites contain a complex of plazas, pyramids, courts for sacred ball games, and temples, which were used for prayer and religious ceremonies, as well as finely built stone dwellings for the upper classes. These sites mark the beginning of an evolutionary sequence characterized by ever larger, more complex, and more stratified societies in Mesoamerica.
As settlements grew larger, Mesoamerican societies became increasingly stratified according to social rank. The ranks of these societies typically included a large lower class of farmers, miners, and craftspeople; a middle class of merchants and government officials; and an upper class of priestly elites who directed religious and political life and maintained armies. In many of these societies, children were educated in formal schools. Most children were trained to follow their parents’ occupations, but talented youth might be selected for more suitable work. Citizens supported the state religion, although in the empires local religious observances were sometimes permitted to coexist with the state religion. War captives and debtors often became slaves.

Settlement and Housing
Although Mesoamerica contained many impressive cities, most of the area’s population was rural. The region encompassed thousands of communities, ranging from small villages of perhaps 100 people to great urban centers such as Tenochtitlán, an Aztec city that—at its peak—was home to an estimated 200,000 people. Several hundred localities large enough to be called cities by modern standards emerged in Mesoamerica, although some of them served mainly as religious centers for a rural population living near them; their principal inhabitants were priests who gathered there to fast and purify themselves before important ceremonies.
In agricultural settlements, people typically lived in single-room round or rectangular huts made with poles covered by thatch or sometimes grass. In some areas homes were constructed of sun-dried adobe bricks or wattle and daub (interwoven twigs plastered with clay). Roofs were frequently gabled for protection against the heavy downpours that occurred every year during the rainy season. Each residence usually had a cooking hearth, storage pit, and workshop area where pottery and tools were made.
Mesoamerican cities often covered large areas. At their centers were great plazas surrounded by massive public buildings, including flat-topped pyramids, palaces, sanctuaries, monasteries, temples, baths, dance platforms, reviewing stands, bridges, terraces, and astronomical observatories. There were also ball courts, on which a game roughly resembling modern basketball and soccer was played for ceremonial purposes. Near the center of cities were the large stone houses and walled compounds of wealthy elites; the common people and the poor lived on the outskirts, often in single-room structures with earthen floors. By ad 200 in the city of Teotihuacán, many commoners were living in a new type of structure in Mesoamerica—one-story apartment buildings that could house up to 100 people.
Buildings in the cities were large and impressive, although rarely were they spacious enough inside to hold more than a few dozen people. The buildings often had façades crafted from stone and gleaming stucco. Sometimes the façades were elaborately carved with abstract geometric designs and with both stylized and naturalistic masks and figures of birds, humans, and other animals. The towering pyramids, made of mounds of earth and rubble faced with stone, were topped by temples, reached by steep flights of steps.

Since Mesoamericans did not domesticate draft animals or use wheeled vehicles, most loads transported between settlements were carried on the backs of people. In the low-lying jungles of present-day Guatemala, Belize, and southeastern Mexico, the Maya built roads paved with stones, called sacbe, between some of the major cities. However, transport and travel throughout most of ancient Mesoamerica was carried out on rough trails that crisscrossed the vast area. Porters with backpacks carried loads of commodities such as maize, beans, cotton, feather ornaments, animal skins, and firewood, from rural areas to the cities. In some areas, including Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, canoes were used for transport and travel. The Maya carried trade goods along coasts and rivers in large dugout canoes.
Official messages were frequently carried between settlements by runners working in relays. These trained athletes, similar to the chasquis used by the Inca Empire in South America, could cover several hundred kilometers in a single day. Rulers and other elites were often carried by teams of men on fancy mats known as litters.

Clothing and Ornamentation
Mesoamerican clothing was varied and colorful. Cloth was woven from cotton and from the fiber of the agave plant. In the warm tropical lowlands, there was little need for elaborate clothing. Among the Maya, men wore a woven loincloth; women wore an outer dress fashioned from a single piece of cloth with holes cut in it for the head and arms, as well as a loincloth undergarment beneath. In cooler weather, both sexes wrapped a heavier square cloth around their shoulders.
The clothing of highland people was similar to that worn in the lowlands. Among the Aztec, for example, men wore a loincloth and—given the cooler temperatures—often added a cape for warmth. Women wore ankle-length dresses fastened at the waist with embroidered belts. Over their dresses, they wore hip-length blouses.
Clothing and decoration reflected a person’s social status. Commoners wore simple garments. The clothing of priests and members of the nobility was much more elaborate, including robes made from jaguar skins, feathers, or cotton; elaborate necklaces; and ornaments of copper, gold, jade, and turquoise. They wore jeweled plugs in their earlobes, lips, and noses, and large headdresses made of brilliant quetzal feathers placed on woven frames. Warriors had their own costumes, including carved masks that depicted jaguars, fish, and reptiles.
It was fashionable among Mayan nobles to have an elongated head, which was produced by compressing an infant’s head between two boards. The Maya also considered it beautiful to have crossed eyes—an effect that was achieved by hanging a ball of wax on a string in front of a child’s face until the child’s eyes became permanently crossed.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
As farming peoples, Mesoamericans frequently worshiped the forces of nature as gods, including agricultural deities. Most of the elaborate rituals and ceremonies conducted by Mesoamerican priests were intended to secure the goodwill and support of these gods. Among some groups. human sacrifice was used to appease the gods. Rulers were seen as religious leaders who served as intermediaries between humans and the gods, or spiritual forces. As a result, the civil and religious aspects of life in Mesoamerica were often inseparable. See also Pre-Columbian Religions.
The complex religion of the Maya included belief in a supreme god, called Hunab Ku. This deity was seen as too remote from humans to have any effect on their daily activities. His son, a sky deity called Itzamna, was believed to be the god who gave humans food, medicine, and the art of writing. Numerous other deities—including the gods of rain, maize, war, medicine, wind, death, Moon, and Sun—were thought to control the specific affairs of humans. These deities all had a dual aspect: they could bring good things to humans, such as rain, a plentiful harvest, or peace, but they could also bring harm, such as drought, famine, or war. Many rituals and ceremonies performed by the Maya, including human sacrifices, were intended to secure favorable treatment from these gods.
Among the people of Teotihuacán, religious ceremonies included sacrifices of birds, flowers, dogs, and sometimes humans, to feed hungry gods and keep them strong. Doing so was necessary, they believed, to continue life and keep the world in harmony. A principal deity was Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Plumed, or Feathered, Serpent, a beneficial god who was frequently locked in combat with evil gods.
The Aztec worshipped a pantheon of gods, including more than 60 major deities and numerous lesser spirits. The ancient deity Quetzalcoatl, among others, was revered, but the principal god was the Aztecs' own, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of the Sun. The gods were ranked in importance, and each one had its own cult and special hierarchies of priests. Many Aztec ceremonies entailed sacrificing human victims to the gods, whose strength needed perpetual renewal with human blood. Sacrificial victims, sometimes large numbers at once, were led up the steps of pyramids to temples on top, where their hearts were cut out and their heads impaled on skull racks; others were flayed, and their skins were worn by priests. Victims were usually war captives, although Aztecs themselves sometimes volunteered for important sacrificial rituals.

Arts and Sciences
Mesoamericans produced arts and crafts of great refinement and sophistication. Many Mesoamerican societies had full-time craftspeople and urban laborers. These workers built cities filled with monumental architecture, remarkable sculptures, and brilliantly painted murals. Mesoamerican arts also included painted scenes on pottery; carving in jade and other precious stones; feather and stone mosaics; basketry, textiles, and featherwork; and metalwork, a technology that arrived in Mesoamerica from South America sometime before ad 1000. They also fashioned elaborate painted books, or codices, that opened up as a long, continuous sheets of paper. Colorfully painted with hieroglyphs (a pictorial form of writing), human figures, and images of gods, these books were collections of religious lore and rituals for study by priests and their apprentices.
The intellectual and scientific accomplishments of Mesoamerica surpassed those of any other region in the Americas before European contact. The ancient Olmec, among other peoples of the period, devised a system of writing and a calendar based on astronomical observations. Later groups built on these accomplishments to achieve great heights, including the Maya, Zapotec, and the people of Teotihuacán. For example, during the Classic period of the Maya (about ad 300 to 900), the highest stage of Mayan civilization, Mayan philosophers and mathematicians developed a highly accurate calendric system. They recorded this system using a complex form of hieroglyphic writing, which was carved on stele, or stone slabs, up to 9 m (30 ft) high. The Maya conceived of the concept of zero, an advanced mathematical concept, centuries before the symbol for zero was used by Hindu mathematicians in India. Mayan astronomers carefully observed the heavens and worked out the movements of celestial bodies and the recurrences of eclipses.

Post-Contact History
The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive in Mesoamerica, sailing from settlements in the Caribbean in the early 1500s. Rumors of a wealthy, advanced civilization in what is now Mexico soon reached the Spanish, and in 1519 the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés set sail from Cuba in search of gold and new lands to colonize. When Cortés landed near present-day Veracruz in eastern Mexico, the Aztec Empire was still intact, and its rule extended across much of Mesoamerica. Marching with indigenous allies who had been subjugated by the Aztecs, Cortés advanced on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in central Mexico. By 1521 Cortés and his small army had conquered the empire. The Spaniards seized the Aztecs’ gold and other treasures and razed Tenochtitlán, which became the foundation of Mexico City, capital of the Spanish province of New Spain.
From Mexico City other Spanish explorers and soldiers extended Spain’s power to the south. As the Spanish pushed into new areas, they exposed indigenous peoples to smallpox and other European diseases, and many perished. In the 1520s Pedro de Alvarado conquered Guatemala, and between 1527 and 1546 Francisco de Montejo and his son conquered the declining Mayan cities in the Yucatán Peninsula. From 1540 on, the Spanish also pushed north. As Spaniards claimed military control of Mesoamerica, they leveled temples and used the stones to build Roman Catholic churches, burned indigenous books as idolatrous, and enslaved many native people to work under harsh conditions in fields and mines. As a result of starvation, overwork, occupational hazards, and disease, the indigenous population of Mesoamerica plummeted. The Spanish crown abolished the harshest forms of forced labor in the early 18th century, and the indigenous population gradually increased; most indigenous peoples survived as peasants governed by Spanish overlords.
After Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, indigenous peoples came under Mexican rule. Forced by extreme poverty, many native inhabitants continued to work for Mexican landowners. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 set in motion reforms that eventually returned thousands of hectares of land to indigenous peoples and gave them access to schooling and medical services. Today, most of the population living within the Mesoamerican culture area is mestizo, people of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. Despite efforts of the colonizers to stamp out indigenous culture, many traditional ways of life continued, mostly in modified form. The mixing of Spanish and indigenous cultural practices—including language, food, religion, clothing, and music—have made Mexico, Guatemala, and other modern nation-states of the area the vibrant, fascinating places they are today.

Caribbean and Northern Andes


Land and Habitat
The Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area is a tropical region that extends over a huge area between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator. In the north lie the Antilles islands, which run in a chain from the larger islands of Cuba and Hispaniola down through the tiny volcanic islands of the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad and Tobago. The western part of the area includes the rugged volcanic uplands of Central America to the south of Mesoamerica, from Honduras through Panama. The southern part of the area lies in South America and includes the northern Andes and adjacent coasts of Ecuador and Colombia, as well as the mountains of northern Venezuela and extensive savanna grasslands north of the Orinoco River.
Although the volcanic soils of the Lesser Antilles and Central America are rich and well watered, the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area generally lacks extensive areas of land suitable for agriculture. Rainfall is heavy throughout the Antilles and Central America, and increases to even greater amounts along the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador, where extensive mangrove swamps are found. In general, human settlement was sparsest in these swampy areas and in the llanos, a Spanish term for the savannas of Venezuela and Colombia. Throughout the rest of the culture area, the development of agriculture in prehistoric times allowed larger populations. However, compared to Mesoamerican and Central Andean peoples, native groups were confined to relatively smaller and more isolated local habitats.

People and Languages
At the time of European contact the larger indigenous groups of the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area included the Ciboney, Taíno (Island Arawak), and Carib, of the Antilles islands; the Jicaque, Kuna, Lenca, Miskito (Mosquito), and Cuna-Cueva, of Central America; the Chibcha (Muisca), San Agustín, Pasto, Esmeralda, Manta, and Colorado, of the Andes and coastal regions of Colombia and Ecuador; and the Tairona, Kogi, Goajiro, Caquetío, Motilones, Paez, and Warrau, of the Caribbean coast and highlands of Colombia and Venezuela. Major language families included Arawakan, Cariban, Chibchan, and Paezan. The last two language groups were confined to smaller regions of the culture area, whereas the Arawakan and Cariban languages extended beyond the culture area to include northern areas of the Amazon Basin.

Early Peoples
Judging from archaeological excavations at sites in Colombia and Venezuela, hunter-gatherer groups reached the southern part of the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area by some 12,000 years ago. For example, at Tequendama rock shelter in the Colombian highlands, human occupation dating to this time period includes stone tools and hearths found in association with the remains of deer, rabbit, armadillo, and guinea pig. An even earlier date of 13,000 years ago has been claimed for a mastodon kill at the site of Taima-Taima along the Venezuela coast, but the evidence for this claim is controversial. By 10,000 years ago, it is likely that humans were dispersed throughout most of the mainland area. The Caribbean islands were apparently inhabited much later; the earliest evidence of human settlement there traces to only 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.
The origin of agriculture in the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area is uncertain. Current evidence suggests that important food crops such as maize (corn), beans, squash, and potatoes were first domesticated in Mesoamerica and the central Andes, and that people living between these regions probably received these crops through trade, rather than domesticating the wild plants themselves. There is direct evidence for maize cultivation by about 2300 bc at the Real Alto site on the southwest coast of Ecuador. It is possible, however, that people of the northern Andes domesticated manioc, a starchy root. By about 1100 bc people at the Malambo site on the Caribbean coast of Colombia had developed clay griddles called budares, which are associated with the processing of manioc. At the site of Momil in northern Colombia, maize grinding stones replaced budares around 100 bc, suggesting that maize had replaced manioc as a staple by that time. In the Caribbean islands, manioc cultivation probably began around 250 bc, after agricultural peoples in northern Venezuela had begun migrating to the Lesser Antilles.

Diet and Subsistence
Most of the people throughout the central and northern parts of the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area practiced small-scale irrigation farming. Crops were watered by canals or by flooding. In the highland areas, the Chibcha and other peoples grew nutritious and productive crops, such as maize, potatoes, and quinoa (a high-protein grain), that supported large numbers of people. In the moist lowlands, the staple crop was manioc. Other foods of the lowlands and middle altitudes included tropical fruits, yams, sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts, and maize. In the Santa Marta mountain range in northern Colombia, the Tairona exploited resources at a variety of altitudes. They fished from the Caribbean Sea, built extensive rock-faced terraces to make steep land suitable for farming, and planted fruit trees in the tropical forest to supplement a diet already rich in proteins and carbohydrates.
Most peoples hunted and fished to supplement farming. The primary hunting weapon was the bow and arrow. To paralyze or kill their prey, hunters tipped their arrows with poison derived from rotted animals rather than with the plant poisons used in other parts of South America. For fishing, men used nets and hooks; they also placed poisons in the water to stun fish, which were then easily collected from the surface.

Social and Political Organization
By about 1000 ad the Caribbean and Northern Andean peoples had developed a way of life centered around towns and cities, whose populations usually did not exceed several thousand people. Most societies were chiefdoms, or groups in which people were divided into at least two main strata, or classes: a chiefly elite and non-chiefly commoners. A person’s social rank was determined at birth by the class of his or her family. Local chiefs ruled towns and tribes, some of which were grouped into confederations with tens of thousands of subjects. The chief lived a life of idleness and luxury. He lived with several wives in the largest residence in town, was waited on by servants, and was carried around in a litter (a fancy seat or mat carried by teams of men). In some areas the chief had the power of life and death over his subjects, and at his death, some of his wives, concubines, and slaves might be sacrificed. The largest chiefdoms were those of the Chibcha, who formed the largest and most highly developed society between Mexico and Peru. Chibcha culture developed after ad 1200 and flourished until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1537. The largest Chibcha cities were located near the present-day cities of Bogotá and Tunja in Colombia.

The Caribbean and Northern Andean peoples were renowned as fierce warriors. As with the Aztec, male warriors captured in battle were taken back to the victors’ settlements, where they were killed and their bodies were eaten. The heads of such captives often were kept as trophies that enhanced the prestige of the men who had captured them. Captured women were not usually killed, instead serving their captors as wives and servants in the household. Children captured in battle, on the other hand, met the same fate as the men. They were sacrificed to the gods and their bodies were eaten. The Taíno people were peaceful compared to others in the Caribbean, but their peace was disrupted by invasions of the more warlike Carib from Venezuela.

Settlement and Housing
Similar to the two-level system of social ranking, the settlement systems of the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area consisted usually of two types of settlements—larger towns, ruled by local chiefs, whose population numbered at most in the several thousands, and smaller rural sites where several hundred or fewer people lived. In the cool mountains of the northern Andes, people generally lived in small, dispersed villages and in scattered homes made of stone or of a wickerwork frame plastered with mud. In lower, tropical areas, people lived in larger towns that were sometimes surrounded by palisades (fences) to provide protection from enemies. Lowland houses were generally made of poles and thatch (plant material used as roofing) and were open-sided to allow air to pass through the structure. Houses were usually arranged around a central plaza containing a temple and the home of the chief and nobles. Many towns had roads paved with stone.

