Map 1. World Exploration, 1271-1611. (Sayre, 2013)
This discussion revolves around the indigenous people of South American, who are the people living in the areas of this region before the written word and exploration by Europeans. The diversity visible in Latin America today has its roots in the historical foundations of its land and people. The major historical influences include the impact of indigenous cultures and significance of conquering or invading nation politics and social structures.
Using modern technology, Anna Roosevelt and a team of anthropologists argue that there was a prehistoric society that predated Andean societies located in the eastern Marajo, a low-lying area around the Amazon. The “Marajoara” people were a large civilization of people, perhaps numbering 100,000 or more. She and her team have developed a new picture of prehistoric Latin America where people settled at rivers and estuaries to exploit the natural food sources found there and began to make pottery, which dates 1,400 and 3,000 years before the first pottery appeared in the Andes or coastal areas of Peru. In other words, this culture developed into the chiefdom cultures we recognize today but the people themselves disappeared mysteriously before 1300. By the first written accounts, a different culture of Indians existed in the savannas of the Marajo.
Fig. 1 Clossal head, La Venta, Mexico, Olmec culture. ca. 900-500BCE. (Sayre, 2010)
Initially, the Spanish and Portuguese, known as the Iberians hoped to trade with the indigenous peoples of the New World. The Indians, however, were not interested in commercial intercourse. In response, the Iberians began to settle and colonize their new territories instead. Social hierarchies based on land ownership were slowly put into place by Iberian settlers. Although many settlers sought gold, others focused on agricultural development. In order to stabilize the colonies and make them more self-sufficient, skilled craftsmen and farmers were encouraged to migrate to the New World.
Fig. 2 Plan of Tenochtitlan, from Cortes’s first letter to the king of Spain. (Sayre, 2010)
The opulent Indian empires were captured and the inhabitants were made subject to the Castilian monarch. Although the Spaniards were outnumbered, European innovations such as steel, gunpowder, the domestication of the horse, effective military tactics, crossbows, and desire helped to facilitate their victories. Another aspect helping to insure European domination over the natives was through the spread of European diseases, against which the natives had no immunities.
The Iberians exploited all of the natural resources found and cultivated in the New World. Eventually, this rich land of resources and wealth drew the attention of the French, Dutch, and English. The abundance of gold and silver mined in Peru, Brazil, and Mexico helped stimulate the European economy and fund industrial revolutions. Even though the Indians were exploited as slave labor, the Iberians learned much from their “subjects” about how to survive in their new environment. Through intermarriage, the settlers and subjects were irrevocably linked together creating a new social class structure.
Historically, Latin America has been economically dependent on the export of agricultural and mineral commodities. Early trade attitudes were initially defined by the “physiocrat doctrine” with regard to competition. Observing the wealth accumulated by trade in economic markets, countries began to vie for free trading privileges. Unfortunately, they competed against each other and flooded the market causing the prices and profits for farmers to fall. This was to set a precedent for economic activity in Latin America. According to E. Bradford Burns in Latin America, “development became more illusion than reality over the years.”
Several attempts have been made over the last four or more decades to form trading blocs within Latin America. The goals have been to unify the countries and protect the markets from outside competition and to form larger internal markets. In 1960, a trade association known as the “Latin American Free Trade Association”, or “LAFTA”, now known as the “Latin American Integration Association”, or “LAIA”, was developed to encourage trade within Latin America. Fostering trade between the countries, they held, would eliminate some of the dependency incurred by separate nations trading outside the continent with foreign competitors. Then, in 1969, the “Andean Pact” was signed with similar goals in mind. Next, in 1992 the “North American Free Trade Agreement” was signed by the leaders of three countries: George H. W. Bush of the United States, Brian Mulroney of Canada, and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico. Finally, another trade agreement was prompted by Brazil based on the North Atlantic Free Trade Organization and was called the “South American Free Trade Area, or “SAFTA”. While economic frontiers were experiencing change, so were the population centers of Latin America.
Industrialization and modernization accompanied the growth of cities in size, number, and population. Cities became increasingly more important in each nation as the “hub” of cultural activity, government, commerce, transportation, communication, and education. Job opportunities and housing were among the many lures that encouraged the migration of peoples to the developing cities. Some cities experienced population migrations that they were unable to support.
Overpopulation, in fact, led to more competition for job opportunities, less housing, poverty, increased crime, the rapid spread of illness and disease, and the breakdown of the family unit. On the other hand, cities also provided the opportunity for upward mobility, job training, job opportunities for women, and participation in commercial activity and trading. It is important not to assume a “golden age” mentality about the growth of cities, however, since education was still basically a privilege of the elite, countries have remained dependent on an export economy, landowners have remained in the top realm of the social and economic strata, and color still defines social class.
Sayre, H. M. (2010). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. 2nd. ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.