Pre Columbian Peoples

The natural environment of the continent of South America is overwhelmingly diverse and thus has posed special problems of physiological adaptation to its indigenous populations, as well as later to European, African, and Asian intruders. Indeed, because of the harsh environments of much of the continent, there are but few places in which people can flourish without great effort and skillful labor. In much of the continent's vast interior, even communication and transportation would be impossible without the river systems of the Amazon and the Paraná-Paraguay along with the smaller rivers of Colombia and Venezuela, the Magdalena and the Orinoco, and the Sáo Francisco of northeastern Brazil.

One of the most formidable environments is that of the Andes Mountains, which range from western Venezuela to the tip of the continent, with snowcapped peaks at more than 20,000 feet in altitude and with populations perched at 10,000 and 13,000 feet. At such altitudes, scarcity of oxygen has led to physiological adaptations in the bodies of the indigenous peoples of Peru and Bolivia that permit them to perform hard physical labor in the thin air.

The Andes break the westerly movement of rainfall from the Amazon basin, and rain falls in profusion on the eastern slopes, where lush tropical forests shelter the people of the Upper Amazon from outside invaders. On the opposite side of the Andes, a lack of rainfall creates the semiarid coastal lowlands intersected by small rivers flowing through the desert to the ocean.

As early as 13,000 B.C., people settled in camps along the coast of Peru and Chile. They fished and hunted the marine life of the Humboldt current that sweeps up from Antarctica, and planted crops along the rivers. Some 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, they built temples and monumental structures in "U" shapes along the northern coast (Stevens 1989). They would later construct massive irrigation complexes, cities, and states, the greatest of which was the Kingdom of Chimu, conquered first by the Incas and then by the Spaniards.

From these earliest beginnings in the coastal deserts, civilizations evolved and spread to the highlands at Chavín de Huantar in the Andes and the great grasslands around Lake Titicaca in the high plain (ialtiplano) of Peru and Bolivia, where stone monoliths recall the civilization of Tiwanaku, whose wealth was based on enormous herds of llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. In Colombia the golden chiefs of "El Dorado" ruled confederations of chiefdoms from their towns and villages, while the powerful empire of the Incas governed large cities from Ecuador to northern Argentina and Chile, and embraced both coastal deserts and mountain valleys. Great armies swept along the Inca roads, sometimes spreading a mysterious disease, which may have been typhus (Guerra 1979).

While large cities and empires evolved in the Andean world, large towns also arose along the Amazon River and its tributaries, where many people lived before 1500. In fact, Donald Lathrup views the central Amazon and its chiefdoms as the "cradle" of civilization in South America (Stevens 1989). They were in touch with the Andean world. They traded with it, and their armies (along with "fevers") repelled Incan armies that tried to conquer them. When the Spanish under Francisco de Orellana penetrated the Amazon in the 1540s, they encountered "very large cities" whose armies attacked them as they explored the river to its mouth. Civilization thus extended all the way to Santarém at the Tapajós river (where mound builders sculpted fanciful ceramics) and to Marajó Island at the mouth of the Amazon (where another group of mound builders, the Marajoara, buried their ancestors in large funeral urns) until about A.D. 1300, when the people there mysteriously disappeared (Roosevelt 1989). Those who lived along the Amazon River raised maize on the floodplain of the river, or root crops such as manioc on marginal soils. They traded with one another, held large fiestas in which maize beer was drunk, and worshiped their ancestors. In other words, the Amazon region was populated and even "civilized" on the eve of the conquest.

Between the rivers, nomadic hunters and gatherers roamed as far south as the semiarid savanna region (the cerrado) of central Brazil or occupied the great swampland (the pantanal) of western Mato Grosso and Bolivia. Either too little water for 6 months in the cerrado or too much in the pantanal during the rainy season forced people to migrate with the changing seasons.

Further south more propitious conditions for settlement existed along the floodplains of the Paraná-Paraguay rivers, where the Guaraní lived a settled agricultural life-style in small towns and villages. Linguistically related to them were the Tupí, who had migrated to the Brazilian coast and farmed in the tropical forests along coastal rivers. The vast grassland of the pampas housed nomads who hunted a "humpless camel" and large flightless birds. Other hunters and gatherers followed their prey to the barren, windswept lands on the edge of Antarctica, where they occupied the rocky outcrops of the Straits of Magellan.

The Spanish, who, following Columbus, landed at Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela in 1498, would confront sophisticated civilizations that had mastered difficult environments from lowland tropical rain forests and deserts without rainfall to high mountain valleys. As settled agriculturalists living in villages, towns, and cities, they raised a variety of foodstuffs, giving many of them an excellent diet, and traded surpluses to neighbors in different localities. Only nomadic hunters and gatherers had uncertain food supplies by 1500. On the eve of the conquest, the pre-Columbian populations of South America were among the best-fed peoples of the fifteenth century, which in turn had an impact on the quality of their health and nutritional status, and hence resistance to disease.

In the Andean highlands, the staples were maize, white potatoes (often stored as freeze-dried chunu), and the "Andean rice" quinoa, which were supplemented by guinea pigs and llama meat. Warehouses built as early as 3,800 years ago stored food against times of famine. In the coastal deserts, farmers raised corn, beans, squashes, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, and caught fish, hunted birds, or raised guanacos in Chile. The peoples of the Amazon specialized in the root crops, such as manioc, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, as well as maize, and hunted deer and tapirs, fished in the great rivers, and gathered nutritious wild fruits and nuts. Only away from the rivers were food resources precarious for nomadic hunters and gatherers. Some of these populations, as well as the coastal Tupi of Brazil, supplemented their diet with human victims acquired in wars and eaten in religious rituals.

On the whole, diets were largely vegetarian - low in animal fats but rich in vitamins and vegetable protein from beans, peanuts, and amaranth — with some animal protein from fish, birds, and animals. The lack of dairy cattle and goats, however, often meant calcium deprivation in weaned babies and children and osteomalacia in adult women who had multiple pregnancies. In fact, ceramic figurines from western Mexico and the west coast of South America that depict bed-ridden females with "deformities and bowing of the lower extremities" may document cal cium deprivation in pre-Columbian women (Weis-man 1966). Otherwise, limited skeletal analysis from Peru suggests that the pre-Columbian people as a group were healthy and died from accidents and war injuries, old age, and ritual sacrifices rather than from frequent epidemic diseases. There is, however, some evidence from bone scars for a severe childhood febrile illness among the coastal cultures of Paracas, Nazca, and lea (Allison, Mendoza, and Pezzia 1974). All this would change with the arrival of the Europeans and their African slaves, who would alter both the diet and disease environment of South America.

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