The dugout canoe was the primary means of transportation for Caribbean island peoples and for those on the mainland who lived near rivers or the sea. Coastal peoples around the Caribbean were expert navigators and traveled in large, elaborately ornamented, seagoing canoes that were equipped with sails. There was a regular sea trade among the islands of the Caribbean and between the Caribbean and South America, as well as along the eastern coast of Central America. Elsewhere, people transported goods on their backs, making use of trails, roads, and bridges that threaded through the mountains. To the south, in the Central and Southern Andes culture area, llamas were used for transportation, but these animals could not be adapted to the warmer rainy climates of the Caribbean and Northern Andes culture area.

Clothing and Ornamentation
Clothing differed according to region. Most of the people wove cotton on backstrap looms, a type of loom in which the warps (vertical strands) are strung between two sticks. One stick was attached to a fixed object, such as a post or roof beam, while the other end was attached to the weaver’s back with a leather or cloth strap. By leaning against the strap, the weaver could maintain tension on the warps as she or he wove in the wefts (horizontal strands). In the hot tropical lowlands, women wore apronlike garments around the waist, while the men wore breechcloths. In the cool highlands and middle altitudes of Colombia and Ecuador, people supplemented wraparounds and breechcloths with sleeveless tunics, capes, and blankets.
Peoples of highland Colombia, such as the Tairona, produced beautiful gold-and-copper ornaments and religious objects using the lost-wax technique. The artisan would mold a beeswax core in the shape of an animal or a human, enclose this figure in clay, and then pour molten gold mixed with copper through a hole in the clay. The molten metal replaced the wax, which melted away. After the metal had cooled the clay was broken away to reveal the object.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
Religion centered on temple cults that were led by priests of the chiefly class. The priests made offerings to deities represented by idols, acting as mediators between the gods and the people to ensure that the society’s needs (such as agricultural fertility and success in trade and war) were met. Among the principal deities of the mainland societies was the jaguar, the most feared and awe-inspiring animal of tropical rainforests given its tendency to prey on humans. Religious practices involved a sophisticated understanding of the cycles of the Moon and the Sun, including knowledge of the solstices and equinoxes as well as the length of the solar year. Human sacrifices to the gods were common. When a chief died, he was either buried with sacrificial victims—who included his wives and servants—or his body was desiccated (dried out) and placed on display in temples.
The Taíno, an Arawakan-speaking tribe who inhabited Hispaniola and Cuba, had neither priests nor temples. People were thought to be in individual communication with their own guardian spirit, which was represented by an idol in their house and was given offerings of food and valuables. The power of the guardian spirit varied with the importance of the person. The chief’s spirit was the most powerful of all.

Post-Contact History
In 1492 the Spanish, led by Christopher Columbus, arrived on a small island in the Bahamas, where they encountered the Taíno. During the same expedition Columbus and his crew explored parts of Cuba and Hispaniola. Although initial relations between native peoples and the Spanish were friendly, relations deteriorated when, in subsequent expeditions to the Americas, Columbus enslaved indigenous peoples as laborers and Spanish settlers raided their villages in search of gold and other riches.
Drawn by reports of gold and wealth, Spaniards flocked to the Caribbean. Although they themselves were fierce warriors, the Spaniards were horrified by the cannibalism of the native inhabitants, and they regarded their religious practices as heathen and uncivilized. The Spaniards thus found ample justification to enslave them, kill them, and stamp out their religions and cultures. For example, after their first landing in 1514 along the northern coast of Colombia, the Spaniards proceeded to burn most of the Tairona towns and kill many of their inhabitants. Even the native people who escaped this onslaught were not free from disaster, as immense numbers of them died from diseases introduced by the Europeans, such as smallpox. After a few decades, there were so few native people left that the Spanish began to import slaves from Africa. Although most of the indigenous groups of the Caribbean are now extinct, many Central American and Northern Andean indigenous groups—especially smaller-scale societies such as the Miskito of Nicaragua and the Colorado of Ecuador—have survived and prospered to modern times.

Central and Southern Andes


Land and Habitat
The Central and Southern Andes culture area extends from northernmost Peru down to south central Chile. Except for the narrow shore that lies along its entire western coast, most of the area is dominated by the high peaks of the Andes. In western Peru and Bolivia these peaks run in two great chains, or cordilleras, that are situated roughly 200 km (120 mi) apart. The highest peaks soar more than 6,100 m (20,000 ft) above sea level. Between the two cordilleras lies a series of high plains at elevations of 3,600 to 4,000 m (12,000 to 13,000 ft) that is known as the puna in Peru and the Altiplano in Bolivia. In Peru three major rivers—the Marañón, the Mantaro, and the Urubamba—cross through the mountains before descending into the Amazon Basin. Farther to the south, the Andean chains come closer together as they extend down into Chile and the westernmost edge of Argentina.
Composed primarily of recently eroded materials, the soils of the puna and river basins of highland Peru are rich, and rainfall here is moderate. The adjacent coast, on the other hand, receives almost no rain at all and is one of the driest deserts in the world. However, human habitation was possible here, in a series of some 50 narrow river valleys whose headwaters are in the nearby Andes. An even more hostile place for human habitation was the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, which receives rainfall only two to four times a century.

People and Languages
The central Andes were home to some of the greatest civilizations in South America. In northern Peru between 1000 bc and ad 1532, a series of spectacularly accomplished cultures developed, including the Chavín (see Chavín de Huantar), Vicús, Moche (Mochica), Recuay, and Chimú. Farther south in Peru and Bolivia, during the same period, the equally impressive Paracas, Nazca, Huari (Wari), and Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) cultures developed. Beginning in the mid-1400s, the Incas built a powerful empire of extraordinary wealth and complexity, which spanned a vast region from Chile to Ecuador (see Inca Empire). Important groups in the southern Andes prior to European contact included the Atacameños, Diaguitas, and Araucanians (Mapuche, Huilliche, and Picunche). Major language groups in Peru were Quechua (the official language of the Inca), Aymaran, Muchic, and Uru, while those of Chile included Atacama, Diaguita, and Araucanian. Today, Quechua and Aymará are still widely spoken; indigenous people who speak these languages are called Quechua and Aymara Indians, respectively.

Early Peoples
The archaeological site of Monte Verde in southern Chile, dating to 12,500 years ago, is the earliest well-documented site of human settlement in the Americas. Buried under sediments by the boggy conditions along a creek bed, this small settlement was home to perhaps 20 to 30 people. Archaeologists excavating the site found the preserved remains of a great variety of plants (both food and medicinal), the wood foundations of what appeared to be permanent dwellings, wooden implements of various kinds, stone tools, hearths, and a human footprint. Although animal remains at the site indicate that the inhabitants hunted mastodon and prehistoric llamas, the people of Monte Verde appear to have relied more heavily on plants that were gathered during various seasons of the year from places as far as 65 km (40 mi) away.
There are many other important sites of early human habitation in this culture area. Among them are Tagua-Tagua on the coast of Chile, Viscachani in highland Bolivia, and Quebrada Jaguay, Pachamachay Cave, Lauricocha Cave, and Guitarrero Cave in the Peruvian Andes. At the Guitarrero Cave site, archaeologists have found some of the oldest evidence of cultivated plants anywhere in the Americas. The remains of these plants, dated to as early as 7,000 years ago, include several Andean tubers and fruits such as oca, ulluco, pacae, and lucuma, as well as two varieties of beans and the chili pepper.

Diet and Subsistence
The people of the Central and Southern Andes culture area ate a rich variety of domesticated plant foods. On the Andean coast, these included maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, peanuts, sweet potatoes, manioc, avocados, and papayas, as well as lesser-known plants such as achira, cherimoya, guava, guanábana, pacay, and algarroba bean. The domesticated crops of the Andean highlands included quinoa, a high-protein grain, and a host of tubers, or root crops, such as potato, oca, ulluco, maca, and mashua, all of which grow well at higher elevations. Aside from North American groups that domesticated the wild turkey, the people of the central and southern Andes were the only Native Americans to domesticate animals before European contact. They used the llama for transportation, the alpaca for meat and wool, and the cuy, or guinea pig, for meat. The manure of llamas, alpacas, and birds was used for fertilizer.
On the steep-sided slopes of Andean river basins, the Inca and their predecessors constructed flat, rock-faced terraces to extend the area available to grow crops. There was not always enough rainfall to water the crops, however, so the Inca engineered canals to bring water to fields that were often far above the river valley bottoms. Irrigation and farming were much easier to accomplish in the low valleys of the Peruvian coast. There, the remains of canal systems and ancient field lines indicate that the prehistoric inhabitants of this area farmed every irrigable part of the valley floor, as well as flatter parts of the adjacent desert areas, to support their burgeoning populations.

Social and Political Organization
In the central Andes, as in Middle America, a highly efficient system of agriculture permitted the growth of a large, dense population and the rise of complex political systems such as states and empires. Food surpluses released large numbers of people from agricultural labor, allowing them to work in government, the military, religious institutions, and art. With centralized state authorities to plan construction and direct masses of laborers, societies could undertake huge public projects, such as the construction of irrigation systems, roads, bridges, forts, and temples.
State societies such as the Moche, Huari, Tiwanaku, Chimú, and Inca had at least three social classes. These included a small group of ruling elite, larger numbers of administrative officials positioned throughout the state, and huge numbers of people who belonged to a commoner class. The Moche state, which flourished on the northern coast of Peru from about ad 100 to 800, was apparently structured as a three-tier hierarchy. At the top were a supreme ruler and an elite group of warrior priests who were believed to be invested with supernatural powers. Beneath them were social and occupational classes of state officials, healers, architects, engineers, and lesser religious officials. At the lowest level was the mass of the population, which produced the food, served in the army, and provided labor for the construction of public works. The population of the Moche state may have reached 650,000 people by ad 450.
The Inca Empire, with an estimated 6 million to 11 million people at its height, was by far the largest and most highly centralized civilization in South America before the arrival of Europeans. It was ruled by an emperor who inherited his office and was thought to be a direct descendant of the sun god. The empire was divided into four quarters, each led by one of the emperor’s relatives. Each quarter was subdivided into smaller provinces or districts ruled by a governor. Below the governors was a descending hierarchy of local officials in charge of 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 100, or 10 people. Officials used knotted strings called quipus (pronounced KEE-pooz) to keep accurate records on such matters as population, the number of men in the army, the quantities of corn or potatoes in the storehouse, and the size of herds of alpacas and llamas.
In the southern Andes, social and political systems were considerably less developed than in the central Andes. The large state centers were absent and the population was less dense. In the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest regions, small, isolated groups of Atacameños inhabited a narrow coastal strip and a few watered oases. South of them, Diaguita farmers and herders lived in autonomous towns. The mild valleys of central Chile were more favorable for farming and supported a large population of Araucanians. Rather than being concentrated in towns or cities, however, the population was spread out among small, autonomous hamlets.

Most Andean states expanded their political boundaries by conquering neighboring populations. Paintings on Moche pottery, for example, depict bloody battles between the state army and warriors from provincial valleys. Following the defeat of a group, Moche warriors removed their captives’ clothing and tied their hands behind their backs. Then the captives were marched across the desert to be presented to the warrior priest before being sacrificed and dismembered.
Because the Spanish conquerors actually engaged in battles with the Inca, and described their tactics in detail, much is known about Inca warfare and the nature of its army. Estimates of the army’s size range from 70,000 men, at the start of the empire around ad 1438, to some 250,000 men a few years later during the Inca conquest of northern Peru. The army was organized in squadrons of men who specialized in the use of different kinds of weapons, including slings, bows and arrows, dart throwers, clubs, and spears. On most occasions, Inca generals sent emissaries to the enemy prior to a battle in an attempt to achieve a bloodless conquest. If diplomacy failed, the first soldiers to engage the enemy were the squadrons of slingers, who attacked from long range. As the two armies got nearer to each other, the bowmen and dart throwers attacked. Finally, the squadrons specializing in the use of clubs and short spears engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting.

Settlement and Housing
Settlements of commoners in the Central and Southern Andes culture area consisted of densely packed, multiroomed dwellings. In the highlands, dwellings were made of stone with gabled (peaked) roofs to protect against rain. In contrast, dwellings on the rainless coast were simple wattle-and-daub structures, consisting of mud plastered over stick-and-mat frames, with flat roofs to protect against sun, wind, and blowing sand. In Andean states, there were at least three different sizes of settlements: a primary city, or capital; smaller cities that served as administrative centers; and smaller towns, villages, and hamlets where most of the people lived. Capital sites ranged in size from about 5 to 20 sq km (2 to 8 sq mi), and contained palaces surrounded by high-walled compounds, plazas where state ceremonies were held, and religious structures. Chan Chan, the capital city of the Chimú kingdom (12th to 15th century), had a population of at least 25,000 people.
With an estimated population of 100,000, the Inca capital city of Cuzco was the largest urban center of South America prior to European contact. The Incas built magnificent palaces, temples, and forts of stone blocks sculpted to fit together so precisely that no mortar was necessary. The religious focus of the city was the Cori Cancha (meaning “Golden Enclosure”) where life-sized golden llamas and maize plants were placed along with the idols of conquered populations. The Spaniards called this building the Temple of the Sun. Arranged around the main plaza of Cuzco were temples, public buildings, and the palace compounds of the emperor and the descendants of deceased emperors. The entire city was laid out in the shape of a giant puma whose head was formed by the hilltop site of Sacsahuaman, ancient South America’s greatest stone fortress.

Throughout most of the Central and Southern Andes culture area, llamas were used as the principal means of transport. They were able to carry loads of up to 32 kg (70 lb). Moche traders used caravans of these pack animals to carry goods along rock-lined roads. At regular intervals along the roads, small settlements served as stopping places.
The most remarkable Andean road system belonged to that of the Inca Empire. The Capac Ñan, or Royal Road, consisted of two principal routes, a coastal and a highland one, that ran the length of the empire. These routes were connected by a great number of secondary roads that ran between coast and highlands. Suspension bridges made of rope were used to cross the more dangerous Andean rivers, such as the Apurímac near Cuzco, and on adjacent canyon slopes the main route of travel often was nothing more than a narrow trail. As much as possible, however, the Inca built their highways across higher puna flatlands to permit efficient travel by state functionaries, the army, and the runners (called chasquis), who carried the quipu-string messages. The total length of the Inca highway system is estimated at more than 23,000 km (14,000 mi).

Clothing and Ornamentation
Throughout the coast and highlands, men wore breechcloths, wraparound kilts, and shirts, adding a shawl (or poncho) when temperatures were cooler. Women wore wraparound dresses and shawls that were secured on the chest with a large pin called a tupu. In the warmer coastal climate, clothing was generally was made of cotton; in the cooler highlands most garments were made of alpaca wool, although cotton and llama wool were also used. Elite people wore more elaborate clothing decorated with gold, silver, and semiprecious stones. The elite also wore jewelry known as earplugs. These consisted of decorated disks 7.5 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) in diameter, with an attached metal tube that was placed through a perforation in their earlobes. Ultimately, the weight of the plugs stretched the lobes so much that the Spaniards dubbed the higher-class Inca orejones, or “long ears.” In the service of such elite needs, miners of precious metals and stones were needed as well as fulltime artisans who were expert at smelting and working the metals to make the jewelry and other ornamentation.

Arts and Crafts
Among the earliest evidence of art in the Central and Southern Andes culture area are 13 decorated gourds from the ancient site of Huaca Prieta, on the northern coast of Peru. These gourds, which are dated to about 2000 bc, feature intricate geometric designs, including stylized human faces that were burned into their exterior surfaces, a technique called pyrography. Simple woven cotton textiles also were found at Huaca Prieta, one of which depicts a condor with a fish in its stomach.
Pottery making in the Central and Southern Andes culture area began around 1800 bc, and ceramic vessels quickly became one of the principal forms of Andean artistic expression. For example, the Chavín culture (about 900 bc to 200 bc) is well known for its 'stirrup spout' vessels. These vessels have a spherical base topped by an inverted U-shaped tube—similar to an upside-down stirrup from a saddle—to which a vertical spout is attached. The Moche continued the stirrup spout vessel tradition begun in Chavín times and also made a variety of other vessel forms. They painted or modeled pottery depicting almost every aspect of their culture, including their daily life, religious beliefs, and political system. These pots have provided scholars with important clues about Moche clothing, social statuses, ceremonies, and the roles of rulers and warriors in the formation and maintenance of the Moche state.
On the southern coast of Peru, the Nazca (200 bc to ad 600) were expert textile weavers, continuing a tradition of weaving that had begun with their predecessors, the Paracas, shortly after 1000 bc. Wool from llamas, alpacas, and possibly vicuñas, along with cotton, was employed in the production of tapestries, brocades, laces, embroidery, and braided work. The textiles were decorated with multicolored designs, sometimes showing as many as 190 different hues in a single fabric. Textiles were used for elaborate turbans, togas, and other articles of clothing and for wrapping of corpses in mummy bundles.
By the time the Inca state emerged in the mid-15th century, cloth had assumed a central role in Andean society and was among the most valued of all items. The state used textiles to clothe army soldiers in fine garments, to reward citizens for meritorious service, and as symbolic items in important rites and ceremonies. Inca women, and less commonly men, spun cotton and wool and wove textiles using the traditional Andean backstrap loom. Scholars have estimated that it could take a weaver as long as 500 hours to make a single poncho.
In pottery making, the Inca built on centuries-old Andean traditions, but they were also great innovators. Their best-known pottery form, the aryballoid jar, appears to have no precursors in pre-Inca Peru. An aryballoid jar has a wide, roughly spherical base with handles on each side, a long, narrow neck, and a flat, flaring rim. To carry the jars, ropes were placed through the handles and around a person’s head or body. In metallurgy, the Inca worked gold and silver, as well as alloys of copper-gold, copper-silver, copper-tin-bronze, and gold-silver-copper. Only the ruling elite, such as the Inca emperor and nobility, could use objects made from precious metals. Gold and silver objects, such as figurines of llamas, alpacas, and humans, were also used as offerings in the Inca ritual of child sacrifice.
See also Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture: Central Andean Area.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
The complex societies in the Central and Southern Andes culture area practiced temple-oriented religions that focused on a variety of gods, including those identified with the Sun, the Moon, and figures that combined—often in intimidating and monstrous fashion—features that were both human and animal. For example, the main religious figure of Chavín culture is shown with a human face and body, but has long, Medusa-like snake hair writhing out of the top of its head, and its fingers and toes have the talons of a predatory animal. Judging from the iconography on stone tablets, Chavín priests ingested the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus in the belief that it would make them turn temporarily into jaguars.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Inca religion was the sacrifice of children on high Andean peaks, a ritual called Capac Hucha or Capacocha (Quechua for “royal obligation”). Among other reasons, children were sacrificed to commemorate festivals, to promote the fertility of the empire’s cultivated lands, and to appease the gods. Because of the dry, cold conditions on the summits of peaks that rise above 5,200 m (17,000 ft), where the sacrifices took place, archaeologists have sometimes discovered the extremely well-preserved bodies of sacrificial victims.

