South America, fourth largest of the world’s continents. It is the southern portion of the landmass generally referred to as the New World, the Western Hemisphere, or simply the Americas. The continent is compact and roughly triangular in shape, being broad in the north and tapering to a point—Cape Horn, Chile—in the south.
South America is bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the northwest and north, the Atlantic Ocean to the northeast, east, and southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. In the northwest it is joined to North America by the Isthmus of Panama, a land bridge narrowing to about 50 miles (80 kilometres) at one point. Drake Passage, south of Cape Horn, separates South America from Antarctica.
Relatively few islands rim the continent, except in the south. These include the glaciated coastal archipelagoes of Argentina and Chile. The Falkland (Malvinas) Islands are east of southern Argentina. To the north, the West Indies stretch from Trinidad to Florida, but these islands usually are associated with North America. Of the remainder, most are small oceanic islands off the coasts of South America, including the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean.
South America has a total area of about 6,878,000 square miles (17,814,000 square kilometres), or roughly one-eighth of the land surface of the Earth. Its greatest north-south extent is about 4,700 miles, from Point Gallinas, Colom., to Cape Horn; while its greatest east-west extent is some 3,300 miles, from Cape Branco, Braz., to Point Pariñas, Peru. At 22,831 feet (6,959 metres) above sea level, Mount Aconcagua, in Argentina, near the border with Chile, is not only the continent’s highest point but also the highest elevation in the Western Hemisphere. The Valdés Peninsula, on the southeastern coast of Argentina, includes the lowest point, at 131 feet (40 metres) below sea level. In relation to its area, the continent’s coastline—some 15,800 miles in length—is exceptionally short.
The name America is derived from that of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, one of the earliest European explorers of the New World. The term America originally was applied only to South America, but the designation soon was applied to the entire landmass. Because Mexico and Central America share an Iberian heritage with nearly all of South America, this entire region frequently is grouped under the name Latin America.
South America’s geologic structure consists of two dissymmetric parts. In the larger, eastern portion are found a number of stable shields forming highland regions, separated by large basins (including the vast Amazon basin). The western portion is occupied almost entirely by the Andes Mountains. The Andes—formed as the South American Plate drifted westward and forced the oceanic plate to the west under it—constitute a gigantic backbone along the entire Pacific coast of the continent. The basins east of the Andes and between the eastern highlands have been filled with large quantities of sediment washed down by the continent’s great rivers and their tributaries.
No other continent—except Antarctica—penetrates so far to the south. Although the northern part of South America extends north of the Equator and four-fifths of its landmass is located within the tropics, it also reaches subantarctic latitudes. Much of the high Andes lie within the tropics but include extensive zones of temperate or cold climate in the vicinity of the Equator—a circumstance that is unique. The great range in elevation produces an unrivaled diversity of climatic and ecological zones, which is probably the most prominent characteristic of South American geography.
The original inhabitants of South America are believed to have descended from the same Asiatic peoples who migrated to North America from Siberia during the most recent (Wisconsin) ice age. Few of these peoples, however, survived the arrival of Europeans after 1500, most succumbing to disease or mixing with people of European and (especially in Brazil) African origin. Some parts of the continent are now industrialized, with modern cities, but the people in rural areas still follow an agricultural way of life. The wealth of mineral products and renewable resources is considerable, yet economic development in most of the continent lags behind the more industrially advanced regions of the world. Nonetheless, concern has arisen about the rapidly increasing and often destructive exploitation of these resources.
