A Brief History of Latin America
If you want to know about the history of Latin America, the first thing you need to ask yourself is: Where is Latin America?
It is the area consisting of Mexico, all of Central America and South America, as well as the Caribbean islands. Most inhabitants speak Spanish or Portuguese, but there are other languages in this region like Indigenous languages, French, English and Dutch.
This is a vast area that cannot be defined simply. There are differences in language, culture, flags, terrain, climate, music and tortillas, to name a few. Spanish and Portuguese are the most widely spoken languages in this part of the world because the Spaniards & Portuguese colonized the majority of Latin America. Cultural influences come not only from Spain and Portugal, but also include contributions from indigenous tribes, other European nations, and African and Caribbean cultures.
Fun Facts about Latin America
Did you know….?
- Current population is 650,860,000 (look here for real-time updates)
- The largest trading partner is the USA and the second is Asia
- The Amazon rainforest reaches nine countries – Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
- 20% of the world’s oxygen is created from the Amazon jungle
- It is estimated that 77 uncontacted tribes live in the Amazon Jungle
- The oldest university in North America is the National University of Mexico
- Colombia produces more than 90% of the world’s emeralds.
- In Latin America, the largest waterfall is Angel Falls in Venezuela, the largest lake is Lake Titicaca in Peru & Bolivia, and the largest city is São Paolo
- Brazil hosts the largest street party in the world: Carnival (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras) in Rio de Janeiro
- Ecuador was the first country in the world to give constitutional rights to nature, meaning that mountains, water, air, forests, islands, etc. have legally enforceable rights to “exist, flourish and evolve.”
- Darwin developed the theory of evolution while visiting the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador
- 80% of the population lives in cities, making it the most urbanized continent in the world.
There is SO much more to add to this list, but this gives you an idea of the variety of things this region is known for.
But how did all of this begin? It is an interesting mix of war, oppression, recovery, and perseverance!
Let’s go back to the beginning…
Pre-Colombian Era (~20,000 BCE -1492 BC)
History shows the fluidity of power and dominance, and how civilizations were taken over one by another. The era prior to 1492 is known as the ‘pre-Columbian’ era because it is before the European-Spanish occupation and influence of the Americas (voyage led by Christopher Columbus).
The first known major civilization of Latin America was the Olmecs of Mexico. Little is known because they did not have a written language. The Olmecs were located in ancient Mexico from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE and foreshadowed all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya, Aztec, and Inca.
The Olmec civilization fell around 400 BCE, but it is not precisely known why this is because there was little documentation. They did, however, leave behind immense stone heads carved out of volcanic rock.
Many years later the Spanish arrived in the New World and encountered three major civilizations: the Incas in present-day Peru, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Mayans in Mexico and present-day Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. There were many other isolated tribes as well.
Below is a very simplistic timeline of the major civilizations:
- Olmecs ruled from 1200 BCE to 400 BCE
- Maya ruled from 1800 BCE to 1519 CE (ended when the Spanish conquered them)
- Aztecs ruled from 1345 CE to 1521 CE (ended when the Spanish conquered them)
- Inca ruled from 1400 CE to 1533 CE (ended when the Spanish conquered them)
Colonial Period (1492-1810)- The New World
This era stands out as doing the most to shape Latin America into what it is today. It began in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the Europeans colonized Latin America.
The Europeans changed the landscape from what it was in the Pre-Columbian era. Power structures that were newly put in place by Spanish and Portuguese still exist today. Native populations were wiped out and continue the struggle to recover today.
European explorers mark the beginning of this era by voyaging from the “Old World” (Europe) to the “New World” (North America and Latin America) in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus not only has an era named after him (“Pre-Columbian era”), he is credited with bringing the Spanish language to Latin America.
There is controversy about whether or not the “New World” was actually discovered by Christopher Columbus and other Europeans because indigenous populations had been living here for centuries. Yet, despite the debate, history classes will claim this was the beginning of the exploration and settlement of the modern western world.
During this time, the Native American population suffered and millions of people died. Much of the indigenous musical, language and other cultural traditions in the Caribbean and on the mainland were lost after the Europeans arrived due to conflict, forced labor, enslavement, and cultural abandonment as well as the spread of disease. For example, the Taíno tribes of the Caribbean consisted of 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 people before Christopher Columbus arrived, and by 1548 the native population had declined to fewer than 500 people.
Africans also suffered in this era and fleets of ships brought them to the Americas to work as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade. The main destinations on the mainland were Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Nicaragua as well as present-day Colombia and Panama. The main disembarkment locations in the Caribbean islands were Jamaica, Cuba, Barbados, present-day Haiti and St. Martinique. The largest population of African slaves (35%) went to Brazil on the mainland, and Jamaica in the Caribbean. The Africans brought with them a rich musical, cultural and culinary background. Latin America is known for having the “largest concentration of people with African ancestry outside Africa.”
Latin America has stood strong amidst these adversities and thrives today.
Post-Colonial Period (1810-Today)
Post-Colonial means the period of time where countries began getting independence from colonial rule. Colombia was the first nation to win independence from Spain and this marked the beginning of post-colonialism in Latin America. Other Latin American countries fought long and hard for independence. Most countries have since achieved sovereignty. However, 19 places are still under rule.
Non-sovereign territories include:
- United States Territories: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands
- British Overseas Territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Montserrat
- The Netherlands Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten
- French Republic: French Guiana (only mainland country) Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barts and St. Martin
- Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: New Sparta and the Venezuela Federal Dependencies
What Makes Up Latin America Today?
Here is a full list of countries and territories that make up Latin America today:
The ethnically diverse region of Latin America is thriving in the global economy and a leader in environmental conservation. It is a vibrant land comprised of varied people living mostly harmoniously and collaboratively. With time, the indigenous population will continue to thrive. A huge milestone was in 2006 when the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, was elected in Bolivia since pre-Columbian days.
Where Will You Go in Latin America?
I hope you learned something new about Latin America and its rich history! Comment below or sign up for a free class and tell us which country is on your bucket list!
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I began studying Spanish at age 11 and have been interested in language and culture ever since! While at university, I studied abroad in Spain and Costa Rica and got a B.A. in Environmental Economics with a minor in Spanish. After spending over a decade in corporate America, I now enjoy the simpler things in life. ¡Pura Vida!
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