Indians of South America

Natives, South American

South American Natives, aboriginal peoples of South America. In the land mass extending from the Isthmus of Panama to Tierra del Fuego, Native American civilizations developed long before the coming of the European. It is estimated that about 30 million Native Americans lived in South America at the time Europeans arrived. Today the Native Americans of South America remain a major determinant in the social, political, economic, and cultural life of the various nations.

Early Cultures

Archaeological studies have shed light on the early cultures of the rugged Andean region. Extensive remains have established the existence of developed cultures at Chavín de Huántar and the Paracas peninsula in Peru. The Mochica, the Chimu, and the Nazca were three other major early Peruvian cultures. In Bolivia the impressive ruins at Tiahuanaco bear witness to yet another early civilization. The Chibcha of the N Andes, the Aymara of the central Andes, and the Araucanians of Chile are considered to have produced some of the socially complex pre-Columbian cultures (see pre-Columbian art and architecture) of the Andes, but the most impressive civilization, both from the point of view of technical achievement and of political structure, was unquestionably the empire of the Inca. The modern descendants of these Native Americans form an integral part of the populations of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and to a lesser extent of NW Argentina and Chile. Quechua, the Inca language, is the most widespread linguistic stock, but Aymara is also important (see Native American languages).


Since colonial days Native Americans have been used extensively as agricultural and industrial laborers, mostly without adequate remuneration or political representation; often they have been brutally exploited. These conditions of semiservitude are still prevalent in some areas, although political upheavals, especially in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, have done much to create an awareness of the need for social and economic reform.

Surviving Groups

The few remaining Native Americans of Venezuela, the Guianas, and Brazil N of the Amazon are mostly descendants of the Arawaks and the Caribs. A considerable number of seminomadic farmers and hunters survive in the hinterlands of the Guianas and in the basins of the upper Rio Branco and Rio Negro. In most of the Amazon basin, including the tropical regions of E Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and NE Argentina, as well as in the basin of the Río de la Plata, the surviving Native Americans are mostly of Tupí-Guaraní stock (see Guaraní). Belonging to a separate linguistic stock are the Gê-speaking Native Americans of the eastern highlands of Brazil. Although not materially advanced, the Gê are characterized by a highly complex social organization. The Brazilian Tupí-Guaraní practice a rudimentary form of subsistence agriculture and have not developed an extensive material civilization. Today the Native American population of Brazil is relatively small and scattered in isolated clusters. The Guaraní of Paraguay, on the other hand, are fairly numerous, skilled in minor arts, and play a significant role in the national life. Another tropical-forest Native American group is the Jívaro, once practitioners of head shrinking. The Colorado of W Ecuador are almost extinct but have often been the object of public attention because of their practice of painting their bodies with bright red paint. They are actually of Chibcha stock. The Motilones, who live along the border of Colombia and Venezuela in the marshes and hills W of Lake Maracaibo, have tenaciously resisted assimilation. The other major Native American groups of South America consisted of the nomadic hunters of Patagonia and the fishing people of the islands and fjords of S Chile and Argentina. The Puelches and Tehuelches, tall hunters of the Patagonian tableland, were encountered by early Spanish explorers; these people have virtually disappeared. In the rugged and wet region of the southernmost archipelagoes a dwindling number of Native Americans survive. Frequently called the Fuegians, because of their campsites at Tierra del Fuego, the Ona, Yahgan, and Alacaluf survive by hunting and fishing. The canoe is the chief mode of transportation of the Yahgan and the Alacaluf, and their social organizations are not as advanced as those of other Native American groups.


See J. H. Seward, ed., Handbook of South American Indians (7 vol., 1946–59, repr. 1969).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Indians of South America: Selected full-text books and articles

Indigenous South Americans of the Past and Present: An Ecological Perspective
David J. Wilson.
Westview Press, 1999
Native Peoples of South America
Julian H. Steward; Louis C. Faron.
McGraw-Hill, 1959
Ancient Civilizations of the New World
Richard E. W. Adams.
Westview Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Central Andes of South America: Origins and Early Civilizations" and Chap. 5 "The Central Andes of South America: Late Civilizations and the Inca Fall and Transformation on the North Coast"
Indigenous Peoples in Latin America: The Quest for Self-Determination
Haector Daiaz Polanco; Lucia Rayas.
Westview Press, 1997
Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives on the Native Peoples of Pampa, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego to the Nineteenth Century
Claudia Briones; José Luis Lanata.
Bergin & Garvey, 2002
Contemporary Perspectives on the Native Peoples of Pampa, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego: Living on the Edge
Claudia Briones; José Luis Lanata.
Bergin & Garvey, 2002
Indigenous Rights and Development: Self-Determination in an Amazonian Community
Andrew Gray.
Berghahn Books, 1997
The Indians and Brazil
Mercio P. Gomes; John W. Moon.
University Press of Florida, 2000 (3rd edition)
Peoples of the Gran Chaco
Elmer S. Miller; Laurie Weinstein.
Bergin & Garvey, 1999
A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru
Louis Baudin; Katherine Woods; Arthur Goddard.
D. Van Nostrand, 1961
Identity and Power in the Ancient Andes: Tiwanaku Cities through Time
John Wayne Janusek.
Routledge, 2004
Weaving the Past: A History of Latin America's Indigenous Women from the Prehispanic Period to the Present
Susan Kellogg.
Oxford University Press, 2005
The Indian Caste of Peru, 1795-1940: A Population Study Based upon Tax Records and Census Reports
George Kubler.
Greenwood Press, 1973
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator