In our continued efforts to provide up-to-date and interesting information about the continents of planet Earth, we’re going to be tackling South America, today. It’s a land just as rich in diversity—both cultural and natural—as any other region of the world. It has a heavily settled coast and a positively wild interior, featuring some of the most beautiful and exotic landscapes that you’ll find on the planet. It has a storied history, too, complete with thousands of years of amazing indigenous cultural knowledge, as well as many centuries of tragic colonial impact.
All of this has come together to shape a continent that’s both wild and powerful, today. Throughout the following article, the entirety of our aim will be to inform you, our dear reader, on some of the most noteworthy aspects of the continent—as well as point you towards further reading for more specific subjects. We’ll also be working to dispell some of the crazy myths that exist about South America, and many of the stereotypes and “rewritten” histories that have developed over the decades and centuries.
South America, the Continent
How most are taught to view South America has much to do with where they reside. In most English-speaking countries, South America is recognized as its own continental landmass, independent from North America even though the two are connected. In Romance-language regions, the opposite is true—South America is seen as a subcontinent of “the Americas,” a single continental landmass that extends far north and far south of the equator.
For the sake of ease, we’ll be writing from the perspective of the seven-continent model, but it’s fair to acknowledge that other models taught throughout the world are by no means invalid.
In the seven-continent model, South America is the fourth-largest of the planet’s continental landmasses, and also the fourth-largest in terms of population. It’s the home of a hugely diverse number of people and was populated for thousands of years by many indigenous cultures before any European colonists arrived on the continent’s shores. It has a huge national produce export business, featuring some of the most renowned items around the world.
Coffee, anyone? I know that I am sipping a delicious cup of Columbian as we speak!
If you have any knowledge of the continents’ position in relation to one another, you probably already know where South America is. It’s directly below North America, almost entirely within the southern and western hemispheres of Earth. A small portion of the continent extends above the equator, but by and large, it’s referred to as South America for a reason!
The continent is mostly known for tropical temperatures and unique landscapes such as the Amazon rainforest, but it actually extends much further south, to subtropical regions that are decidedly different than most of the stereotypes would have you assume. South America also has a massive amount of coastline and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
We’ll talk about population more below, but it suffices to say that South America is the fourth-largest continent both in terms of sheer landmass as well as population. North America is slightly larger in both regards, while Africa and Asia are each significantly larger. It’s approximately 17,840,000 square kilometers in terms of surface area.
Below, we’re going to help you to understand some of the geographical diversity present on the continent. From the Andes Mountains to the Amazon and its river basin, and even the hundreds of miles of lush, unique rainforest, there’s much to be understood about South America’s size, the landscape present in it, and how people have come to populate this continent.
Environments & Climates
No matter what common attributions might tell you, South America consists of far more diverse environments and climates than rainforests and river basins. It’s also home to a massive mountain range, as well as beautiful coastlines that have very respectable populations.
But it is understandable why the Amazon River gets such a hefty reputation. It’s the largest river in the world, and has a volume that’s unmatched by any other similar type of body of water elsewhere in the world. We’re talking about over 1000 separate tributaries, some of which are longer than 1000 miles! And it’s also no surprise that such a massive environmental feature as the Amazon River is going to give rise to a landscape around it—the Amazon Rainforest is also the world’s largest rainforest.
But the Amazon isn’t the only remarkable landscape on the continent. The western half of the continent is home to the Andes Mountains, indicative of the tectonic history of this particular landmass. And keeping with the trend of South America’s record-holding environments, the Andes are the world longest continental mountain chain! Because of the Andes’ proximity to the edge of tectonic activity, populated regions close to the mountains—particularly in Chile—are quite vulnerable to frequent earthquakes.
As you might imagine, such a diverse landscape is going to give rise to an equally diverse ecosystem, and the unique environments offered on the South American continent are the home to many unique species.
Most people are familiar with dolphins, but the Amazon is home to the river dolphin, a species of freshwater mammal that can grow up to eight feet in length, and uses echolocation to hunt and navigate through various parts of the Amazon river. They share that aquatic space with the massive pirarucu—a species of fish that can grow up to fifteen feet in length—and several species of the infamous piranha.
In addition to that, you’ve almost certainly heard of the legendary anaconda—one of the largest snakes in the world—as well as the caiman, a sharp-snouted relative of crocodiles. Both thrive in the Amazon’s unique ecosystem, and their proliferation speaks to how wild the interior of the continent actually is.
Looking to the Andes, we can see similarly unique wildlife that flourishes in the mountains. The Andean Condor is a massive, rare bird, and the chinchilla is an endangered rodent species that can frequently be found in exotic pet stores.
People & Cultures
To be clear from the outset—many indigenous cultures were inhabiting the continent of South America for hundreds of years before European colonists arrived. The 15th and 16th centuries saw a massive influx of conquerors, traders, and slavers from Spain, Portugal, and other European powers. They brought with them many diseases not seen before on the continent, and in a manner that virtually mirrored the effects of colonial powers in North America, the result was disastrous for indigenous people.
Centuries later, many of the outwardly harmful practices used against the continent’s indigenous people have subsided. Modern civilization is prevalent on the eastern and western coasts of South America. Cities such as São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, and Lima are major population centers, with millions of people living in them.
As stated above, the interior of South America is very sparsely populated when compared to the coast. Coastal regions typically have more of the staples necessary for successful human habitation, and the rugged wilderness that the Amazon, its river basin, and the southern highlands are known for are far less ideal for major population centers. Thus, the coasts—as well as the northern region that connects to the “Central America” region—remain far and away the most inhabited.
Below, we’ve arranged a list of South America’s countries and territories, as well as their approximate populations:
- Brazil: 206,440,850 people
- Columbia: 49,034,411 people
- Argentina: 43,417,000 people
- Venezuela: 31,416,930 people
- Peru: 31,151,640 people
- Chile: 18,006,407 people
- Ecuador: 16,144,000 people
- Bolivia: 11,410,651 people
- Paraguay: 6,783,272 people
- Uruguay: 3,427,000 people
- Guyana: 735,909 people
- Suriname: 573,311 people
- French Guiana: 250,109 people
- Falkland Islands: 3,140 people
- South Georgia/South Sandwich Islands: 20
From hundreds of millions to only several thousand, this list helps to highlight the population spread of people living in South American territories. And if you use the maps that we’ve included in this article, you can further help to pinpoint where the greatest populations reside.
Though we’ll certainly be returning to South America in the future—just about every topic we’ve introduced can be expanded upon—there are plenty of places online where you can read more specifically about the continent. National Geographic is a great place to start, and the Encyclopedia Britannia is a fantastic resource, too, full of in-depth knowledge that can be parsed in digestible morsels. After all, it’s hard to learn from an information overload!
We hope that the above article has been helpful to you; we’ve aimed to deliver a very broad description of the South American continent, touching on relevant subjects in plenty while not leaving anything out. If you have any further questions about South America, don’t hesitate to give them a voice in the comments selection below. We’ll aim to answer everything that we can. And, as always, thank you for reading! We look forward to the opportunity to write even further about some of the more specific features of this unique part of our planet’s geography.