The study of native peoples of Central and South America addresses many scientific and humanistic debates. It is a subject of considerable intrigue for archaeologists, linguists, and cultural anthropologists. Who are these people? Are they exotic others who engage in hallucinogenic drug use and shamanistic healing? Are they remnants of lost empires, victims of Western civilization’s aggressive quest for gold, Christian souls, and subjects for the medieval crowns of Europe? Are they romantic rebels who fight to preserve simple lifestyles in the remote jungles of Latin America? Or are they the blessed poor of the earth, crying for justice? How do we discover their true identities, unmask the myths and mysteries that surround them, sort out the lies and the truths of their histories, and learn how their lives reveal the broader issues concerned with the future and fate of the Western hemisphere?
At the time of the European invasion of Central and South America, it is estimated that between 15 million and 50 million people inhabited the diverse geographic region that stretched 7,000 miles between the Rio Grande River and Cape Horn. Archaeologists continue to find new evidence to explain how and when they came in various waves from several areas of Asia between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. As many as 2,000 different languages were spoken among the peoples, whose cultures varied according to their adaptations to a wide range of environments, including rain forests, desert coastal areas, mountains, fertile plains, and marshes. In the 21st century, their numbers are still difficult to discern, but for another reason. Latin America is a land of the mestizo, persons of mixed native and European heritages. Despite the fact that most Latin Americans have indigenous roots and many native peoples are assimilated in part into mainstream lifestyles, native peoples can still be identified by distinctive language and cultural practices. They sustain diverse authentic identities in traditional communities, many of them in isolated regions of Central and South America.
Native peoples of Central and South America, referred to as “indigenous,” or “Amerindian,” can be studied in terms of their historical adaptations to their environments in specific culture areas. In his classic outline of South American cultures, George Peter Murdock defined the following areas: Isthmian, Caribbean, Colombian, Peruvian, Chilean, Fuegian, Pampean, Chaco, Paraguayan, Eastern Lowland, Atlantic, Goyaz, Para, Xingu, Bolivian, Montana, Jurau-Purus, Amazon, Loreto, Caqueta, Savanna, Guiana, Orinoco, Coastal Caribbean, and Floridian. Murdock’s culture areas are characterized by linguistic affiliation, food production techniques, crafts, housing types, community organization, and marriage and kinship norms. Peoples within culture areas share religious ideas and knowledge of the environment or practical skills with each other. Their languages typically share mutually intelligible terminology and grammatical structures. Through trade, they share resources. This can but does not necessarily lead to more complex social organization. Culture area studies are primarily ecological in their focus. They are also the focus of linguistic studies.
Native peoples of Central and South America can also be studied in terms of the development of levels of complexity in their social and political systems. While many culture areas remained sparsely populated, the availability of resources, the development of agriculture, and increased trade allowed some populations to grow denser. Peoples like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca developed complex political systems, elaborate ritual centers, and impressive civilizations. They also expanded their territories through warfare and were known to practice human sacrifice of their prisoners. Archaeologists continue to discover evidence of a broad range of human sacrifice practices throughout Central and South America, including voluntary sacrifice of children in some areas.
The study of native peoples of Central and South America also examines how these societies changed over time and how they either collapsed or were destroyed by European invasions. Archaeologists, linguists, and cultural anthropologists uncover evidence to understand the role of ancient native cultures in past developments and present realities. Contemporary Latin American nations are proud of their indigenous roots and support research that recognizes the wisdom of native peoples and their accomplishments. Museums throughout Central and South America display impressive artifacts of gold, jade, and other precious metals as well as pottery, stone sculptures, codices and khipus. Vast architectural ruins, remains of Maya and Inca glory, attract large numbers of tourists to Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru each year.
Native peoples of Central and South America can also be studied as small groups of survivors in remote regions, living in simple relationships to their environments, but certainly not isolated, unchanged, or in peace. These groups face uncertain futures as modern governments typically seek to exploit their natural resource endowments for financial gain. Forests for hardwood, gardens, and small farms that grow food for plantations that produce cash crops, mountains for minerals, and displacement of natives for cheap labor are part of a common policy among all nations of Central and South America. Cultural anthropologists tell the stories of these struggling peoples in diverse environments, published as ethnographies.
Cultural anthropologists also study native peoples of Central and South America in terms of how they adapt to the modern world and assimilate into the multicultural societies of Latin America. They tell the story of native tragedies and triumphs. Native peoples suffer the highest rates of mortality. They are the poorest and the least educated. They are excluded from political processes and suffer the greatest human rights violations. Increasingly, however, many have become successful political leaders in their respective nations, challenging the systems that exclude and oppress them. Others have high-profile international identities as champions of human rights and environmental justice. And many others work to preserve the dignity of their lives and cultures at local levels through cooperatives that sponsor education, health care, housing, and economic development from the grass roots. Anthropologists work to preserve their languages and cultural knowledge, particularly of their natural environments.
A large number of charitable organizations throughout the world send volunteers and resources to assist native peoples. A growing number of democracies in Latin America are beginning to recognize the importance of native peoples and are including them in democratic processes; however, this is both long overdue and largely unrealized for most native peoples. Native peoples contribute to the economies of Latin American nations through their labors in agriculture, fishing, and mining. They also contribute greatly to the culture of their nations through their costumes, food ways, music, dances, religious beliefs, crafts, and festivals.
- Lyon, P. J. (1974). Native South Americans: Ethnology of the least known continent. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Murdock, G. P. (1951). Outline of South American cultures. Behavioral science outlines (Vol. 2). New Haven, CT: Human Relations Areas Files.
- Wilson, D. J. (1999). Indigenous South Americans of the past and present: An ecological perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.