Post-Contact History
Although the Inca army was the largest and best fighting force in all of South America—perhaps in all of the Americas—it was defeated by a few hundred Spanish soldiers led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. This was accomplished primarily through treachery. In 1532, at a peaceful meeting with the Inca, Pizarro and his soldiers seized the emperor Atahualpa and killed most of the other leaders of the empire. Pizarro held Atahualpa prisoner to force the payment of a vast ransom in gold and silver, then killed him in 1533 after amassing an incredible fortune. With the head of its totalitarian political and religious institutions suddenly gone, the empire was helpless before the newcomers. There was no clear rule concerning the emperor’s successor, and three years passed before the Incas could organize an effective opposition. By that time it was too late, and the entrenched Spaniards suppressed the revolt. A large part of the population withdrew to less accessible regions in the interior and founded a new Inca state that lasted another 40 years; but in 1572, it too was destroyed, and Inca power was at an end.
Despite the Spanish conquest—which introduced European culture, intermarriage, and diseases such as smallpox—the indigenous people of the highland areas of the central and southern Andes survived and flourished to modern times. Today, there are about the same number of indigenous people in this region as there were on the eve of the conquest in 1532. Indigenous people of the central and southern Andes primarily speak Quechua or Aymara, wear homespun and other traditional clothing, and practice small-scale farming and a pastoral way of life.

Amazon Basin


Land and Habitat
The Amazon Basin culture area is defined by the Amazon River Basin, which contains the world’s largest tropical rain forest. Covering an estimated 7 million sq km (2.7 million sq mi), this area accounts for slightly more than 40 percent of the South American continent’s landmass. With temperatures that rarely go below 27°C (80°F) and heavy rains throughout the year, the Amazon Basin is a hothouse of animal and plant species. For example, there are 3,000 fish species, more than 100 species of New World monkeys, and 5,000 species of trees. The Amazon River, measuring 6,400 km (4,000 mi) long, is the second longest river in the world, and together with its principal tributaries—the Xingú, Tapajós, Negro, Madeira, Napo, and Ucayali rivers—it accounts for one-fifth of all the fresh water that flows into the oceans.
Ninety-eight percent of the basin consists of land away from the rivers. Called the terra firme, this land has nutrient-poor soils because torrential rainfall leaches out the minerals. In contrast to the terra firme, the remaining 2 percent of the Amazon Basin’s landmass is exceptionally productive. Called the várzea, this land consists of the levee banks alongside the main channel of the Amazon River. Each year, during the period of maximum flood, the river deposits massive amounts of nutrient-rich silt that flows down out of the eroding Andes.

People and Languages
Among the better-known indigenous groups of the terra firme part of the basin are the Yanomami (comprising the Ynomamö, Yanomam, Ninam, and Sanema), Waiwai, Makiritare, Cubeo, of the northern basin; the Desana, Shuar (formerly Jívaro), Conibo, Shipibo, and Amahuaca, of the eastern basin; and the Machiguenga, Mundurucú, Kayapó, and Tupinambá, of the southern basin. At the time of Spanish and Portuguese contact in the 1540s, the best-known várzea groups were the Tapajós and the Omagua. Major language groups included Arawakan, Cariban, Panoan, and Tupian (which included the Tupí-Guaraní language family), but at least 100 separate, mutually unintelligible languages were spoken throughout the vast area of the Amazon Basin.

Early Peoples
The most important site of early human settlement in the Amazon Basin is Caverna da Pedra Pintada (Cave of the Painted Rock). It is located near the modern city of Santarém, Brazil, near the mouth of the Tapajós River. Evidence of human occupation here comes from cave-wall paintings and from objects found in the lowest levels of the cave, including stone tools, projectile points, red paint pigments, and fossilized animal bones and fruit seeds. These remains, dated to various times between 11,200 and 9,800 years ago, suggest that the cave inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who ate a rich and varied diet that included fruits, Brazil nuts, fish, tortoises, mussels, snakes, birds, and larger land mammals. Caverna da Pedra Pintada demonstrates that the earliest human migrants successfully adapted to the tropical forest environment.
Between 4,000 and 2,000 years ago, people living along the rivers of the Amazon Basin established ways of life similar to those of indigenous peoples in the Amazon today. As before, fishing and hunting were important for subsistence, but now the cultivation of root crops provided an important addition to the diet.

Diet and Subsistence
People adapted to the poor soils of the terra firme by practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. This farming method involves clearing a small section of the rain forest by cutting down trees and other vegetation, then burning them to release nutrients to the soil. Farming is then possible on the land for about three years, after which the land must be abandoned and a new area of forest cleared.
Of the many plants raised by indigenous Amazon groups, manioc (cassava) provided the most food. It contains a starch, tapioca, which was extracted from the roots of the plant and baked into cakes. Another important root crop was the sweet potato, which was boiled whole. Maize, beans, squash, peppers, peanuts, cotton, tobacco, arrowroot were also cultivated. In other spots, wild plants supplied important quantities of edible fruits and nuts, including palm fruits, cashews, and Brazil nuts.
In many areas, fish were plentiful and served as the main food; they were caught with nets, by poisoning the water in streams, or by shooting them with arrows. In other regions, peccaries, tapirs, monkeys, armadillos, caimans, manatees, turtles, and deer were numerous enough to become important parts of the diet. Birds and other animals were hunted with spears, bows and arrows, and blowguns. Darts used with blowguns were tipped with poison made from certain vines; the best known of these poisons was curare.

Social and Political Organization
Because food productivity was relatively limited on terre firme soils, most cultures of the Amazon Basin were village-level societies. In contrast to the large chiefdoms and states of the Andes, these societies consisted of isolated, politically autonomous settlements ranging in size from 100 to 500 people. All people were born with the same social status, but they could achieve higher status depending on their individual talents. The usual leader of a village society was a headman, whose charisma and prowess in societal activities made him “first among equals.” Headmen were often also shamans (religious leaders and healers) who performed various rites. In the Amazon várzea, greater agricultural productivity along the riverbanks supported the development of two large chiefdom societies, the Tapajós and the Omagua. Each of these societies included dozens of settlements, populations of many thousands of people, and powerful chiefs.

Warfare and raiding were common among indigenous groups in the Amazon Basin, although the nature of warfare varied widely. For example, the Mundurucú of the southern Amazon Basin carried out long-distance warfare. Every year large groups of men traveled more than 1,000 km (600 mi) from their territory in the headwaters of the Xingú River, to raid villages near its confluence with the Amazon River. The Mundurucú killed large numbers of people and cut off their victims’ heads. They brought the heads home as trophies used to magically enhance hunting success. Warfare among the Ynomamö of the northern Amazon Basin, on the other hand, involved small numbers of deaths and long-running feuds between villages. These feuds meant that villages had to continually establish political alliances, however shaky, with other villages. Conflict among the Ynomamö ran along a scale of violence. In its most benign form, conflict consisted of chest and kidney pounding between pairs of men. At the other end of the spectrum, on occasion the Ynomamö practiced a treacherous trick called nohomori, in which they invited their neighbors over for a feast but killed as many of them as possible shortly after their arrival.
The Shuar of the western Amazon Basin were known as fierce warriors and became famous for their practice of preserving and shrinking their victims’ heads. Upon attacking a local household and killing one or more of its occupants, the Shuar immediately cut off their victims’ heads. The face and hair were peeled from the skull, then boiled, dried, and heated until the head had shrunken down to the size of a human fist. These heads, called tsantsas, were kept as trophies that were believed to have magical powers and bring good fortune. In the late 19th century, demand by European tourists and curio collectors created a brisk trade in shrunken heads, which for a time actually encouraged the Shuar to kill their enemies. In the early 20th century, to curb the problem, the governments of Ecuador and Peru outlawed trading in human heads.

Settlement and Housing
The houses of the Amazon Basin were usually made of a framework of poles or logs covered with palm thatch. They ranged in size from small lean-tos used for a single family to huge, vaultlike structures up to 60 m (200 ft) long that sheltered large groups of people. In the hotter areas the houses had no walls. Villagers often slept in hammocks suspended in the air, in part to avoid poisonous insects and snakes on the ground beneath. Many indigenous people in the Amazon Basin still live much in this manner today.
The layout of villages varied widely throughout the Amazon Basin. Mundurucú villages consisted of a circular distribution of houses around a clearing. All of the men lived in a large, open-sided structure on the western edge of the circle, while the women, girls, and young boys lived in smaller enclosed dwellings around the rest of the clearing. The open sides of the men’s house reflected the Mundurucú belief that men should be dominant and in control of everyone else in the village. Ynomamö villages, in contrast, consisted of a single circular structure called a shabono that contained about 125 people and surrounded a large plaza. Because of the constant threat of surprise attacks by nearby villages, the outer walls were constructed of closely spaced poles to provide protection against arrows. Shuar settlements were single household dwellings containing one man, his several wives, and their children. Like the Ynomamö structures, the walls were built with closely spaced poles for protection against attack. Further security was provided by dry ditches around the settlement, which were filled with sharpened sticks designed to wound or kill unwary attackers.

The dugout canoe was the principal means of transportation for people living along or near rivers and streams. Canoes varied in size and quality. The várzea chiefdoms—the Tapajós and the Omagua—built large, sturdy canoes for long-distance war expeditions up and down the Amazon River. On one occasion, the Spaniards counted as many as 8,000 warriors in 130 canoes (equal to about 60 men per canoe), which were paddled out to attack the intruding Europeans. On the other hand, the Ynomamö built far less reliable canoes, reflecting the fact that they lived far from rivers and, like other terre firme groups, traveled mostly on foot.

Clothing and Ornamentation
In the warm, humid climate of the Amazon Basin, most indigenous groups wore little or no clothing. Among groups that wore clothing, garments were made of cotton or plant fibers and usually consisted of a small breechcloth for men and a short wraparound skirt for women. Amazonian people often painted or tattooed parts of their body, including their arms, legs, torso, and face. Ynomamö women placed sticks in their perforated ear lobes, and Kayapó men wore large wooden plugs in their lower lip. The Kayapó and other groups of the southern Amazon made large headdresses of brilliantly colored feathers from tropical birds to wear during ceremonial activities.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
Religion for Amazonian peoples centered around multiple spirits, many of which were believed to have great influence on people. Those of the rivers and bush were considered evil and were feared and shunned. Some of the spirits were celestial beings, identified with the Sun, Moon, stars, sky, and clouds, but they were mythical in nature and were generally considered to have little connection with everyday life. Many Amazonian peoples believed in a multilayered cosmos. For example, according to Ynomamö belief, the cosmos has four levels. The topmost layer is duku kä misi, the “tender layer,” where all things on Earth were created, and which now lies empty. Below this is hedu kä misi, the “sky layer,” a place similar to Earth where Ynomamö souls go after death. The Earth layer, hei kä misi (“this layer”), is where the Ynomamö and all other humans live. The lowest layer is called hei tä bebi, the “bottom layer.” Nothing is found here except one village structure, or shabono, which came crashing down long ago when a piece of the sky layer broke off and fell through the Earth layer. Some Ynomamö came down with it, but since only their shabano and garden fell with them, and not the forest in which they hunt, they are thought to have turned into cannibalistic monsters.
Shamans, who were believed to have close contact with the supernatural world, conducted the ceremonies, rituals, and healing in most Amazon Basin societies. Shamans often ingested hallucinogenic substances to aid them in their activities. One role of the shaman was the acquisition of magical darts to use against enemies or other undesirables. The shaman hurled these invisible darts—called caui, hekura, and tsentsak, respectively, by the Mundurucú, Ynomamö, and Shuar—out away from their settlements to catch stray enemies by surprise and cause them illness and death. In their healing activities, shamans were responsible for sucking these darts out from the skin of people in their own group.

Post-Contact History
Although Europeans may have sighted the Amazon delta region in 1500, exploration of the river did not begin until decades later. In 1541 and 1542 Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana and a crew of some 50 men navigated the entire length of the river over a period of eight months, encountering the Omagua and other peoples. Lured by rumors of cinnamon and gold, the Spaniards moved eastward from the Andes and founded small forest settlements. Meanwhile, the Portuguese, beginning in the early 17th century, slowly settled the Amazon Basin moving westward from the eastern coast of Brazil. Both the Spanish and Portuguese enslaved or coerced indigenous groups to search for gold or perform other labor. However, the Europeans found the Amazon peoples harder to subdue than Andean highland groups. In contrast to the top-heavy state apparatus of the Inca Empire, the Amazon Basin was divided into hundreds of small societies, which could not be collectively conquered in a single stroke. In addition, the Europeans also usually met with fierce resistance; the Shuar, for example, destroyed a number of European settlements in eastern Ecuador in 1599. Many Amazon Basin peoples were protected by nearly impenetrable jungle and if attacked, could move their villages further into the jungle.
As the European presence increased, however, serious epidemics of disease wiped out large numbers of indigenous peoples. The Omagua and Tapajós, who lived along the main channel of the Amazon River, nearly became extinct. By the 20th century the indigenous population of the Amazon Basin had been reduced to a mere 10 to 15 percent of its size prior to European contact. In the past century, as urban Latin American countries have experienced massive population growth, more and more nonindigenous people have moved into the Amazon Basin in search of better places to live. Corporations and individuals have also sought to exploit the precious resources of the rain forest, including gold, oil, and iron. These encroachments continue to imperil Amazonian peoples by reducing forest habitat and spreading disease.

Brazilian Highlands


Land and Habitat
Covering most of southern and southeastern Brazil, the Brazilian Highlands are the eroded remnants of mountains that existed millions of years ago. The climate is subtropical, meaning there is less rainfall here and temperatures, while still warm year-round, are generally not as hot as in the tropical lowlands of the Amazon Basin. The northern inland part of the highlands is called the caatinga (a Tupí word meaning “white forest”) because of the grayish-white color the forests take on during the dry season. The caatinga is the driest area in Brazil, receiving light to moderate rainfall. Most indigenous people in the Brazilian Highlands lived in the southern inland part of the highlands, a vast sandstone plateau called the mato grosso. Although rainfall is moderate to heavy here, the soil consists of heavily eroded, nutrient-poor clays that mainly support grassy savannas. Thicker vegetation grows here as well, but it is confined to narrow forests that grow along the banks of rivers that crisscross the area. In eastern Brazil, the narrow coastal plain receives moderate rainfall throughout the year, and is more suitable for intensive agriculture than either of the inland areas.

People and Languages
At the time of European contact major indigenous groups of the Brazilian Highlands culture area included the Krahó, Apinayé, Shavante, Akwé-Shavante, Sherente, Bororo, southern Kayapó, Guayakí (Aché), Kaingang, Guaraní, and Tupinambá. Major language groups included Ge and Tupian; the most widespread of the Tupian language families was Tupí-Guaraní. When Europeans arrived in Brazil in 1500, the Tupinambá occupied nearly the entire Atlantic coast of Brazil, as well as some inland areas. Ge-speaking groups lived in the interior, south of the jungles of the Amazon Basin.

Early Peoples
Of the small number of early human settlements found to date in the Brazilian Highlands, the most interesting is Pedra Furada rock shelter, located near the São Francisco River in the heart of the northern caatinga. Discovered in the early 1970s and noted for its beautiful multicolored pictographs, which are clearly prehistoric in date, this site is nevertheless controversial because of claims made by its principal excavator that stone tools dating from 14,300 to more than 48,000 years ago were found in its lowest levels. During a visit to the site in the late 1990s, a group of archaeologists examined these “tools” and concluded they were more likely to be naturally formed rocks that had been washed by rainfall off the top of a cliff above the site. However, other materials recovered from Pedra Furada—hearths that contain charcoal, animal bones, wood, and plant remains—provide good evidence of human occupation of the site between 10,400 and 6,150 years ago.

Diet and Subsistence
The arid, relatively unproductive soils of the Brazilian Highlands supported limited slash-and-burn agriculture based on manioc, sweet potatoes, and maize (see corn). The major portion of the diet was provided by hunting and gathering. Among the animals hunted were birds, rabbits, armadillos, peccaries, deer, and tapirs. Wild plant foods included palm fruits, pine nuts, and seeds from various plants. Insect larvae and wild honey were both considered delicacies.

Social and Political Organization
Most cultures of the Brazilian Highlands were egalitarian, village-level societies similar to those of the Amazon Basin, usually consisting of hundreds of people. Yet many villages had complex social systems. For example, the Ge-speaking peoples (Kayapó, Sherente, and Bororo) of the southern highlands divided their villages in two halves, called moieties, which were further divided into a complex system of clans, age grades, and gender groups. The moieties were often structured so that a person could only marry someone of the opposite moiety. Kayapó men and women were divided into a series of seven age grades, or categories, that reflected the differing responsibilities and statuses of people throughout their lives. The youngest age grade included small children and the oldest included people who were more than 45 years of age and had grandchildren.

