South America is defined as all the land south of the Panama Canal. The stark figures on South America categorize it as a middle of the pack type of content. Covering roughly 6.9 million square miles, it is the fourth largest continent covering approximately 3.5 percent of the surface of our planet. From a population standpoint, South America is home to roughly 425 million people, which makes it the fifth most populated continent.
South America was named by Westerners after the Italian Merchant, Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first to suggest the landmass was not part of the East Indies. A flamboyant writer, Vespucci went by Americus Vespucci when writing. Although there is much controversy about his authenticity, the new land mass discovered by Europeans was given the feminine version of his pen name – America. Obviously, the name also applies to North America.
Geographically, South America has many new attributes in geologic terms. The bridge connecting South and North America is also only 3 million years old, a blink of the eye in the history of the planet. The Andes run down the western coast of the continent and are a recent addition. The central area of the continent is referred to as the Amazon basin and is lightly populated.
The dominant countries in South America are Argentina and Brazil if one goes by size. Brazil is the largest. Argentina has historically been “wealthier,” but an economic crisis in the early 21st century severely hampered the country.
Dispense with the simplistic idea that South America is exclusively of Spanish, Portuguese, and native populations. Like the United States, South America received massive immigration from all over Europe. This is especially true of the southern countries of South America – Argentina, Brazil, and Chile – which have populations where a considerable percentage of the citizenry is primarily of European ancestry from many countries.
From 6 to 10 percent of Argentina’s population has some degree of German ancestry. Most of these German-Argentines trace their roots back before World War II.
Half or more of Argentina’s population has some measure of Italian ancestry – in whole or part – which produced the linguistic consequence that even though Argentina speaks Spanish, their national dialect has a massive amount of borrowed Italian words.
And not just in Argentina! Italians have a massive presence all over South America, being especially prominent also in Uruguay and Brazil. More Italians immigrated to South America than to the United States.
Uruguay is similar in ethnic makeup to Argentina. Chile is heavily Basque; but has a noticeable, though smaller, percentage of citizens with French, British, Italian, and even some German ancestry.
Brazil had a history of slavery until 1888, when it was officially abolished; and roughly half the country has some measure of African ancestry, whether in whole or part. The south of Brazil has a population of citizens primarily of European ancestry, though there is a famous Japanese community as well. Along with those of Portuguese ancestry, many Brazilians have Italian and German background. Also, Brazil has roughly 15 million citizens with some measure of Christian Arab ancestry.
Indeed, Arabs (primarily Christian) constitute a large population in South America, chiefly in Argentina (9% of Argentina’s population), Brazil (7.5%), and Chile (5%). They tend to be a prosperous mercantile class in whatever South American countries they are found.
The rest of South America tends to have larger percentages of native indigenous populations, where many have mixed (mestizo) ancestry. Bolivia, in 2018, had a president of Aymara native background: Evo Morales. There is still a degree of racial divide; but due to lots of intermarriages, the lines can be blurred.
South America has many natural resources. Venezuela has significant oil reserves, while iron and copper are present throughout the continent. The Amazon basin is thought to be home to many resources, including undiscovered medicinal plants, but much of it remains undiscovered to this day.
The Amazon River is one of the two biggest in the world, with the other being the Nile. The Amazon River moves the most water by far, nearly double the amount in the Nile, but is shorter than the Nile. It starts in the Andes and runs through much of the continent. The minerals and soil it brings from the mountains gives rise to the fertile lands in the center of the continent. Approximately 40 percent of all the water in South America drains into the river.
Economically, South America has never really got it correct. Corruption tends to be the rule of the day. All governments are democracies; though in 2018, Venezuela bordered on tyranny. Prosperous middle classes are hard to come by in any of the countries. Revenues from the massive natural resources tend to be controlled by small, rich percentages of the population in each country. Much of the remainder of the population typically lives close to, or below, accepted poverty levels. This situation has historically given rise to economic and political instability.
There are some exceptions. Chile has a strong middle class and is considered a developed country – however there is a gap between the rich and poor among the population. Argentina, though horribly corrupt, also has a middle class; but Argentina’s economy is more precarious.
For a while, Brazil was booming, and its GDP surpassed that of the UK. However, Brazil has recently fallen into a major depression and a massive corruption scandal, repeating the usual historical cycles of economic instability so common in South America.
It used to be that South America was almost monolithically Roman Catholic. Both Spain and Portugal were heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church and attempted to convert much of the continent to Catholicism. However, this has changed.
The massive immigration of Arabs to South America, in the 19th and 20th centuries, brought in many Orthodox Christians to the continent. Even though South America has roughly 25 million people with some degree of Arab ancestry, the vast majority are Christian.
But what is radically changing South America is a massive Evangelical Christian revival. Almost one-quarter of Brazil is now Evangelical Protestant, and Chile is roughly one-sixth Evangelical as well. This continental revival is having a massive effect on parts of the culture.
Islam is negligible in South America outside of Guyana and Suriname. But while Guyana (7% of Guyana is Muslim) and Suriname (14%) have large percentages of Muslim populations, the two countries are very small in population (under 1.4 million combined). Together, the combined populations of Muslims in these countries could be outnumbered by a reasonably sized suburb in Argentina or Brazil. So overall, the number of Muslims in South America is very small.
A reasonable estimate shows that, taken has a whole, Muslims constitute far less than 1% of South America’s population – with lightly populated Suriname and Guyana being the only exceptions.
While many imams (Muslim religious leaders) in South America claim larger constituencies, official demographic figures tend to refute such claims.
Still, the vast majority of South Americans are Roman Catholic, even if the number is dwindling; but it must also be appreciated that many of those official Catholics syncretize their religious beliefs with aspects of pre-Columbian native practices. Spiritualism is still strong in Brazil.
Judaism was never practiced by a noticeable percentage of the population in South America. Historically, the percentages have been low … with one exception.
Argentina! The history of the Jews in Argentina is very important. At one point, Jews were 2% of the population (similar to the percentage in America). They had a massive cultural influence. Argentina still has the fifth largest population of Jews in the world, outside of Israel.
Historically, South America was home to a number of great lost civilizations. The Incas, of course, are the best known. Their reign, however, was a relatively short 100 years from 1430 to 1530. This short time period coincided with the exploration and eventual domination of South America by Spain and Portugal.
Spain and Portugal first discovered South America in 1494. They brought numerous diseases from Europe, which wiped out large swaths of South Americans who had no natural defenses. The Incas are believed to have fallen because of this situation.
Both colonial powers were interested in South America. Spain controlled much of the continent, by virtue of a treaty with Portugal; but Portugal controlled Brazil. Indeed, Portuguese is the language spoken by Brazilians to this day.
Most of the countries in South America were able to gain independence during the 19th century.
Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana
These three countries are cultural outliers in South America. Guyana became independent of Britain in 1966, while Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. French Guiana is an integrated part of France, with representation in the French National Assembly and Senate, making French Guiana part of the European Union.
These three countries, on South America’s northeast coast, have a combined population of 1.6 million people – less than one-half of 1% of the continent’s total population. They speak neither Spanish nor Portuguese, and constitute a culturally distinct region in South America.
Overall, South America is a continent of contrasts. From the peaks of the Andes to the rain forest of the Amazon, South America is a place at odds with itself.