Humans Enter the South American Continent

Evidence is increasing that the human population of South America may have arrived before the population of North America and may have migrated by a route other than the Bering Strait. The issue is contentious because it raises many questions about the relationships between the various early native cultures on both continents.

Summary of Event

South America generally and eastern Brazil in particular, are areas in which evidence of the oldest human inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere have been unearthed. Remains from various sites in western and southern regions also indicate that the first peoples of South America may have had several points of origin and may well have arrived before the first inhabitants of North America.

Archaeology indicates that the first peoples entered South America by around 13,000 b.c.e. They came most probably by sea, from the east, across the Atlantic Ocean. By 7000 b.c.e. there were at least three clearly defined migrant groups, with as many as a dozen related subdivisions indicated by genetic, biological, and linguistic studies. Genetic evidence indicates that the oldest skeleton ever found in South America, that of a female unearthed in eastern Brazil at the end of the twentieth century, originated in Africa. Other early sites of similar age have been found in Argentina and Chile. Estimates regarding how long people have lived in South America continue to be pushed further back in time as cave paintings, such as those depicting giant armadillos, which were extinct before the last ice age, and other remains are found. Such remains suggest the intriguing possibility that the ancestors of later humans might have first arrived in eastern Brazil as early as fifty thousand years ago.

The earliest human inhabitants of South America are not likely to have come overland from the north, as was once thought, but rather to have come by sea from other directions. Some evidence suggests that rather than a single migration by one type of people from a single place, early entry into South America could also have been accomplished by peoples from Austronesia to the south or Oceania to the west across the Pacific. Remains in southern South America suggest the possible first arrivals were aborigines who came from Australia to the southern tip of South America at Cape Verde, across the South Pacific. They would have migrated northward along the coasts after making landfall. They established the continent’s first fishing encampments and villages, where the oldest known pottery made in the Americas was produced between 7500 and 5000 b.c.e.

The vegetation and climate of eastern South America are classified as typical closed-canopy rain forests with a humid tropical monsoon climate. Rainfall averages upward of 80 inches (2 meters) or more a year. The first people lived in small groups, engaged in some farming of wild plants, and hunted small game. They lived in caves or temporary thatched dwellings and did not cultivate crops. There is no indication that they used seed from any plants that originated in the north, nor that they used any plants other than those in their immediate locale.

Hundreds of distinct cultural groups eventually developed from the original people. No matter where they many have come from, each led a lifestyle unique to and appropriate for their local environment. In time these differences led to ongoing conflicts between groups. This resulted in much genetic and cultural mixing.

Studies show that by the Early Archaic period, around 7000 b.c.e., another type of peoples, originating in Eurasia, had migrated from North America and either melded with or wiped out the original people. These peoples were masters of big-game hunting and expert gatherers of vegetable foods. They followed the hunt southward in their search for more game. These peoples might have been responsible for hunting to extinction many of the larger animals of North America, such as mammoths and the ancestors of the camels. Then they headed south in search of new sources of food. They perfected slash-and-burn agriculture as they moved into the jungles and destroyed established populations, replacing them with their own cultures as they went.

Highly developed agricultural peoples eventually dominated the richer maritime and riverine environments, and they drove the hunter-gatherers inland into more marginal areas. Sometimes the hunting peoples practiced cannibalism. Whether this was done for survival or for ritual purposes is unclear. Their lifestyles remained remarkably consistent, relying on skills developed during earlier periods. Hunting; fishing; gathering fruits, nuts, and seeds; and slash-and-burn agricultural practices required each group to move periodically within their territory to new ground once a site’s food growing potential was exhausted. Such groups were small, mobile, and relatively simple.

The greatest concentrations of population occurred among the agricultural cultures. In larger settlements and cities, tens of thousands of people descended from the original inhabitants lived together and developed highly abstract belief systems and intricate economies involving trade with surrounding peoples. The south and west Andes regions were home to some of the most advanced monolithic agricultural civilizations in the Americas. By 2500 b.c.e., they had tamed the camelids of the Andes: the llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas. From the end of the Archaic Transition, between 2000 b.c.e. and 1400 c.e., to the rise of the Incas, there were seven major periods, each marked by unique variations in architecture, use of textiles, and ceramics technology.


The new evidence for multiple migrations into South America from several directions and points of origin over a period of several thousand years, somewhere between 29,000 and 12,000 b.c.e., complicates the traditional picture of the peopling of the Americas. Early South American cultures were more diverse than previously realized, and their existence puts a new light on the migration of Eurasian peoples from the north. These peoples did not move into an empty continent but rather encountered previous inhabitants, whom they had to conquer or assimilate.

Further Reading

  • Fagan, B. The Great Journey: The Peopling of Ancient America. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987. Reconstructs the sources and defines the distribution of peoples across the American continent.
  • Kolata, A. L. Valley of the Spirits. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996. A beautiful and haunting look at a south American archaeological site, interpreting its possible uses and meanings.
  • Masuda, S., I. Shimada, and C. Morris, eds. Andean Ecology and Civilization. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1985. A collection of articles that details the ways in which the early South American environments and cultures of the Andes interacted to give rise to various later highly evolved civilizations.
  • Moseley, M. The Maritime Foundations of Andean Civilization. Menlo Park, Calif.: Cummings, 1975. Focuses on evidence supporting entry into the west coast of South America from the eastern Pacific, and how the sea shaped the lives and societies of those who depended on it for their livelihoods.
  • Richardson, James B., III. People of the Andes. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1994. Details origins and histories of peoples of western South America.
  • Sorenson, J. Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans. Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1990. Looks at various peoples’ first entry into the Americas from various directions by sea rather than overland from the north.