Warfare was common among most indigenous groups of the Brazilian Highlands. The Tupinambá were among the fiercest warriors and engaged in cannibalism as a form of revenge against their enemies. Before an attack, villagers checked the necessary omens, prepared themselves with magical rites, then fell on their enemies with flaming arrows and clubs. Captured warriors were brought back to the village, where they were mocked and jeered. They made no attempt to escape because the rules of war dictated that they would be killed by the people of their home village if they attempted to return there. The ultimate fate of captives was always the same. Sooner or later the captors prepared an elaborate feast, the captive was decorated and led out to join in the singing and dancing, an executioner killed him with a special club, and he was eaten in a cannibalistic banquet.
Ge-speaking peoples also undertook wars for vengeance or the continuation of traditional feuds, but they did not take prisoners or eat their enemies. Instead, a man who had killed an enemy was required to go into seclusion and observe ritual food restrictions for 10 to 30 days. At the end of this period, the man took a ceremonial bath and his heroic exploit was announced to the village from a central plaza.

Settlement and Housing
Many villages in the western Brazilian Highlands had separate housing for women and men. Women and children lived in thatched houses around a central plaza, while the men lived in a separate structure in the middle of the plaza. The houses around the circle were further grouped according to moiety and clan affiliation. As recently as the late 19th century, many Brazilian Highlands peoples lived in villages only during the times of the year when food was plentiful. During the dry season, they would break up into smaller bands that trekked in search of game far from the village.

In contrast to the extensive waterways of the Amazon Basin, the Brazilian Highlands have fewer major rivers. Thus, highland peoples did not use canoes much, although both men and women were excellent swimmers and easily crossed most rivers. Most people lived on the savannas away from the rivers and transported loads by foot on roads and trails. The Ge-speaking peoples of the southern highlands constructed roadways that extended out in straight lines up to 16 km (10 mi) from their villages. Smaller roads were used to travel to nearby farming plots and hunting grounds. The larger roads were used for a favorite game of Ge peoples—relay racing with heavy logs, in which the two moieties competed against each other. Each contestant sprinted with a heavy log on his shoulder until he was worn out, then passed it on to a teammate.

Clothing and Ornamentation
In the warm climate of the Brazilian Highlands, most people wore minimal clothing. Both men and women decorated themselves on the arms, legs, and chest with dyes from native plants called genipa and urucú. Many individuals wore earplugs, as well as labrets, or ornaments worn through a pierced lower lip. The Bororo attached bird feathers to their arms with a sticky resin, although this was done not as a decoration but to cure sores. Like the people of the Amazon Basin, men commonly wore fancy feather headdresses.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
Religious systems throughout the Brazilian Highlands were oriented especially toward prayers or supplications to the gods, such as the Sun and the Moon. Villagers prayed for rain, for plentiful harvests, and for success in hunting. For example, the Kaingang believed in a “Master of the Animals” spirit who controlled the number of game animals and could take offense if the men overhunted these animals. The Kaingang also had a ceremony of the dead that took place when the maize crop had ripened. Among other purposes, the ceremony served to sever connections between the dead and the living so the spirits of the dead could not harm people. Shamans were less common among most of the highland groups, in contrast to many Amazonian groups.

Post-Contact History
The Portuguese, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, arrived on the eastern coast of Brazil in 1500. At first the Portuguese made only a half-hearted attempt at colonization, using Brazil principally as a source of brazilwood, which supplied a red dye, and as a way station for trade. But in the mid-1500s colonization increased, the Tupinambá villages were captured one by one, and the native inhabitants were enslaved and put to work on coastal sugar plantations. In a few decades, Native Americans who did not die of European diseases and forced labor fled to the interior and largely disappeared from the coastal areas occupied by the Portuguese. Slave raids on indigenous groups encouraged them to flee all the faster, and soon African slaves imported by the Portuguese outnumbered the Native Americans on the plantations.
Many indigenous peoples have nearly disappeared from the Brazilian Highlands since the beginning of the 20th century. For example, the Apinayé, Sherente and Shavante were estimated to number 12,000 people in the early 19th century, but European diseases and contact had reduced their numbers to a few hundred by the mid-20th century. Because the poor land in the interior is generally unattractive to the nonindigenous population, scattered indigenous groups still live along the western edges of the Brazilian Highlands.

Gran Chaco


Land and Habitat
The Gran Chaco culture area corresponds with the Gran Chaco (or simply Chaco) region in south central South America, which encompasses part of Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. It is one of the most challenging environments for human occupation in South America. Summer temperatures are hotter here than anywhere else on the continent. Although rainfall is low, it occurs in such copious amounts during the summer that the three main rivers of the area—the Pilcomayo, Bermejo, and Salado—flood their banks and create large swampy areas. During the dry winter season, temperatures drop so low that tropical vegetation does not thrive. Such seasonal extremes of rainfall and temperature favor mostly cacti and deep-rooted scrub vegetation, which grow in scattered thickets across the grassy savannas.

People and Languages
A number of indigenous groups occupied the Gran Chaco at the time of European contact, including the Chiriguano, Zamuco, Chamacoco, Tapieté, Guana, Mbayá, Chané, Angaité, and Lengua, in the north; and the Lule, Vilela, Macá, Pilagá, Mataco, Mocoví, and Abipón, in the south. The main language groups from north to south included Zamucoan, Matacoan, Lule-Vilelan, Mascoian, and Guaicuruan.

Early Peoples
Almost no archaeological research has been done in the Gran Chaco. It is possible, however, that human occupation here began around 11,000 years ago, which is the date of the earliest human settlement found on the pampas (grassy plains) of northern Argentina, just to the south of the Gran Chaco.

Diet and Subsistence
People throughout most of the Gran Chaco relied on wild plant foods as their main food source, although they supplemented their diet with very limited farming. Plant foods included beans from the pods of the algarroba, or honey mesquite tree, as well as cactus fruits, wild rice, and tubers. As in the Brazilian Highlands, honey and insect larvae were also part of the diet. In the grasslands of the eastern and southern parts of the Chaco, people hunted peccaries, deer, guanacos, rheas (South American ostriches), and numerous smaller animals. Fishing supplemented the diet of people throughout the Chaco, and was especially important for those who lived near the Pilcomayo, Bermejo, and Salado rivers. After the flooding rivers receded at the start of the dry season, it was relatively easy for people to catch the fish stranded in the remaining swamps and lagoons, using baskets, harpoons, bows and arrows, and other techniques.
Women and men usually had different responsibilities for obtaining food. Women primarily gathered fruits, roots, seeds, and algarroba beans, while men collected palm fruits, nuts, and honey. Men had responsibility for hunting. In addition to using spears and bows and arrows to hunt game, men used a weapon called a bola, which consisted of two or three grooved stones tied to a strong rawhide cord. When the bola was thrown at the legs of a running animal, it wound around them and tripped the animal, making it an easy victim for the arrows and clubs of the hunters.

Social and Political Organization
Most indigenous groups in the Gran Chaco were band societies that moved frequently to search for food. The leader of each band was a headman, who rose to this position by virtue of his age, wisdom, and survival skills. Ranging up to 200 people in size, many bands were large enough to permit marriage between the members of the same band. Smaller bands required individuals to marry outside of the band. Both boys and girls underwent puberty rites to mark their passage into adulthood. To gain full status as hunters and warriors, boys were required to go through painful rites that involved the extraction of blood from their genitals. Girls’ puberty rites were accompanied by dancing and singing and could last as long as a month. During this initiation, the girls had to live in isolation from the rest of the group and observe dietary restrictions.

Chacoan groups fought frequently. The main causes of conflict were trespassing onto another group’s territory to obtain food, revenge for killings and witchcraft, and the desire to capture women and children for one’s own band. In ritual dances prior to a raid, warriors worked themselves into a frenzy to aid in the success of the raid. Warriors usually took the heads or scalps of killed enemies to bring back to camp as war trophies.

Settlement and Housing
Since most Chacoan groups moved frequently in search of limited and scattered food supplies, they relied on simple houses such as pole-and-thatch windbreaks or lean-tos. Although scarcer materials like poles might be carried from camp to camp, it was usually an easy matter to quickly construct a temporary dwelling from materials available near the campsite. Larger groups often constructed long communal huts on opposite sides of a wide walkway or plaza. The decision about where to construct a camp involved how well it could be defended from enemies as well as the proximity of water and food supplies.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the people of the Gran Chaco relied almost entirely on foot travel, transporting material possessions on their backs. In spite of the importance of fishing, most groups lacked any form of water transport other than the simplest rafts or skin tubs used as ferries. Groups in the central Chaco, between the Pilcomayo and Bermejo rivers, acquired horses soon after the arrival the Spanish in the 16th century. Like the Indians of the North American plains and those of the Argentine pampas, the Chacoan horse people quickly expanded the areas in which they sought out food, and began moving south and west of the Pilcomayo-Bermejo area to raid Spanish settlements located on the edge of their territory. Although they had earlier relied on hunting and limited agriculture for food, these newly mounted groups eventually focused almost entirely on hunting. Guanacos, deer, peccaries, and rheas could be surrounded by horsemen much more easily than in the days before the horse, when hunters had to approach animals stealthily on foot. With horses to carry large loads from one camp to another, people could also own and carry more material possessions than before. Settlements continued to be temporary, however, because grazing horses tended to use up pastures quickly, requiring groups to travel greater distances than in pre-horse days to find new sources of grass.

Clothing and Ornamentation
During the periods of colder weather, Chacoan people wore cloaks made of otter, deer, or fox skins, with the fur side worn against the body for greater warmth. Cloaks were decorated on the outside with painted black-and-red designs. People who lived in the foothills of the Andes, along the northwestern edge of the Chaco, wore clothing made from llama and alpaca wool. Women in the central Chaco wore simple knee-length skirts made of animal skins with the fur scraped off. To protect the feet during the hot summertime or when crossing a patch of thorns, various groups wore wooden sandals or animal-hide moccasins. Where the cactus and thorn thickets were worst, people used deer-hide leggings to protect their legs.
Many of the Chacoan people wore some sort of headgear. This usually consisted of a single feather from a rhea or egret, but for special occasions could involve much fancier arrangements of feathers, toucan beaks, and snail shells placed in woven caps. Both men and women wore large earplugs that were placed in their pierced ear lobes. Shamans of the Lengua people attached mirrors to these earplugs in an effort to see the reflections of spirits. Lengua people also inserted a semicircular piece of wood in a hole in their lower lip, which made it look as if they had a second tongue (this custom led the Spanish to call them Lengua, a Spanish word meaning “tongue”). Chacoan people variously wore necklaces, pendants, armlets, bracelets, as well as ornaments around their waists and legs. Women throughout the Gran Chaco decorated their faces, breasts, and arms with tattooed designs.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
Chacoan peoples did not believe in a supreme being. Many, however, felt that celestial bodies such as the Sun and the Moon could affect individual humans. The most widespread belief was that settlements were surrounded by evil spirits. These spirits could bring about great harm unless they were effectively controlled not only by adult members of the group, but also by shamans. To protect themselves against these spirits, people would chant, shake gourd rattles, whip bullroarers (a kind of noisemaker) around in the air, blow on whistles, and perform ritual dances. They also wore amulets and scarred the body with special designs as forms of protection. In spite of these measures, people believed that shamans from hostile enemies were capable of causing illness or other bodily harm by sending the spirits into their bodies. The only way people could be cured, according to traditional belief, was by having their own shaman suck the evil spirits out of the body.

Post-Contact History
The Gran Chaco has long been a route of travel between the Bolivian Andes and the coastal regions of Uruguay and southern Brazil. The first known European to enter the area was a shipwrecked Portuguese sailor named Alejo García, who crossed the northern Chaco with a group of Guaraní people sometime between 1521 and 1526. He made it as far as the high Andes of southern Bolivia, near modern Sucre, but was killed by native inhabitants upon returning to the Atlantic Coast.
Except in the far northwest, very few indigenous people of the Gran Chaco retain any semblance of their traditional culture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries white populations gradually pushed into the peripheries of the Chaco, resulting either in the assimilation of native populations or in their outright disappearance.

Southern South America


Land and Habitat
The Southern South America culture area is characterized by great extremes of environment and climate. It extends from a point just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23° south latitude, to the tip of South America some 3,500 km (2,200 mi) to the south. The cold, rain-drenched Tierra del Fuego archipelago (chain of islands) lies at the southern extreme of the continent. It consists of a large main island, sometimes called Tierra del Fuego Island, and many smaller islands. Glaciers in this area reach down to sea level, and the channels of the archipelago are dotted with icebergs. On the southwestern side of the continent, the islands of the rainy Chilean archipelago contain dense stands of beech and coniferous trees, which kept the indigenous inhabitants of the area mostly confined to the narrow beaches for their settlements and to the channels for shellfish gathering. To the north of Tierra del Fuego and to the east of the Andes lies Patagonia, a cold, dry, and windswept region of treeless plains and thin vegetation. North of Patagonia lies the vast pampas, or grassy plains, of northern Argentina and Uruguay.

People and Languages
The aboriginal cultures of the Southern South America culture area at the time of European contact included the Charrúa and Guaraní of the Uruguayan pampas, the Puelche of the Argentinean pampas, the Tehuelche of Patagonia, the Ona and Aush of Tierra del Fuego Island, the Yahgan of the islands south of Tierra del Fuego Island, the Alacaluf of the southern part of the Chilean archipelago, and the Chono of the northern Chilean archipelago. The Yahgan, who lived at roughly 56° south latitude, were the southernmost inhabitants of the world prior to the occupation of Antarctica in modern times. The Charrúa and the Puelche belonged to the Puelche language group, while the other six groups belonged to the Tehuelche language group.

Early Peoples
Archaeologists have discovered dozens of sites of ancient human settlement in the Southern South America culture area. Although evidence indicates that Paleo-Indians (the earliest inhabitants of the Americas) were in the northern pampas by about 10,600 years ago, even earlier dates are associated with sites in the extreme south. For example, at Los Toldos Cave in southern Patagonia, stone tools associated with animal bones have been dated to 12,600 years ago (although this date is controversial), making this site roughly contemporaneous with the Monte Verde site 800 km (500 mi) to the northwest in Chile. And at Fell’s Cave, located just to the north of the Strait of Magellan, the earliest human occupation has been securely dated to between 11,000 and 10,800 years ago. Excavated by American archaeologists Junius and Peggy Bird in the 1930s, Fell’s Cave was one of the first Paleo-Indian sites found in South America, and the first to demonstrate that humans hunted now-extinct animals such as the giant ground sloth and the prehistoric horse. Moreover, the presence of rounded, grooved stones at both Monte Verde and Fell’s Cave strongly suggests that the earliest indigenous peoples of southern South America used the bola.

Diet and Subsistence
Agriculture was mostly unknown in the Southern South America culture area because weather conditions were too cold or too wet, or else the soil conditions were unsuitable for farming. Indigenous peoples of the pampas and Patagonia survived primarily by hunting land animals and gathering wild plants. The Charrúa relied primarily on guanaco, rhea, and other smaller animals of the pampas for their subsistence, although they supplemented their diet with fish, tubers, seeds, and berries. The Puelche had a similar diet, with the exception of fish. The Tehuelche of Patagonia relied on guanaco and rhea, as well as tuco-tuco (a large rodent), skunks, and a large variety of wild plants including tubers. After the introduction of the horse in the 16th century, the Tehuelche pursued guanacos from horseback.
In the harsher, more limited conditions of Tierra del Fuego Island, the northern and southern Ona (called Pámica and Hamka, respectively) were limited primarily to the tuco-tuco, in the north, and the guanaco, in the south. Coastal Ona here also relied on a variety of marine mammals such as seals and otters, in addition to scavenging beached whales whose (sometimes rotting) flesh was considered a great delicacy. The Alacaluf, Chono, and Yahgan of the Chilean and Tierra del Fuego archipelagos gathered shellfish, especially mussels, as their primary source of food. Women were the principal gatherers. They picked up the shellfish along the beaches or went out in canoes with shellfish spears. Where shellfish beds lay in deeper water, women dived to the bottom and brought up the shellfish in baskets. All this took place in extremely cold water ranging from 4° to 10°C (40° to 50°F). Shellfish gatherers supplemented their diet with sea lions, sea birds (cormorants, ducks, and penguins), fish, sea otters, porpoises, and a few land animals. They also gathered very limited amounts of plant foods.

Social and Political Organization
Because its land was unsuitable for agriculture and food was scarce, the Southern South America culture area could not support large populations. Thus, all of the indigenous people here were organized as nomadic bands. In the north, band sizes ranged from 100 to 120 individuals for the Puelche to as many as 500 people for the Tehuelche. In contrast, band sizes farther to the south and along the east side of the continent were much smaller. The typical band consisted of a nuclear or extended family with no more than 10 to 15 people.

Nearly all of the indigenous groups of Southern South America engaged in raiding or warfare, usually over territory and access to hunting grounds. The Charrúa, for example, conducted surprise raids against their enemies, and would hide their women and children in a nearby forested area before launching the attack. Women and children in the enemy band were spared and sometimes incorporated into their band, but men were killed, their heads skinned, and the skulls kept as trophies to be used as ceremonial drinking cups. Both the Puelche and the Tehuelche continually fought with neighboring bands and, later, with newly arrived European settlers. Although these two peoples used bows and arrows as well as spear throwers and slings, their most deadly weapon was the bola, which could be used either to kill the enemy or to quickly bring down a horse and its European rider.
The Ona were famous for their warfare. Numbering some 4,000 people throughout Tierra del Fuego Island, they divided into 38 territorial units, each with its own name, whose boundaries were defended against any incursions by neighboring groups. Shamans, called xon, were believed to have the magical power to change themselves into guanacos, allowing them to gather intelligence on the enemy covertly. The shamans would advise local men where the enemy was, what its numbers were, and whether a raid was likely to be successful.

