South America is one of Earth's seven continents. It is separated from North America by the Isthmus of Panama. It consists of the nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay.
South America has diverse climates and biomes due to the large range of latitudes that it straddles. The Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, form the backbone of the continent and separate the Pacific coast from the interior. The highest peak outside of Asia, Aconcagua, is situated in the southern Andes. The northern part of the continent straddles the Equator and is blanketed with tropical rainforests. The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is the largest contiguous rainforest on Earth. The Amazon River is the largest river by discharge and second longest, after the Nile.
South America was first populated by hunter-gatherers from North America around 12,000 years ago. These settlers formed large and complex civilizations in the Andes as well as the Amazon rainforest. In Peru, the Incas built the largest pre-Columbian empire of the Americas, with a well-developed road system and a counting device called the quipu, although no written language. In western Brazil, sites of sophisticated civilizations are currently being excavated.
The arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century dramatically changed the political and cultural landscape of the continent. A group of early conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, destroyed the Inca empire in the 1530s and claimed Peru for Spain. Colombia and Venezuela were also colonized by the Spanish, while Portugal, the Dutch Republic, and Great Britain claimed various parts of northern South America.
By around 1650, most of the continent, excluding Patagonia and the Amazon, had been claimed by Europeans. The indigenous population had been decimated, in part by disease and in part by brutal treatment, particularly by the Spanish. The natives worked in the silver, gold, and copper mines of Chile and Bolivia, receiving little or no pay and dying in droves. The indigenous people of Brazil were often employed on sugar plantations, although they were later replaced by African slaves. A social class system developed, with native people and Africans on the bottom, followed by mixed race "creoles," pure-blood whites, and finally people born in Europe, known as "peninsulares." Only peninsulares were allowed to hold high political office.
Popular sentiment in South America began to turn against its colonial status in the late 18th century. The weakened state of Spain and Portugal due to the Peninsular War, combined with the upper middle class' resentment of the peninsulares, boiled over into open rebellion in 1810 under the leadership of Simón Bolívar. By 1830, the modern nations of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador were united in an independent Gran Colombia, and the rest of South America was also free.