Indigenous cultures of South America

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Indigenous cultures of South America

Before Europeans arrived in South America, the continent was home to a variety of flourishing civilizations and cultures. Some of these cultures remain today; others have left incredible ruins.


Machu Picchu

There have been hundreds of indigenous nations and tribes. Many exist today, though often greatly reduced in numbers and territory, while others were wiped out by Europeans (in particular the Spanish and Portuguese), either from diseases brought from the Old World, by military conquest or for other reasons. Here are some main categories, based on geographic locations.

  • The Inca Empire is the best-known of the South American kingdoms, and was defeated by the conquistadors in the early 1500s. At its height, the Inca Empire spanned much of modern-day Peru and Ecuador, and parts of Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Colombia. Much of the land they conquered was either mountainous, jungle, or both, and therefore is not easy to travel through.
  • The Muisca Confederation was one of the four great civilizations of the Americas, along with the Inca, Aztecs and Maya, though not as well-known. The confederation spanned much of the Andino (Andean) region of Columbia. The Muisca are famed for their sophisticated and beautiful golden handicraft and artworks. Their cultural traditions were what inspired the Spanish to find the mythical city of gold, El Dorado, to no avail.
  • The Nazca (or Nasca) tribal group is famous for the Nazca Lines, gargantuan lines drawn on the ground. Why the people put this much effort into drawing seemingly pointless lines is a matter of debate, but since the drawings resemble objects when viewed from above, it is believed that they were some kind of message to the gods during a long-term natural disaster, like perhaps a drought. For more information, see the city article about Nazca.

However, while the Spanish and Portuguese eventually conquered South America, the indigenous population remained larger in Latin America than it did in Canada or the United States; indigenous people still have significant populations in countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and most Latin Americans have at least partial indigenous ancestry. South America was first populated around 10,000 BC, through migration from Central America.


Map of Indigenous cultures of South America
  • Sacred Valley of the Incas. An area of Peru with numerous Inca ruins and other sites.
    • 1 Cuzco (Cusco). The capital of the Inca Empire still has a huge array of ruins and colonial buildings built on Inca foundations, as well as museums and cultural information about the Incas. It also makes a starting point for trips to other Inca sites in the area.
    • 2 Machu Picchu (near Aguas Calientes, or reachable by hiking the Inca Trail). Machu Picchu is one of the best-known ruins on Earth, a stone city built by the Incas on a mountaintop.
    • 3 Choquequirao. Another large ruin less well known and harder to get to (and therefore much less crowded) than Machu Picchu.
    • 4 Ollantaytambo. This town is still laid out the way it was in Inca times, and some houses from that time still remain. The mountains around the town are dotted with ruins as well.
    • 5 Pisac. A magnificent set of Inca ruins on the side of a mountain.
  • 6 Cutimbo and 7 Sillustani, near Lake Titicaca in Peru, with pre-Inca ruins.
  • 8 Nazca for the Nazca drawings and Nazca history.
  • 9 Pali Aike Cave. Contains archaeological tools dating from over 11000 years and the first human settlement in the Magellanes. Pali-Aike Cave (Q16554271) on Wikidata
  • 10 Tequendama, Colombia. An 11,000 year-old pre-ceramic and ceramic site providing evidence of guinea pig domestication. Tequendama (Q3485396) on Wikidata Tequendama on Wikipedia
  • 11 Tiwanaku. Pre-Inca ruins near La Paz. Tiwanaku (Q61750) on Wikidata Tiwanaku on Wikipedia
  • 12 Chavín de Huántar (Peru). UNESCO World Heritage Site from the pre-Incan Chavin culture. Chavin de Huantar (Q732554) on Wikidata Chavín de Huántar on Wikipedia
  • 13 Xingu Indigenous Park (Brazil). Halfway between the Pantanal and the Amazon, it is the largest indigenous territory in Brazil and one of the largest in South America. Xingu Indigenous Park (Q183444) on Wikidata Xingu Indigenous Park on Wikipedia


  • Inca Highlands — how to travel the ancient Inca routes to see the famous ruins and historic sights related to the Inca people
    • Inca Trail — Peru's most famous trek, this route takes you along the Inca road system, past various ruins, ending at Machu Picchu.

See also[edit]

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