Settlement and Housing
Because people lived in temporary settlements, dwellings in this culture area were simple pole-frame structures that could be easily erected and disassembled. The Charrúa constructed square huts consisting of a wooden pole set in each corner and covered with straw matting. All of the other groups placed sewn hides on a framework of wooden poles. The Tehuelche further weatherproofed their dwellings by smearing a mixture of red paint and grease over the exterior of the guanaco hides that formed the walls and roof. In the far south, where temperatures were cold all year, people usually kept a hearth fire going continuously in the center of the hut. Fur hides were placed around the hearth, and the entire family slept in a circle around it at night to keep warm.

Although the Charrúa frequently used canoes for fishing, the Puelche, Tehuelche, and Ona did not use canoes at all, and the material items necessary for daily life were carried on their backs. Once the horse was introduced to the pampas in the 16th century by European settlers, both the Puelche and Tehuelche adopted a way of life centered around the horse. As with peoples of the Great Plains in North America, the horse aided them in hunting, extending their territories, and in carrying out attacks against both other indigenous groups and European settlers.
Living along damp, rugged coasts and offshore islands, the Chono, Alacaluf, and Yahgan were all primarily canoe people. Although Yahgan men were in charge of building beech bark canoes, the women owned them. During the hunt for sea mammals, a woman would guide the canoe while a man stood in the prow with his weapons to kill whatever prey they found. On colder days, the boaters kept warm by starting a fire in the bottom of the canoe on a bed of sand and rocks. Although these canoes looked very fragile to European observers, the Yahgan were such expert seafarers that they were able to travel 50 km (30 mi) across the open ocean to the Ildefonso Islands, which lie to the south of Tierra del Fuego.

Clothing and Ornamentation
The primary item of clothing among the people of Southern South America consisted of cloaks or robes made of animal hides—the Charrúa using deerskins, the Tehuelche and southern Ona using guanaco skins, the northern Ona using tuco-tuco skins, and the Yahgan using seal, sea otter, and fox skins. Some groups wore fur hats and boots. However, in the southern archipelago, where wintry conditions include snow and fierce winds, the Yahgan often went about with little or no clothing at all.

Religious Beliefs and Practices
The Ona and Yahgan oriented their religion principally around shamans who played roles both as bewitchers of enemy individuals and curers of their own people. To weaken their enemies, the shamans hurled invisible magic darts (called kwáke by the Ona and yéku by the Yahgan) intended to cause illness and death. Because enemy shamans engaged in the same hostile behavior, local shamans sought to cure ill members of their band by magically sucking the invisible darts out of their bodies and hurling them into the air away from camp. The Puelche of the pampas believed in two spiritual beings, one of whom caused illness, death, and storms, and the other of whom was benign. Little is known about the religion of other peoples in the culture area.

Post-Contact History
The first European explorer to arrive in Southern South America was the Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís. In 1516 he sailed into the Río de la Plata, a large estuary between present-day Uruguay and Argentina. Solis claimed the region for Spain, but he and his landing party were killed by the Charrúa. In 1520 Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, navigating through what is now the Strait of Magellan, encountered the Tehuelche of Patagonia. In 1526 Italian navigator Sebastian Cabot visited the Río de la Plata, traveling up the Paraná River as far as the area of modern Asunción in Paraguay. But conquest and colonization of the region did not begin until 1536, when a large expedition led by Spanish soldier Pedro de Mendoza founded Buenos Aires.
The native peoples of Southern South America suffered greatly from diseases brought by the Europeans. Indigenous groups in the central and northern parts of the region, who lived closest to European colonies in Uruguay and Argentina, quickly died out or were assimilated into European society. In contrast, the Chono, Alacaluf, Ona, Aush, and Yahgan survived in significant numbers until the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless, in the face of the European expansion into the Chilean archipelago and Tierra del Fuego in the early 20th century, all of these groups were extinct by the 1950s.
The introduction and the Culture Areas section of this article were contributed by David J. Wilson.



The Historical Record
Determining the history of human settlement and cultural development in the central and southern portion of the Western Hemisphere (or Middle and South America) is an exercise in reconstructing the past. Scholars use many types of evidence and methods to reconstruct the histories of the cultures that existed in the Americas before the late 15th century, when Europeans began their conquest of what they called the New World. Well before then, indigenous peoples had developed advanced civilizations. These civilizations were centered in the most densely settled areas of Middle America (Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies) and the Andean region of western South America. When Europeans arrived, the Aztec Empire ruled over central Mexico and the Inca Empire dominated the Andean region. Most historical research has focused on these areas.
Archaeology, the examination of surviving physical remains, has been conducted throughout the Americas. This method uncovers information that can help to reconstruct the broad structures and textures of cultures. The layout of communities and architecture of buildings provide a fundamental understanding of the people who created and lived in these places. The designs and patterns found on textiles and pottery also provide important clues to their ways of life. However, archaeology rarely illuminates the dynamics behind changes through time. Also, the quality and quantity of existing physical remains differs considerably from one area to another. The archaeological record remains incomplete for the early indigenous cultures of the Americas. Most evidence is from the larger civilizations, which constructed stone edifices. These ruins provide a more durable record than the dwellings made of wood or other perishable materials that were built by many smaller societies. In addition, the physical record has been altered by the impact of human-induced destruction and variations in climate. Technological advances in radiocarbon dating methods and DNA studies, both of which are used in the scientific evaluation of archaeological evidence, can help scholars formulate more accurate conclusions from surviving remains.
Other types of evidence are based on human memory and record keeping. Native American testimonies survive from many early encounters with Europeans. Although these records are invaluable, they are often shaped by the European recorders’ understanding of Native American languages and by their subjective interpretations. In Middle America and the Andean region, where the most advanced indigenous civilizations thrived, native scholars and officials wrote histories of their cultures and communities in the decades following European conquest. This substantial body of writings is highly informative and quite reliable, especially when the individual works are evaluated against each other and against other sources. In Middle America many native peoples became literate in their own languages using the Roman alphabet and recorded land-ownership transactions, minutes from meetings, and other important events. The enormous volume of such documents affords a detailed and intimate view of native life and culture after European contact, and sometimes even before the first encounters. Present-day native rituals, dances, and oral histories also provide important information through the retelling and reenactment of legends and myths. However, these forms often relate an idealized and selective reconstruction of events, rather than an exact account of what may have actually happened.
The Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemala and the various native peoples of central Mexico had developed writing, as well as highly accurate mathematical systems and calendars, hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. Writing was a skill restricted to official scribes, who enjoyed high status. They created thousands of codices, which were folding books made from tree bark and animal skins. The codices recorded religious systems, political dynasties, military victories, and other matters of high importance. However, the Spanish destroyed almost all of the codices, in the belief they were a hindrance to the smooth conversion of Native Americans to Christianity. The ability to read classical Mayan was lost for centuries. Scholars finally learned to read the language during the second half of the 20th century, giving new significance to the many inscriptions found on surviving Maya structures, monuments, and ornaments. Other indigenous societies, especially in the Andean region, used knotted cords called quipus to keep accurate counts of population, animals, and products. Some of these have survived, providing another source of information.

Early Migration Patterns
It remains unknown precisely when humans first appeared in the Western Hemisphere. The first inhabitants most likely migrated from northeastern Asia to what is now Alaska by crossing over a land bridge, known as Beringia. This land bridge was exposed from about 25,000 years to 10,000 years ago, during the final glacial stage of the Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 million years to 10,000 years before present). At that time ocean levels were lower because more of Earth’s water was frozen in glaciers. Migratory and herd animals such as mastodons, horses, mammoths, camelids, bison, elk, and moose also crossed the land bridge. Some of these large Pleistocene mammals, including the horse, became extinct in the Americas by 7000 bc. When the Pleistocene Epoch ended, water completely covered Beringia, effectively closing off this early migration route. By then humans had migrated throughout the Americas. They reached the southern cone of South America, as evidenced by the archaeological site of Monte Verde, at least 12,500 years ago. Some early southward migrations may have taken place in boats. See also Migration to the Americas.

Early Settlement and Way of Life
The early inhabitants of the Americas existed by hunting, gathering, and fishing. They adjusted their diet to what was seasonally available in their environment, gathering wild edible plants and insects as well as hunting and fishing all sorts of wild animals. This early diet permitted substantial population growth. Population density remained low, however, and people mostly lived in bands of 50 or fewer members. Populations also increased because most epidemic diseases common to Europe, such as smallpox and measles, did not exist in the Americas.
By 7,000 years ago people in Middle and South America were cultivating edible plants. Permanent agricultural settlements emerged about 4,000 years ago. Peoples of the temperate highlands, specifically south central and northeastern Mexico and coastal Peru, began to cultivate maize around this time. During the next several hundred years, the populations of these areas became much larger. The local societies organized into distinct states, with royal families, governmental bureaucracies, and legal and judicial systems.

Civilizations in Middle America
Middle America is made up of a long, tapering isthmus that forms a bridge between North America and South America. It includes the present-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Large mountain chains of volcanic origin dominate much of Middle America. In Mexico the mountains divide the vast temperate highlands of the central plateau into a number of valleys and basins, each with a distinct environmental setting. The Valley of Mexico, on the southern edge of this plateau, was the focal point of several prominent civilizations. Southeast of this valley is the huge northward-projecting Yucatán Peninsula, the center of the great Maya civilization.
During the 1st millennium bc several cultures in the region began to establish complex urban and ritual centers. These elaborately constructed centers were the locus of power, high culture, and immense wealth. Through trade, conquest, and alliances, several civilizations extended their spheres of cultural influence and political rule. The development of civilizations in Middle America culminated in the great Aztec Empire, which was at its height when the Spanish conquest destroyed it in 1521.

Olmec Civilization
In about 1500 bc the Olmec people emerged as the first major civilization in Middle America. They built their settlements and ritual centers in fertile coastal lowlands southeast of the Valley of Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico. The favorable climate permitted crops to be harvested twice a year, and the fine stones of the region, particularly jades, were marketed over a vast area. The Olmec culture thrived until about 600 bc and influenced other cultures in central Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula. The Olmec developed calendar and counting systems that were the precursors to systems used by later cultures in Middle America.

Monte Albán
The Zapotec people inhabited the Valley of Oaxaca, south of the Valley of Mexico, beginning in at least 1500 bc. They established one of the first city-states in Middle America. In about 500 bc they built their capital, Monte Albán, on top of a flattened mountain in the valley. When the city reached its height of influence, power, and wealth in about ad 500, it had between 25,000 and 30,000 inhabitants. The political domain of Monte Albán spread beyond the confines of the Valley of Oaxaca, and the Zapotec established ties with other civilizations in Middle America, including Teotihuacán. After about 750, however, the city declined for unknown reasons. The Zapotec developed a more centralized and hierarchical society than the Olmec. They also developed one of the earliest writing systems in Mesoamerica, and the edifices they built at Monte Albán have many hieroglyphic stone inscriptions.

In central Mexico, meanwhile, important ritual and market centers began to appear about 400 bc. Teotihuacán was the urban center of the first of several far-reaching civilizations in this region. It was located in the Valley of Mexico about 40 km (25 mi) northeast of present-day Mexico City. In the 1st century ad Teotihuacán began to grow rapidly as a city and to assert its influence and control more widely. By 600 it was one of the largest cities in the world. It extended over an area of 21 sq km (8 sq mi) and included probably 125,000—but possibly as many as 200,000—inhabitants. Its center consisted of a vast ceremonial complex, including two great pyramids, along a sunken road that extended more than a mile.
Teotihuacán established its influence throughout much of central Mexico. The city grew in wealth and power through its extensive trading zone, which reached into Central America. Cacao, tropical bird feathers, honey, and herbs were brought to the city from the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond. Teotihuacán’s many craftspeople, some of whom had their own neighborhoods, produced cut precious stones and pottery that were marketed widely in Mexico and Central America. Massive projects of agricultural engineering, including the construction of raised fields, canals, and terraces, were undertaken throughout central Mexico to increase agricultural production as the region’s population continued to grow into the millions. Maize, beans, and specialized crops were routinely transported over considerable distances to supply the network of provincial cities that grew ever larger and more elaborate.
Teotihuacán flourished until about ad 650. The reasons for its collapse, although unknown for certain, were seemingly a combination of population pressure on limited resources and recurrent attacks by nomadic tribal peoples who lived in the desert region north of the city.

Maya States
Also during this time, the Yucatán Peninsula and present-day Guatemala were inhabited by Mayan-speaking peoples. Between 1000 and 600 bc they developed autonomous agricultural communities with substantial populations. Over the next several centuries a number of Maya cities, beginning with Tikal, emerged as marketing and regional centers, developed more complex political structures, and extended their cultural influence and political control over their hinterlands. By about ad 250 the Maya were organized into city-states, each ruled by a hereditary king and a social elite, or aristocracy. The Maya conducted extensive trade throughout the region. The city-states were in competition with one another, and warfare was frequent among them. No great empire developed, but regional ones were common. The Maya also developed a hieroglyphic writing system, complex mathematics, and a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy that yielded a highly accurate calendar.
In about 900 the great Maya civilization collapsed and fragmented. It had depended on the food production from agricultural engineering projects that required continual upkeep. Some sort of subsistence crisis seems to have erupted, causing famine and considerable loss of life. This led to mass rejection of the social and political elites, and perhaps even of the gods, and brought about an extended period of warfare. The calendar and writing systems were abandoned, and most forms of state organization failed, as the reduced population concentrated on local food production and village affairs.

Toltec Empire
In central Mexico, meanwhile, the Toltec people established the next major civilization after the fall of Teotihuacán. A Nahuatl-speaking people, the Toltec migrated from the north and established their capital of Tula (Tollán) in the central plateau, about 64 km (40 mi) north of present-day Mexico City. Tula achieved a population of about 60,000 during the peak of the Toltec civilization, from about 900 to 1200. The Toltec assembled an empire with trading routes that extended north of the present-day border of Mexico and south into Maya territory. This trade network spread Toltec influence over a much greater area than that under direct Toltec rule. The Toltec Empire was not as expansive or culturally pervasive as Teotihuacán, and it flourished for a relatively brief period. However, it achieved a sustained period of peaceful rule. Successor states, including the great Aztec Empire, considered it to be the primary source of high culture and political legitimacy in the region. Even centuries later, leaders of politically ambitious ethnic groups sought to intermarry with descendents of the noble lineage from imperial Tula.

Aztec Empire
For two centuries after the decline of the Toltec Empire, no single group achieved domination over a substantial area of central Mexico. A series of competing and warring mini-empires briefly held sway over small areas. Many nomadic groups migrated from the desert in the north into the more developed and temperate central plateau, and then acculturated to a more settled way of life based on agriculture. Most were speakers of Nahuatl, and this became the dominant language in central Mexico. The Mexica were among the last of the nomadic groups (known collectively as Chichimec by the sedentary societies in central Mexico) to migrate to the Valley of Mexico, arriving there in the 13th century. In about 1325 the Mexica began to construct their capital, Tenochtitlán, on one of the islands of Lake Texcoco, which was one of five interconnected lakes in the valley basin. They fought as mercenary warriors for other cultural groups in the valley for some time after their arrival, and they were subordinated to a small empire assembled by the Tepaneca. In 1428 the Mexica joined with the peoples of two other subjected city-states, Texcoco and Tlacopan, in revolt against the Tepaneca. After a successful insurrection, the triple alliance went on to establish the Aztec Empire. Tenochtitlán became the imperial capital.
Aztec armies conquered the entire region of central Mexico in less than a century of expansion, and the Aztec Empire became larger than any of the preceding empires in Middle America. The empire demanded labor service and tribute payments from its subjects. The subjugated peoples remained culturally distinct within the empire, however. They continued to be governed by their own royal families and worshiped their distinctive gods. Their frequent rebellions were violently suppressed by the Aztec armies. These internal wars provided Tenochtitlán with captives to offer as sacrifices to the Aztec gods. The Aztec Empire practiced far more human sacrifice than any other society in the Americas, making it central to religious ritual. In the other aspects of its culture the Aztec Empire largely resembled the preceding civilizations of Middle America. Little technological progress had occurred since Teotihuacán. None of the peoples of the Americas, for example, had developed industrial metallurgy, although they refined gold, silver, and some copper. Their tools and weapons still depended on sharpening and shaping obsidian (volcanic glass) and basalt (volcanic rock). Their extensive agricultural engineering, however impressive, largely replicated models and techniques that were centuries old. These factors placed restraints on the empire’s productivity and development.

Civilizations in South America
In South America the indigenous peoples of the Andean region also had a long history of advanced civilizations. The immense Andean mountain chain rises in western Venezuela and extends down the west coast through present-day Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile to the southern tip of the continent. The mountains rise near the coast and extend inland hundreds of miles in many places, forming a distinctive high plateau region, or Altiplano, in western Bolivia and southwestern Peru. The peoples of the Andean region established communities at many different elevations, from the coastal lowlands and inland river valleys well into the higher reaches of the mountains. The Andes became the most densely populated mountain chain in the world. The overall population was smaller than that of Middle America, however, and the rugged terrain led to a more dispersed pattern of settlement.
The Andean cultures had a greater variety of crops and animals than did the peoples of Middle America. They cultivated root vegetables in the colder climate of the highlands and raised camelids—llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas—to provide wool, meat, and pack animals. They engineered innovative systems for agriculture, such as underground irrigation canals and mountainside terraces, in response to the challenges posed by extreme variations in climate and terrain. They also developed superior food storage and distribution techniques. They warehoused processed foods, such as freeze-dried potatoes, and other products to guard against future shortages and to supply military campaigns. Although they never created calendric, writing, or mathematical systems that rivaled those of Middle America, they did invent weaving and metallurgy earlier and developed them to a more advanced stage.
The Andean cultures did not construct urban complexes, temples, and pyramids on such a massive scale as those that characterized the civilizations in Middle America. Their urban centers were fewer and smaller. Their ritual centers also were generally smaller and less elaborate. They developed extensive trading networks like those found in Middle America, but they had fewer marketing centers.

Regional Andean Empires
In about ad 400 two important city-states emerged in the Andean highlands. The Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) culture was centered at Lake Titicaca, straddling the present-day border between Peru and Bolivia. The Huari (Wari) culture was centered at Ayacucho, in south central Peru. Lake Titicaca, situated at an elevation of about 3,810 m (12,500 ft) in the Altiplano, was the site of many early cultures. In the 5th century Tiwanaku began to expand its influence, promoting increased agricultural production and trade throughout the Altiplano. Meanwhile, the influence of the Huari culture expanded from Ayacucho throughout much of the highlands and westward to the coast. Both cultures eventually assembled regional empires. They developed their regions considerably through colonization of underpopulated areas, agricultural engineering, and the construction of roads, bridges, and storehouses. This became a characteristic pattern of development in the Andean zone, and one that the Incas later used to their advantage in establishing their vast empire.
The Chimú civilization was the largest to develop in the coastal lowlands. The capital city of Chan Chan was located in the Moche River Valley, the site of the earlier Moche (Mochica) culture, in present-day Peru. The Chimú constructed an extensive irrigation system in Chan Chan, and thousands of artisans worked in the city. Chan Chan encompassed an area of 20 sq km (7.7 sq mi) and had at least 25,000 inhabitants. Extending their influence from Chan Chan, the Chimú began to assemble an empire in the 12th century and eventually dominated other river-valley societies over a 1,000-km (625-mi) expanse of coastland. This empire was intact when it was conquered by the Incas in the 15th century.

Inca Empire
The Incas were a highland people with Cuzco, in present-day south central Peru, as their capital. In 1438 they were attacked by a neighboring group, the Chanca. After a successful defense, they undertook their own offensive and quickly dominated nearby provinces. During the next 90 years they subjugated virtually all of the peoples in the Andean region from southern Colombia into northern Chile. The population of Cuzco increased to about 100,000. The Inca Empire controlled the entire sedentary agricultural zone. Further expansion of the empire would have been difficult and would have yielded little of value.
The Inca Empire, called Tawantinsuyu (Land of the Four Quarters) by the Incas, was the first Andean civilization to extend over virtually the entire region, encompassing both the coastal lowlands and the mountain highlands. The Incas demanded only labor service, not tribute, from the peoples they conquered. The Incas generally did not replace the traditional ethnic rulers of the provinces that surrendered. The peace they imposed promoted agricultural development, greater productivity, and economic integration. They even founded entire new cities as administrative centers and as warehouse complexes to supply adjacent areas in times of shortage. Few revolts were attempted against Inca rule, unlike the many insurrections within the Aztec Empire.

Other Societies of South America
Beyond the central Andean civilizations, many indigenous societies thrived in other areas of South America. The Chibcha (Muisca), a semisedentary people who occupied the high plain of central Colombia, were located close enough to the Andean zone of high civilization to be influenced by some of the major accomplishments, including the construction of temple complexes and the manufacture of fine jewelry. They produced a substantial amount of gold ornaments and ceremonial objects. They lived in fortified communities and established some limited, unstable empires. They maintained extensive trading relations throughout a broad region that included the more developed Andean societies.
The northern coast of South America was inhabited by the Arawak and the Carib. Over time both of these peoples had migrated from the mainland to populate the Caribbean islands. The Arawak inhabited the coast of present-day Venezuela and the major Caribbean islands. They were a semisedentary people with locally powerful chiefs and communities of considerable size. The Carib, a warlike hunting-and-gathering people who practiced some cannibalism, inhabited the smaller islands of the Caribbean and some areas of the mainland coast.
The peoples of the Amazon River Basin in South America belonged to a great many different ethnic groups. They were organized into chiefdoms. They practiced agricultural engineering, including raised fields, and lived in compounds on earthen mounds they constructed along the river to protect their communities from regular floods. Although they remained substantially dependent on a diet of fish drawn from the river, they increasingly supplemented it with manioc and then maize. They had been producing ceramics for several millennia before the arrival of Europeans.
Most native communities in highland and coastal Brazil were inhabited by members of the Tupian language group. Primarily agriculturalists, these semisedentary peoples lived in communities organized around a headman, who assembled the residents from his extended family, marriage alliances, and friends. These were among the most warlike people in the Americas, gaining prestige and wealth from recurrent conflict against neighboring communities.

European Conquest and Colonization
Spaniards began to colonize the major islands of the Caribbean just two years after explorer Christopher Columbus discovered them for the Spanish Empire in 1492. They demanded labor service from the indigenous peoples to develop the meager gold deposits of the islands. They also introduced epidemic diseases such as influenza, smallpox, measles, and typhus. These foreign diseases were catastrophic for the native peoples, who had no natural resistance to them. Within 50 years the diseases had decimated the indigenous populations of the large Caribbean islands.
In the early 1500s the Spanish began to broaden the scope of their conquest and colonization to the mainland. In 1519 Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés led expedition forces into central Mexico. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán fell to Cortés’s forces in August 1521. The Spanish then built their own capital, Mexico City, on the site of the conquered and razed Aztec capital. Their colony in Mexico became known as New Spain.
In 1532 Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro commanded a force of fewer than 200 Spaniards against the Inca Empire in the Andean zone of South America. Pizarro’s forces executed Inca emperor Atahualpa and conquered the Inca capital of Cuzco after a three-month siege. Pizarro established a colonial capital at Lima. The Spaniards proceeded to establish control over all of Inca-held territory except the Inca kingdom at Vilcabamba, which was protected by difficult terrain. It survived as the last Inca stronghold until the Spanish conquered it in 1572 and executed its ruler, Tupac Amarú.
The Aztec and Inca empires were less than a century old when they were conquered. Both empires extended over vast areas and encompassed millions of people. The imperial capitals fell to the invaders only after prolonged campaigns with numerous casualties among the native armies, but comparatively few among the Spaniards. The same epidemics that had decimated the native populations of the Caribbean islands also afflicted the Aztecs, but not the Incas, during their wars against the Spanish. The conquest of the Incas largely preceded the impact of European diseases, although the peoples of the Andean region eventually were decimated by epidemics as well.
The very size and sophistication of the Aztec and Inca empires worked against them during the European conquests. Their strict social and political hierarchies and their dedication to a certain way of war made them easier targets. The ancient military tradition of their armies, which numbered in the tens of thousands, emphasized one-on-one engagements on the front lines in open, level areas. The bulk of each army remained out of action, acting instead as support forces for the actual fighters as they waited for their turn at the battlefront. The armies made little use of battlefield tactics or ambushes. Further, the primary goal of the combatants was to disable their opponents and take them captive, rather than to slay them. Also, the armies operated under the strict authority of their commanders. They did not use graduated levels of command. If the commander was killed or captured, his army considered itself defeated and withdrew from the battle.
The Europeans enjoyed several major advantages in military conflicts against the Aztec and Inca forces. They had metal weapons and armor, while the indigenous peoples of the Americas had not yet developed large-scale industrial metallurgy. The weapons used by indigenous forces—arrows and spears with chipped-stone tips and wooden clubs—were not effective in inflicting fatal wounds on the armored invaders. At the same time, Aztec and Inca warriors were largely defenseless against the Spanish weapons—sword blades and metal bolts fired from crossbows. At that time firearms were still inaccurate and slow-firing, and the Spanish forces found them ineffective in the type of warfare they used against the Aztec and Inca armies. Meanwhile, many native peoples who had been subjugated by the Aztec and Inca empires sided with the Europeans. They provided invaluable logistical support, but the Spanish used them only infrequently in actual combat.
The Spanish had much less success against the tribal peoples who occupied most other areas of Middle and South America. These peoples did not hesitate to attack from ambush and to flee into the hinterland when battles turned against them. They depended on bows and arrows in combat and sought to avoid numerous casualties. The Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula used such tactics to frustrate repeated Spanish expeditions. In 1542 the Spanish founded the city of Mérida in the northwestern corner of the peninsula, but they effectively controlled only the surrounding region and a couple of other small areas. Independent Maya communities occupied the greater part of the peninsula for many decades, despite repeated efforts to subjugate them or to convert them to Christianity.
The Spanish encountered particularly fierce resistance by the Araucanian tribes. With the conquest of the Inca Empire complete, a Spanish force moved southward to found the city of Santiago in 1541 and to gain control over the fertile central region of present-day Chile. In the southern part of their colony were the Araucanians, who resisted foreign control well into the 19th century. The Spanish built a string of forts to defend their settlements against Araucanian attacks and raids, which were nevertheless frequent and often successful. The Araucanians adapted to the European style of warfare. They learned to ride horses, which Europeans had introduced to the Americas, and to shoot arrows while on horseback. They devised spears to stymie Spanish cavalry charges. In the 18th century the Araucanians raided across the Andes into southern Argentina, defeating the indigenous inhabitants of that region and rustling cattle from the Spanish colonists. They drove these cattle to Chile, where they traded them with Spanish middlemen for armaments and manufactured goods. The Araucanians prospered through this system until the end of the 1870s, when they were defeated in battle by the Argentine and Chilean militaries and forced onto government-designated reservations.
Despite encountering areas of resistance, however, the Spanish rapidly expanded their empire in Middle America, the Caribbean, and the Andean region. Meanwhile, Portugal was much less successful in colonizing its new territory in South America. In 1500 Portugal claimed the eastern coast of the continent. Portugal’s holdings in Africa and Asia were far more lucrative than its new colony until well into the 17th century, and relatively few people from Portugal migrated to the Americas. Those who did depended on alliances with certain tribes to protect their settlements and to provide indigenous labor. Initially Portugal exploited just one product from its colony in South America, the native-growing brazilwood, which yielded a highly prized red dye. (The Portuguese eventually named their South American colony Brazil.) Coastal tribes harvested brazilwood trees and stored them near the shoreline until Portuguese ships arrived with European goods to bargain a trade.
Later in the 16th century, the Portuguese began to develop sugar plantations in Brazil. The clearing of land for intensive cultivation intruded on indigenous lands, and many native peoples fled to the hinterland of the interior. At the same time, the demand for native labor increased. Among the indigenous peoples of this region, women traditionally did the agricultural work; however, the Portuguese preferred male labor for their plantations. Plantation owners tried to coerce indigenous peoples to work in the sugar fields and mills. They also forced many into slavery. Beginning in the 1560s, however, the Portuguese were faced with a diminishing labor force as European-introduced diseases swept through the indigenous villages and decimated their populations. The Portuguese began to import slaves from Africa to work the plantations. The introduction of large numbers of slaves via the Atlantic slave trade continued into the mid-1800s, transforming areas of Brazil into multiracial societies with Native American, European, and African populations.

Forced Change, 17th and 18th Centuries
The Spaniards never saw it in their interest to destroy the structure of native society. Rather, they sought to use established patterns and hierarchies to govern effectively, to mobilize indigenous labor, to funnel resources from the countryside into the colonial cities and the market economy, and to Christianize the population.
Until about 1650 the collapse of indigenous populations was caused primarily by the impact of waves of epidemic diseases that arrived with the colonists. Native Americans living in temperate and tropical climates suffered the most. In central Mexico the native population declined by about 95 percent, or to fewer than 1.5 million, about a century after European contact. The native-colonist population ratios shifted so dramatically that surviving Native Americans acculturated much more fully to the European way of life and could be more closely administered by Spanish officials and priests. In addition, vast expanses of previously populated land became available for use by the colonists.
An unintended consequence of the Spanish conquest was the fragmentation of the great civilization zones that had long prevailed in Mexico and the Andes. The dense connections of belief systems, artistic representation, local economic specializations, skilled craftsmanship, and political networks fell apart after the military defeats through neglect rather than from Spanish policy. Although indigenous villages participated in local markets and the Spanish colonial economy, they became far more culturally isolated and more focused on maize cultivation for their subsistence than ever before.
Native Americans quickly began using metal tools and milled fabrics, and raising animals such as chickens and pigs, that were introduced from Europe. These things improved their productivity and diversified their diet. Native communities made only limited use of draft animals, however, because of their cost. While wheat was introduced and preferred by the Europeans, maize remained the staple of the indigenous diet.
The indigenous peoples quickly adopted Christianity, as they found it compatible with important traditional beliefs. Few priests worked among the native populations, so indigenous communities were able to adapt Christian beliefs and rituals to their local practices. Religious worship and ritual became closely associated with community identity and service. Native Americans incorporated important aspects of Roman Catholicism, such as ritual godparenthood, religious brotherhoods, and devotion to saints, into their own cultures. Individual towns adopted patron saints and shrines that they promoted through festivals and generally developed forms of Catholicism that could be practiced without a priest’s continued presence. A priest appeared usually once or twice a year, especially during the community’s major festivals. Only then were confessions heard, masses conducted, and marriages and baptisms carried out.
The Spanish colonial government required Native Americans to make tribute payments in cash. To make these payments, indigenous peoples had to work on colonial enterprises or raise a crop they could sell. At first, individual Spanish settlers were granted privileged access to the labor of specific native communities through the encomienda system. Another system of forced labor, known as the repartimiento (division), emerged in the mid-1500s. It required Native American communities to supply a quota of workers available for hire by the Spanish colonists.
Spanish and Portuguese colonists clustered in the cities they founded, such as Lima and Santiago, or that they took over from native peoples, such as Mexico City (built on the site of Tenochtitlán), and in nearby farms. They established gold and silver mines wherever they could, but most of these were distant from major zones of native settlement. Few of these ventures greatly disrupted indigenous culture or made heavy demands on the native labor forces. The major exception was the enormous silver-mining complex of Potosí in southern Bolivia. To work these rich deposits, colonial officials required indigenous males to work the mines, usually for six months at a time. Many were accompanied to the mining sites by their wives and children. When their turns were finished, most returned to their home communities.
In the early decades of the colonies, the settlers had depended on drafts of temporary unskilled native laborers. As the colonial economies became more elaborate, however, this form of labor became less useful and survived only in the less developed areas of Middle and South America. Instead, businessmen recruited skilled native workers by offering them better terms of employment. These terms were made more attractive because of the deteriorating circumstances in indigenous communities brought about by population decline and Spanish demands for labor service and tribute payments. Many Native Americans departed from their communities to live in Spanish colonial cities or on Spanish-owned agricultural estates (haciendas). Over the long term, substantial numbers of Native Americans came to reside permanently in Spanish colonial society. Their children were born to this way of life, rather than to the traditional village culture that their parents had witnessed. Indigenous intermarriage with Spaniards and people of African descent in the cities and estates created a growing interracial population. People of mixed Native American and Spanish descent, known as mestizos, were more urbanized and more readily assimilated into colonial society. They adopted many traits and customs of the dominant Spanish culture and had little interaction with indigenous peoples who remained in the villages.
By the beginning of the 18th century the Native American population had begun to recover in some areas. While it never came close to the size attained before the Spanish conquest, the increase placed tremendous pressure on the limited resources and productive capacity of indigenous villages. Although colonial authorities had guaranteed these communities a certain measure of land held in common, the colonists had occupied most of the remaining agricultural land to grow crops for local and international markets. In this situation, many villages faced subsistence crises, in which they could not produce enough to maintain their populations.
In response to this enduring affliction, Native Americans began to work in the colonial economy far more extensively than before. Many more migrated from their communities to the cities and haciendas, where they became permanent workers. However, they were generally unskilled and poorly paid. Even those who remained in their villages labored periodically on the haciendas to earn additional money before returning home. These temporary workers often hired themselves out as labor gangs.
Native American communities also began to organize responses to their circumstances. They brought complaints and entered into judicial disputes over land ownership, boundaries, and access to water. Also, after many decades in which indigenous societies had rarely risen up against the colonial authorities, they began to take action, sometimes violently, to prevent colonists and officials from imposing themselves. These protests typically involved only one village at a time and a complaint against a single issue. Individual revolts lasted for only a limited time and did not expand to embrace larger regions. They also did not challenge the fundamental position of Native Americans in the colonial system.

Wars for Independence, 19th Century
All of the Spanish colonies and Brazil won their independence from the colonial powers by 1824 (see Latin American Independence). But the independence movements that erupted throughout the colonies in the early years of the century did not address issues crucial to indigenous peoples. The fight for independence was primarily an effort by the white elite of the colonies to achieve self-government for their class. For the most part Native Americans did not actively participate in the wars for independence. Mestizos, however, were among the most involved in the wars, fighting in both the patriot and royalist armies.
Before the wars for independence ended colonial rule, Native Americans were officially wards of the Spanish crown and could request that their grievances be heard by special courts. However, under the colonial caste system, which was based on racial categories, Native Americans were placed below whites and mestizos in social status. Therefore they were among the most disadvantaged in the society, along with free blacks and black slaves, and colonial practices such as the repartimiento system allowed them to be greatly exploited and abused.
In 1780, decades before the wars for independence erupted, highland Peru witnessed a massive uprising by Native Americans. An indigenous community leader, José Gabriel Condorcanqui, claimed that he was Tupac Amarú II, a direct descendent of the last independent Inca ruler. He demanded that the Spaniards abandon the highlands and return them to native rule. Tens of thousands flocked to his cause, including many mestizos. Thousands died in the ensuing warfare against colonial forces before Tupac Amarú II and his associates were captured and executed in 1781. The mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia were marked by similar uprisings until the 1820s. At that time the colonial regime was overthrown, but not to the advantage of the indigenous peoples. Instead, their concerns were largely ignored and neglected by the newly independent nations.
The first uprising of Mexico’s independence movement was led in 1810 by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest of Spanish descent in the parish of Dolores. He led his parishioners, who were mostly mestizos, in a poorly planned revolt against Spanish colonial rule. Hidalgo called for the abolition of the tribute payments required of Native Americans. His parish members were soon joined by tens of thousands of others, mostly Native Americans and mestizos, who rankled at the constraints placed on them by the colonial system. They executed many of the people of Spanish descent they took as captives. After suffering a defeat against a small Spanish force, Hidalgo’s movement fell apart and its participants fled back to their communities. He and his associates were soon captured and executed. Four years later a disciple of Hidalgo, José María Morelos, directed a similar, but smaller and more coordinated, rebellion that also ended in failure. The successful independence movement in Mexico in 1821 neither included Native Americans among its participants nor addressed their plight in its program.
The leaders of the new nations believed Native Americans should lose any special “privileges,” such as the grievance courts, afforded them during the colonial period. Liberal leaders called for placing all citizens, including Native Americans, under equal laws and ending the caste system. The new national governments initially aspired to remove the tribute payments and required labor services that had been imposed under the colonial regime. But the reality of nearly continuous national bankruptcy led some of them to reimpose tribute payments, though under new names. Some also reimposed mandatory labor service by Native Americans on local construction projects or agricultural estates, arguing that this taught them proper habits and helped the nation.
The new nations also sought to eliminate communal land ownership in Native American communities, a tradition that was so central to their self-reliance. The governments designated the holdings as private lands. Many indigenous communities eventually lost their property to nearby estate owners who sought to expand their profit-oriented enterprises. The land was often sold without the consent of the native peoples, and sometimes it was seized outright. The native communities no longer had special courts to hear their grievances, and the few courts that did exist were unsympathetic. By the late 19th century a great number of the indigenous villages had disappeared, and their former members lived in destitution as temporary agricultural laborers.
The period between about 1870 and 1920 was perhaps the worst era for Native Americans since the initial conquest period. An atmosphere of disdain toward native peoples proliferated. Business interests, prospering during a period of economic growth, dispossessed Native Americans of their resources. Many indigenous groups responded by organizing regional revolts against these actions. The weak national governments had tremendous difficulty suppressing these uprisings, which continued for years before being extinguished.
One of the largest and longest revolts was the Caste War of the Yucatán, in which Maya rebels, many of them farm laborers, won control over almost all of the Yucatán Peninsula by May 1848. By the following spring the people of Spanish descent in the area, most of whom were town dwellers or farm owners and supervisors, had recaptured the western and central areas of the peninsula. However, the eastern area around Chan Santa Cruz remained an independent Maya stronghold until Mexico’s federal troops invaded the city in 1901.

Striving for Indigenous Rights, 20th Century
The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was a major turning point for Native Americans in Middle America. Under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata, a revolutionary of indigenous descent, large numbers of native peoples in southern Mexico fought to regain the traditional community lands they had lost during the preceding decades. In the two decades following the success of the revolution, most native communities had their lands restored by the national government. The Mexican Revolution marked the first substantial reversal of the neglect of Native Americans that had prevailed since the colonial period. After the revolution, the Mexican government promoted indigenismo as a glorious heritage and established agencies to promote native rights and cultures. Since that time Native American children often have been taught their traditional language as well as Spanish, and indigenous artisans have had success marketing their crafts.
The indigenous peoples of Bolivia lost most of their lands when the government eliminated communal land ownership early in the 20th century. Most of them were retained as laborers on the large and often unproductive estates that incorporated their lands. Despite uprisings and other forms of resistance, they had little success in remedying their condition until a larger revolution erupted in the country in 1952. Native Americans took up arms to help overthrow the old regime and bring to power the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR), a leftist-oriented political party, which pledged to make them full-fledged citizens. The new MNR government immediately extended the right to vote to Native Americans, and in 1953 it instituted a land reform law that allowed Native Americans to reclaim their traditional lands. Since that time, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia have been able to grow crops for urban markets to support their communities, retain authority over their internal affairs, and obtain education and public health services for their communities. They have also been active in local and national politics.
In some countries, however, Native American populations continued to suffer miserably. In El Salvador in the early 1930s, indigenous communities inspired by radical politicians from the cities protested to have lands restored and labor conditions improved. In 1932 the army seized the government and violently repressed the movement, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 rural Salvadorans in what came to be known as La Matanza (The Massacre). Native Americans were especially targeted during the massacre, and those who survived lived under a repressive military regime.
The Maya of Guatemala, meanwhile, had lost much of their land by the beginning of the 20th century and were required by the government to provide labor to the large estates or face arrest. A reform government that gained power in 1944 began to reverse this situation, but a counterrevolution led by the military in 1954 imposed a series of repressive regimes. In response, radical armed rebels established themselves in the countryside to mobilize support against the government. Both sides competed over the Maya population that composed most of the rural population. Violence was endemic, and the national military committed some horrible massacres of Maya communities, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, in the early 1990s the two sides entered into a national accord, and most of the organized armed violence ended. Some communities regained their lands, and in some schools the Maya began to be educated about the magnificent history of their ancestors, occasionally in their own language.
The History section of this article was contributed by John E. Kicza.

Indigenous peoples in Middle and South America today make up a large majority of all Native Americans throughout the world. At least 400 different groups count themselves as culturally distinct peoples. Some strive to reinforce cultural traditions, while others have shifted toward urban and international ways of life. Some live on land that the government set aside for them, but many more live as peasants in the countryside, or migrate to cities.
Diverse as they are, these peoples share a common experience: All of them live in countries that until very recently excluded them from power. Indeed the word indio (Indian) still carries a racial stigma. Many who bear it seek to free their cultures from misperceptions through political and social activism.
This section describes indigenous peoples in Latin America today—their demands for increased self-government, their increasingly close alliance with each other, their evolving struggles to defend land and resources, and their efforts to combine sacred cultural heritages with practical adaptations to the modern world.

Recent estimates of Latin America’s total indigenous population vary from 40 million to 49 million people. Native groups are spread unevenly throughout the area. The majority of indigenous people live along the mountainous spine of Middle and South America, in densely settled villages in the Mesoamerican highlands and the Andes Mountains. Many of these villages have the status of “recognized peasant community,” although the term varies among countries. This status means that the government recognizes the village as collective owner of its lands. In the lowlands, indigenous groups often live in government-demarcated reservations, tribal areas, or autonomous zones. Throughout Middle and South America, many indigenous people also live in cities.
The size of indigenous populations varies widely from country to country in Latin America. In some countries, indigenous people make up almost half or more of the population. These countries include Bolivia (60 percent of the population), Peru (45 percent), Guatemala (44 to 53 percent), Ecuador (43 percent), and Mexico (8 to 30 percent). Bolivia is the only country that officially describes itself as having a Native American majority.
The countries with large indigenous populations—notably Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru—also have very large numbers of people, even majorities, who are mestizo. The term mestizo refers to people of mixed indigenous and European or African ancestry who generally do not practice indigenous lifeways. Mestizos make up between 70 and 92 percent of Mexico’s population, 40 percent of Ecuador’s population, and 37 percent of Peru’s population.
In Latin American countries at the other end of the spectrum, indigenous groups form small minorities both absolutely and relatively. Only about 3 percent of Argentineans are neither white nor mestizo. About 1 percent of citizens in El Salvador and Costa Rica are counted in the census as indigenous. Less than 1 percent of Brazil’s population is officially indigenous.
Some of these smaller numbers were undercounts because they come from countries where both the government and individuals have tried to minimize the heavily stigmatized “Indian” identity. As more people began to value and embrace indigenous culture, however, more have begun to publicly identify themselves as indigenous. In any case, population numbers fail to capture the importance of small indigenous groups. Some small minorities, especially in Brazil, have become human rights test cases with powerful implications for how the majority population should treat minorities.
Many indigenous peoples have been completely wiped out by varying combinations of epidemic, massacre, cultural assimilation, servitude, flight, and intermarriage. For example, the three sea-hunting and guanaco-stalking peoples who lived around Tierra del Fuego, South America’s southern tip, were all but exterminated. Of the Ona, not a single descendent survives. In the 20th century, activities such as land grabbing, misuse of natural resources, and frontier violence took their toll on just about all of Latin America’s native peoples. Occasional reports of so-called isolated or newly contacted tribes usually turn out to be reappearances of groups that had sought refuge by making themselves mobile and elusive.
Indigenous ways of life today in Latin America defy the tourist-brochure stereotypes of timeless traditionalism. The huge majority of indigenous Latin Americans take part, willingly or not, in many aspects of industrial-based life such as the market economy and government institutions. But they are integrated into national institutions to different degrees. Most highlanders in the former Inca domains of South America (Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia) and in the Mesoamerican highlands (Mexico and Guatemala) retain ties to peasant villages of pre-Hispanic origin. In lowlands, indigenous populations who live near major rivers and airfields—with their webs of trade, military outposts, and missionary networks—are more assimilated than inland populations, who tend to conserve older lifeways such as the Amazonian circular village.
Increasingly, indigenous Latin Americans are people in motion. By the 1990s the largest single body of people who knew Quechua, the language of the Inca, lived in the congested boroughs of Lima, Peru. But many urban dwellers are also anchored to the villages of their origin. Many return for traditional events such as festivals where sacred mountains are venerated. This link to their past provides them with social networks for a lifetime.
Some indigenous people have lost the bonds of homeland because they fled as refugees amid political violence. From 1978 to 1983 about a quarter of a million Maya fled to Chiapas, Mexico, to escape Guatemala’s guerrilla warfare. Thousands gradually returned home, but more stayed in Mexico or headed for the United States. Substantial numbers of Maya have lived in the Los Angeles area since that era. Many more indigenous migrants have left for economic reasons. Texas, New Jersey, and California have notable colonies of Andean people. Also present in California are Mixtec and Zapotec migrants from Oaxaca, Mexico. Gradually indigenous populations have built distinctive institutions in these new places, such as societies to benefit schooling and health back in their homelands.
Some migrants and refugees return home, periodically or permanently. But the circuit of migration and return does not mean that the old order is restored because those who return often come back with a will to modify old lifeways and customary law. Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú Y Así Me Nació La Concienca (1983; translated as I, Rigoberta Menchú, 1984), the semiautobiographical testimony of Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú Túm, a Quiché Maya woman, gave voice to this resistance against oppressive aspects of tradition. She urged a struggle against the subordination of the Maya, even at the price of armed conflict.

Political Issues
Indigenous societies have local ways of governing themselves that are deeply rooted in their histories. They range from the intricate hierarchy of Andean village camachicos (“those who set things in order”) to the moral authority of the Amazonian headman who leads by setting a self-sacrificing example as first among equals. But the nonindigenous groups who founded independent Latin American republics did not recognize these forms of government.
During most of the 20th century Latin American governments usually claimed responsibility for protecting indigenous peoples, while excluding them from full citizenship until they could be absorbed into urban-dominated nonindigenous society through assimilation and intermarriage. In Brazil beginning in 1910 the government’s Serviço de Proteção aos Indios (SPI, Indian Protective Service), tried innovative nonviolent methods to shelter small indigenous groups from conflicts they could not win. The SPI meant to protect Indians until supposedly inevitable assimilation would merge them with the majority. That same era saw the rise of indigenismo among nonindigenous artistic and political elites. This philosophy exalted indigenous heritage as a past root of the nation while denying it any future other than assimilation.
Latin American governments also tried to protect indigenous peoples by providing land for them or safeguarding their existing lands. From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1930s, some governments set aside reservation land for lowland indigenous peoples. This period also produced new leyes de comuna (laws of the commons), which enabled ancient local communities to obtain collective titles to their lands and waters. Legal title gave them the right to decide how to use their territory. It also made it more difficult for outsiders to grab land through coercion or fraud.
By the beginning of the 21st century the old expectation that indigenous Latin Americans would assimilate into broadly European-American culture gave way to growing recognition that nations were made up of many ethnic groups. Nine countries, including once war-torn Guatemala, embodied this recognition in constitutional reforms. The most decisive case was Colombia’s 1991 constitution, which awarded many indigenous groups self-government rights and the right to elect a small number of congressional representatives. In 1988 Brazil finally erased the assimilation of indigenous peoples from its statutory goals.

In the last quarter of the 20th century many Native Americans in Latin America became involved in a family of movements known as neo-Indianism. These movements are characterized by mobilizations within indigenous society, rather than by outside sympathizers, to seek autonomy rather than assimilation. Neo-Indianism’s growth began where it was least expected—among Amazonian peoples who are far smaller in numbers and more remote from power centers than highland groups. But they were also less tangled in bureaucracies.
In 1964 a number of Shuar groups in eastern Ecuador loosely banded together to create the Federation of Shuar Centers. The Shuar effectively resisted ranchers who intruded on their lands by using amateur radio to warn of intrusions and to rally households. They also used an alphabetized version of the Shuar language to write documents that helped crystallize the reasons for their struggle. Soon after Amuesha (Yanesha) Peruvians and Cauca Valley Colombians achieved similar advances. They formed autonomous self-defense federations using modern legal and media techniques rather than waiting for help from government agents.
The Shuar pointed an important new direction by staying out of traditional vehicles for change such as political parties, guerrilla armies, and labor unions. Beginning in the 1970s, the most successful indigenous mobilizations followed the Shuar model, with loose confederations linking grassroots committees. Ecuador’s Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities), a nationwide alliance expanding on the Shuar pattern, shook the republic in 1990. Indigenous peoples throughout the country simultaneously mobilized, demanding foremost the settlement of a long list of disputes about lands allegedly stolen from indigenous peasants. It was the first truly pan-indigenous uprising since the 18th century. In the capital city of Quito, urbanites were stunned by the sight of massed marchers in all kinds of indigenous garb from feathers to ponchos. At first they called them “Martians.” In less then a decade, however, Ecuadorian indigenous power was recognized when the government appointed indigenous leaders to some governmental agencies. By 1992 the organization representing the Quechua inhabitants of the Pastaza region in southeastern Ecuador secured at least nominal autonomous control of a tract of land as big as the U.S. state of Connecticut.
In the early 1990s political parties turned toward indigenous activists in order to appeal to voters. In 2000 Mariano Conejo was elected the first indigenous mayor of the tourism-rich city of Otavalo, Ecuador. In Bolivia, a pro-indigenous political movement called Katarismo began winning important political victories in the 1990s when many voters began to redefine indigenousness as a cultural right rather than a demeaning racial definition. In 1993 Victor Hugo Cárdenas was elected vice president of Bolivia, the first Native American to hold such high office in the country. He took the helm with his wife beside him in Aymara traditional dress.
However, the course of neo-Indian movements has been very uneven. In Chile, the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) suppressed the autonomy of the country’s indigenous peoples. It broke up reservations of the Mapuche and sold the land. However, the Mapuche made impressive strides after democracy was restored in 1989. In 1990 the government put a stop to the dismantling of reservation territory. It also created a national commission for indigenous development with Mapuche representation.
A neo-Indian movement in Chiapas, Mexico, hit the headlines in 1994 under the leadership of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapatista National Liberation Army). The Zapatistas claimed to represent the indigenous Tzol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Tojalabal, and Zoque Maya groups, many of whom had already mobilized under other banners influenced by the fiery liberation theology of Roman Catholic bishop Samuel Ruíz García. The EZLN occupied four municipalities in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. An indigenous army of 800 took over official buildings in the state capital, proclaiming war against the “looting of our natural resources” and demanding regional political autonomy. In 2001 the Zapatistas and many of their followers marched to Mexico City and confronted President Vicente Fox to demand that the national government address indigenous issues. Although the Zapatistas never won a consensus of Maya support or any major reforms, they powerfully renewed Mexican and international interest in indigenous issues.
Indigenous movements are no longer constrained by national boundaries. Instead, indigenous groups have begun to come together across country borders. Many groups dwell on both sides of formerly closed boundaries, divided by customs and immigration police or even by hostile armies. New transnational organizations are reuniting the Aymara of Chile and Bolivia; the Shuar of Peru and Ecuador; the Garifuna and Miskito of Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama; the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina; the Guaymí of Costa Rica and Panama (where they are also known as Ngobe-Buglé); and peoples who inhabit both sides of the U.S-Mexican border (the Yaqui, Kickapoo, and Tohono O’Odham or Papago).
Reconnecting the Quechua-speaking peoples of the former Inca lands, now situated mostly in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and the equally fractured Maya population, has proven a hard job. They have been separated into regional groups with dissimilar dialects and incomplete knowledge of one another. Likewise, uniting indigenous peoples of the lowlands with those of the highlands has proved difficult, but it is underway; in Bolivia, in 1990, 12 eastern lowland groups marched 700 km (400 mi) to La Paz, where thousands of Aymara highlanders feasted with them in Andean style.
On a larger scale, indigenous movements have created transnational confederations. These organizations align big and small ethnic groups and build alliances beyond Latin America. A pioneering example is the Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA, Coordinating Body for Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin), which by 1995 represented more than 100 ethnic groups. COICA and similar confederations succeeded in building ties with powerful allies abroad, including the World Council of Churches and major foundations in wealthy countries. By 1995 COICA had secured representation within the World Bank, the European Union, and Consejo de Cooperación Amazónica (Council for Amazonian Cooperation), a treaty organization formed by the countries with Amazonian territories.

Land Rights
From 1952 through the 1970s a wave of nationalist revolutionary movements, notably in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, led governments and political parties to redefine indigenous citizens by class rather than ethnicity. They viewed class and nationality as the only important categories, and they wanted to avoid any indications that the nation was not culturally unified. They thought that raising issues about cultural diversity would dilute their efforts. Therefore, indigenous people in rural areas came to be called campesinos (peasants) in public life. Agencies such as Ecuador’s Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria y Colonización (Agrarian Reform and Colonization Institute) or Venezuela’s Comisión Especial para el Desarrollo de la Región Sur (Special Southern Development Corporation) at first grouped indigenous peoples with nonindigenous farmers despite their differences.
The ensuing agrarian reforms provided a firmer footing for some of the rural poor, but they marginalized indigenous lifeways. By pressing peasants to grow more of certain crops to sell at market, they eroded indigenous knowledge of crop varieties and techniques. Amazonian groups were affected by land reforms in a special way. The reforms failed to recognize the indigenous, swidden-based use of the forest, which involved cutting and burning patches of forest to create temporary fields, and later letting the forest regenerate. Governments thought swidden lands were unused. By opening them to ranchers, planters, and loggers, all of whom permanently clear-cut the land, reformers unintentionally wrecked ecologically sound practices.
Many governments of the 1970s—in Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, for example—promoted massive schemes to develop forested areas in the lowlands. They wanted to relieve agrarian conflicts in overexploited highlands and to raise national productivity. When Brazil’s president in 1968 proposed to send “people without land to the land without people,” he was in fact sending them as unwitting invaders into the homeland of hundreds of indigenous peoples whose traditional swidden use of the land was not protected by law.
New roads and easy land grants in rain forests all the way from Mexico to Bolivia brought influxes of settlers, many of whom were themselves indigenous families from thickly populated peasant zones. The development of these areas affected most indigenous peoples who live in the rain forests, including the Lacandón Maya of Mexico and the Yek’uana of Venezuela.
In addition, in Brazil and Colombia, gold rushes brought tens of thousands of garimpeiros (gold panners) into rain forests in the mid-1970s. They used airstrips built by the military to leapfrog into the lands of native peoples, especially the Yanomami of the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. Miners often murdered indigenous locals who interfered with the gold mining. In addition, the miners brought with them deadly epidemics of diseases such as measles. Measles killed about 2,500 Yanomami, or about a quarter of the population. Under international pressure, Brazilian troops repeatedly blew up airstrips and expelled miners, but the airstrips were quietly rebuilt and the miners continued to ravage the land.
Starting in 1991, the World Bank put its financial power behind a policy requiring consideration of native peoples’ interests. Increasingly, the World Bank and many aid agencies have funded ethnodevelopment, development projects built around indigenous institutions and interests that are intended to strengthen them. There were important successes. Yet disorderly and invasive development in the interior of Middle and South America also continued apace in the 21st century. As countries developed roads across the inland, such as the transoceanic highway from the Peruvian Pacific to the Brazilian Atlantic, indigenous leaders prepared themselves for a struggle to protect their lands from newcomers.

Efforts to Control Natural Resources
Indigenous peoples also struggle with governments and rival users over the control and use of natural resources. Mineral development is a frequent issue, particularly in countries where the law reserves all rights to minerals below Earth’s surface for the state. A prolonged struggle in the early 1990s over oil rights pitted petroleum giants and the Ecuadorian government against the tiny Huaorani ethnic group and its international allies, who fought the issue to a draw. The Mexican Huave also took on their government concerning oil pollution. In 1989 Brazilian Kayapó protested against a huge dam and besieged Congress in their feather crowns. They became instant media icons. These successful actions show how small indigenous groups have sometimes become powerful actors in the struggle over natural resources.
Another frequent issue is how to balance a country’s environmental agenda—for example, managing national parks located in rain forests—with the ownership rights of people who originate there. Environmental movements have been influenced by a Brazilian rubber tapper named Chico Mendes, who defended the rain forests against development and deforestation because the tappers needed them for their livelihood. When Mendez was assassinated in 1988, the event awakened the media to the possibility that some humans might guard, not menace, biologically diverse habitats. More recent projects emphasize working with local indigenous peoples as stakeholders in enterprises that depend on biodiversity and conservation. The Purépecha of Michoacán, Mexico, have mounted a notably successful system of community forestry. In Amazonian Ecuador, rain forest residents are developing self-managed ecotourism.
Knowledge is a contested resource, too. As the pharmaceutical industry combed rain forests for curative biochemicals, transnational alliances campaigned to get indigenous knowledge of these curative biochemicals recognized so they could be paid royalties for their intellectual property.

In many cases indigenous peoples’ deadliest problems include crossfire between national governments and nonindigenous guerrilla insurgencies that choose indigenous terrain as battlefronts. Around 1980 many Maya highlanders in Guatemala took part in the Committee of Peasant Unity, which was a nonindigenous union allied with one of the four leftist armies fighting against the government. They usually did so in defense of local, nonideological interests. But scorched-earth warfare left about 50,000 Maya among the more than 150,000 dead, and it destroyed more than 400 Maya communities. A 1996 peace pact improved Maya prospects for peaceful self-defense by making it possible for them to defend land and other rights through litigation or public campaigning without being accused of trying to subvert the government.
In Peru a revolutionary Communist movement, called the Shining Path, at first gained support among Quechua peasants who were embittered by the government’s failure to meet their particular needs in agrarian reforms from 1969 to 1974. However, the Shining Path soon alienated them by assassinating indigenous leaders and choking off commerce. By 1990 Quechua village rondas (militias) played a major role in fighting the Shining Path. Ronda veterans emerged in the 1990s as a new type of rural leadership.
In Colombia, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a group of left-wing rebels, and its enemies, the paramilitary forces, also proved ready to shed indigenous blood. By 1986 FARC had killed more than 100 indigenous leaders in the Cauca Valley, and in 1999 they murdered a group of foreign observers backing the U’wa. Although why indigenous leaders were being killed in Peru and Colombia is not entirely clear, some observers speculate that the Shining Path, FARC, and other insurgent groups wanted to crush rival leadership.
In Nicaragua, where Sandinista revolutionaries successfully overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, many Miskito of the Atlantic coast rejected a land reform that denied their traditional tenures. They, too, were swept up in political warfare from 1981 to 1988 as their leaders joined the U.S.-sponsored opposition guerrilla force known as the contras (short for “counterrevolutionaries” in Spanish). Later, a post-Sandinista government granted the Miskito an autonomous zone.
Another crossfire threat to indigenous peoples is quasi-military intervention by government forces allied with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to stop the production of drugs. Groups on the eastern flank of the Andes Mountains have grown coca leaf as a legal traditional crop since pre-Columbian times. But the cocaine industry hugely inflated demand for coca beginning in the 1970s, and some indigenous peoples, motivated by the possibility for economic advancement, became involved in the cocaine industry as illegal suppliers or laborers. Their position is dangerous because they are cornered between government repression—arrest and defoliation and burning of the coca plants—and the carnage inflicted by gangster cartels or guerrilla armies trying to control production.

Employment and Economics
Poverty is pervasive among Latin America’s indigenous population, and living conditions are generally poor compared to that of the nonindigenous population. In many places, indigenous families put up with dirt floors, meager diets, contaminated water, and constant worries about expenses such as medicine, schoolbooks, or bus fare. In 1989 Mexico’s census agency reported that in municipalities with an indigenous population of 40 percent or more, 42 percent of the residents were extremely poor. It also reported that in municipalities with indigenous populations under 10 percent, less than 10 percent of the residents were extremely poor.
Indigenous poverty is not the poverty of unemployment. In fact, in countries with large indigenous populations, indigenous unemployment is lower than the national averages. Rather, indigenous poverty reflects the fact that native populations are concentrated in badly paid sectors of work, like rural wage labor or farming on eroded land. Indigenous workers are more likely than others to have a second job, and they work disproportionately more hours.
In rural areas, farming, herding, and working on plantations are the most common jobs. Much rural poverty is due to the fragmentation of land into parcels so tiny that they cannot support a family. Governments place a high priority on improving agricultural productivity, but many have taken approaches that favored large, modern farms over small parcels or community development. These facts have tended to drive indigenous workers off the land.
The result is that millions of indigenous migrants have poured into the huge shantytowns of major cities such as Mexico City or Lima, Peru. Migrants often have to settle for informal work like street vending or off-the-books jobs such as sewing in sweatshops. Even legitimate employment often means fleeting work with firms in search of low-cost temporary labor. Because no job can be counted on, workers in assembly plants, hotels, and so forth often maintain economic ties to ancestral communities. Each household pieces together a living combining meager urban wages with food from the field. Back in the villages, the elders, and sometimes women and children, work the family’s inherited fields.
Families like these usually do not merge into the urban working class. Their “safety nets” are associations of fellow villagers. Old village connections give them financial credit and emotional support. Such families strive to maintain these connections in cities by tending to live in the same areas. At the same time they try to build their urban connections by trying to lose the low-prestige indigenous accent and dress of country people. (Urbanites usually reject the public identity of indigenousness because it carries a stigma.) But they do not renounce their rural homes. Indeed, today, it is mostly their donations that make possible traditional Andean or Mesoamerican dances and rituals.
Indigenous migrants also head for richer countries as legal or illegal immigrants to seek a better living. Many highland villages today have diaspora colonies in North America or Europe. The most obvious front-runners of migration from the Andean area are the Ecuadorian indigenous textile traders and musicians who play in cities from Washington, D.C., to Rome, Italy, to Sydney, Australia. But these visible Ecuadorians are just the edge of a much bigger population working inconspicuously in hotels, homes, factories, and shops. In industrial areas in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, indigenous immigrants are proving adept at helping to reclaim decayed industrial towns.
Indigenous peoples also use tourism, the crafts industry, and ecotourism as ways to escape poverty. In Otavalo, Ecuador, indigenous peasants have parlayed their weaving arts and their famous market square into a major export center of woolen goods. Quechua-speaking entrepreneurs form an upper middle class that piques the envy of local mestizos.
With ecotourism, one key to success is indigenous control of tour packaging. A standout example is Peru’s Taquile Island where the local indigenous people formed a cooperative that controls tourist lodging and sells crafts and textiles. More commonly, however, indigenous communities find it hard to capture income from the hundreds of thousands of visitors who visit fleetingly in search of quick cultural enrichment.

Social and Cultural Issues


Gender Roles
As the economic activities of indigenous communities have changed, gender roles have changed as well. Particularly among migrants and refugees, traditional male-dominated institutions within the indigenous community proved unable to guarantee order and welfare, while state support failed to make up the difference. Women took it upon themselves to try to help with the burden of soup kitchens and communal organizations. In doing so they also won public leadership positions. María Elena Moyano, the Afro-Peruvian deputy mayor of a largely indigenous-migrant borough of Lima, set a widely admired standard of female leadership. She was assassinated by the Shining Path in 1992. Along with changing gender roles, indigenous women also began to use birth control in larger numbers to gain more control over their lives. Family planning quietly increases female self-assertion and challenges traditional male privileges. Challenging these privileges in association with heavy ritual drinking can often lead to domestic violence.

Latin America has about 400 living indigenous languages. In some countries, more than 200 different languages are spoken. The giant among Native American languages is Quechua, the former official language of the Inca Empire. If considered as a single speech community, Quechua-speakers number near 10 million. But some linguists think it more realistic to speak of a Quechua family of languages because some Quechua dialects are barely mutually intelligible. Quechua is spoken in large parts of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, as well as smaller parts of Colombia and Argentina.
The Maya family of languages has even greater diversity, with more than 30 tongues in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. About 4.5 million Paraguayans (most of whom do not consider themselves indigenous) know the indigenous language Guaraní, one of the country’s official languages. Aymara, with speakers estimated from 1 million to 2.5 million, spreads from the Bolivian high plains into southern Peru. The rest of the Latin American languages consist of far smaller speech communities, sometimes tiny ones consisting of a single village. These are the ones most vulnerable to extinction. Most of the small ones are endangered with many close to disappearing.

The future of indigenous languages is linked to education. Most Latin American countries have highly centralized, urban-oriented, school systems with instruction only in Spanish. Longstanding neglect of education in indigenous rural areas prior to the 1970s caused large literacy gaps between nonindigenous and indigenous populations, especially among women. But rural schooling began to improve greatly after 1970. However, the differences in literacy between nonindigenous and indigenous populations are still dramatic: In Colombia, 16 percent of all Colombians were illiterate in the 1980s versus 45 percent of indigenous Colombians. In Guatemala 40 percent of all citizens were illiterate versus 79 percent of indigenous ones; in Panama the rate was 14 percent versus 62 percent; and in Paraguay 13 percent versus 70 percent.
Most of the indigenous confederations have pressed for bilingual-intercultural education, with instruction in both the indigenous language and the country’s primary language. The objective is for students to keep lasting competence in both languages and cultures. Human resources are not lacking; in some Peruvian highlands almost 40 percent of teachers already know the indigenous languages of Quechua or Aymara.
Yet bilingual education still faces great obstacles. Parents fear that teaching their children indigenous languages will stigmatize them. Teachers aspiring to jobs in urban areas do not commit to improving rural schools. Ministries are slow to publish teaching materials in indigenous languages. However, there have been some places of progress. Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru established bilingual-intercultural education programs in their ministries of education in the 1990s. Indigenous-language radio stations such as Bolivia’s Radio San Gabriel in Aymara have also made inroads into the media industry.
As recently as 1970, it was unheard of for indigenous people to attend college. But by 2000 indigenous students from countries with large Native American populations had made their way into higher education. In Guatemala, a nongovernmental Academy of Mayan Languages, in which indigenous college graduates were often active, achieved remarkable successes by a grassroots method. Instead of leaving indigenous language issues to outside specialists, local committees of linguistically trained native speakers built up norms for writing each local dialect, while also coordinating with peers to maximize common ground among dialects. A new generation of Native American intellectuals is appearing everywhere. Guatemalan Maya proponents of ethnic revitalization such as Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil and Víctor Montejo have been especially effective in promoting scholarship among indigenous peoples.

Health Care
Where health care is concerned, virtually all reporting countries show important gaps between indigenous health care and overall levels. Panama in 1992 reported infant mortality for indigenous peoples at 3.5 times the national average. Honduras found in 1993 that life expectancy for indigenous men was only 36 years (compared to 65 for all men) and 43 for indigenous women (compared to 70 for all women). A Guatemalan report showed the percent of indigenous women who died in childbirth was 83 percent higher than the national rate in 1994. Indigenous populations overall show high incidences of viral disease, malaria, and tuberculosis.
A particularly troubling problem is the continued spread of devastating infectious diseases among Amazonian peoples with weak immunological defenses. Measles was often a recurrent disaster. Areas with growing nonindigenous populations, such as gold rush zones and adjacent forests, have an increasing number of infections from sexually transmitted infections as well. However, rural health posts in the densely populated highlands have made important progress in reducing perinatal deaths and tuberculosis. This progress has been made in part by training local, often indigenous, peasants to be health promoters in the public health system. Because they are respected members of the community, they help greatly in explaining how and why to practice medicine that uses antibiotics.
One issue with health care is that indigenous patients tend to fear medical personnel and avoid them until illnesses become extreme. They feel doctors who are unaware of indigenous ideas about the body, or scorn them, bring danger and shame onto them. Indigenous confederations have strongly urged including shamans, midwives, and herbal curers within the public health service. Some model clinics, such as an Oxfam International-sponsored project among the Shipibo people in Amazonian Peru, have proven this feasible.

Since European contact, indigenous peoples have often combined their religions with nonindigenous religions. Indigenous religions coexist, and sometimes blend, with Catholicism. Most, if not all, indigenous people have at least some knowledge of Christianity, but most also conserve indigenous worship practices of pre-Hispanic origin. Literate Maya increasingly see a sacred testament in the Popol Vuh, an ancient Maya account of the creation and history of the world. Most Andean highlanders receive the main Catholic sacraments, such as Communion, but also make sacrifices to the deified mountains whom they feel own their land and water. After the Vatican II reforms (1962-1965), many Catholic clergy took a more positive attitude toward such combinations, in conjunction with Church support for the social justice claims of oppressed peoples. Peru’s spectacular Qoyllur Rit’i (starry snow) pilgrimage includes both a ritual climb in which costumed dancers bring sacred ice from the heights, and a mass in a chapel under a peak.
Protestantism is booming in many indigenous communities in Middle and South America. It is not new. As early as 1900 Adventist missions attracted many Aymara peasants on Lake Titicaca’s shores, and in the 1950s Guaraní-speaking indigenous people from Paraguay’s arid Chaco region began gathering around non-missionary Mennonites. But since the 1970s Protestant missionary religions, especially Evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, and Adventists, have grown explosively among indigenous groups as well as among mestizos living in cities. Some Protestant converts are intolerant of indigenous practices. Lynchings of “idolatrous” shamans have been reported in Bolivia. At the same time, certain Evangelical groups strongly affirm the worth of indigenous identity. They propose improving the indigenous way of life by eliminating the use of alcohol and promoting indigenous-language literacy.

Is the resurgence of what Bolivians call the “original peoples” just a passing phase, or is it the new dynamic? Many unknowns remain: how to implement ethnic rights without bureaucratizing culture; how to save endangered languages; how to stop political and drug-related violence from drowning reform; and how governments with deep problems of debt and corruption can serve long-neglected indigenous citizens. Indigenous groups fear, too, that they are defenseless in global free markets. Some Maya who consider growing corn a sacred duty, protest they cannot sell it amid a flood of cheaper imports. But one achievement is secure: Latin America’s native peoples have shown impressively how oppressed peoples can achieve resurgence without engaging in mass violence against their neighbors.