For discussion of individual countries of the continent, see specific articles by name, e.g., Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. For discussion of major cities of the continent, see the articles Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima, Rio De Janeiro, and São Paulo. For discussion of the indigenous peoples of the continent, see the articles American Peoples, Native; and Pre-Columbian Civilizations. Related topics are discussed in the articles arts, Native American; Latin America, history of; and literature, Latin American.
|Brasília||Brazil||urban planning and architecture|
|Cartagena||Colombia||colonial port, fortresses, and monuments|
|Chan Chan||Peru||ruins of pre-Inca Chimú capital|
|Colonia del Sacramento||Uruguay||Portuguese and Spanish colonial architecture|
|Córdoba||Argentina||Jesuit institutions and estates|
|Coro||Venezuela||Spanish, Dutch, and local architecture|
|Cuzco||Peru||Inca and colonial architecture|
|Darién||Panama||national park, rainforests, and wetlands|
|Easter Island||Chile||monumental sculptures|
|Galapagos Islands||Ecuador||national park, unique ecosystem|
|Huascarán, Mount||Peru||montane national park|
|Iguaçu (Iguazú)||Brazil and Argentina||national parks, waterfalls, and subtropical rainforests|
|Lima||Peru||historic city centre|
|Los Glaciares||Argentina||national park, glacial lakes, and mountains|
|Los Katíos||Colombia||national park, rainforests, and wetlands|
|Machu Picchu||Peru||Inca ruins|
|Nazca Lines||Peru||extensive geoglyphs|
|Pantanal||Brazil||freshwater wetland ecosystem|
|Potosí||Bolivia||colonial industrial city|
|Quito||Ecuador||colonial city centre|
|Salvador||Brazil||historic colonial centre|
|Valdés Peninsula||Argentina||seals, whales|
|*The spelling or styling of place-names in this table may differ from those given on the World Heritage List; in addition, some place-names represent one or more constituent parts of larger World Heritage sites.|
Table Of ContentsGeologic history
The geologic history of South America can be summarized in three different developmental stages, each corresponding to a major division of geologic time. The first stage encompassed Precambrian time (about 4 billion to 540 million years ago) and was characterized by a complex series of amalgamations and dispersals of stable blocks of protocontinental crust called cratons. The second stage coincides with the Paleozoic Era (about 540 to 250 million years ago), during which time the cratons and material accreted to them contributed to the formation first of the supercontinent Gondwana (or Gondwanaland) and then of the even larger Pangaea. The third stage, in which the present continental structure emerged, occurred in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras (about the past 250 million years) and includes the breakup of Pangaea and Gondwana, the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean, and the generation of the Andean cordillera.
The present tectonic framework of South America consists of three fundamental units: the ancient cratons, the relatively recent Andean ranges, and a number of basins. Five cratons—Amazonia, São Francisco, Luis Alves, Alto Paraguay, and Río de la Plata—represent the Precambrian core of South America, and (with the exception of the Alto Paraguay craton) these now appear as upwarped massifs arrayed from north to south in the immense eastern portion of the continent; a number of other Precambrian crustal blocks also were accreted along the margins of South America over geologic time. The lofty ranges and intermontane plateaus of the Andes rise along the entire western margin of the continent and represent the collision in the Cenozoic Era (about the past 65 million years) of the Pacific and South American plates brought about by the opening of the South Atlantic. Finally, vast, downwarped, sediment-filled basins are found between the cratons and along the entire eastern margin of the Andes.
Precambrian rocks constitute the oldest rocks of the continent and are preserved in the five core cratons. These rocks are represented by high- to low-grade metamorphosed assemblages along heavily deformed belts of plutonic (intrusive), metavolcanic (metamorphosed extrusive igneous rocks), and metasedimentary rocks. Rocks of Archean age (2.5 to 4 billion years old) are known in the Amazonia, Luis Alves, and São Francisco cratons, although precisely dated rock samples are scarce. Ages older than 3 billion years have been reported in the Imataca Complex of Venezuela and in the Xingu area of Brazil, both in the Amazonia craton. The oldest rocks found so far—with ages of some 3.4 billion years—are in the São Francisco craton in the Brazilian state of Bahia. In the other cratons (e.g., the Río de la Plata craton in Uruguay) the dating of Archean rocks has been inconclusive. Greenstone belts, which are remnants of Archean oceanic crust emplaced in the suture zones (convergent plate boundaries), contain most of South America’s known large gold deposits, such as those located near Belo Horizonte, Braz. Two major cycles of crustal deformation occurred in the Precambrian, widely separated in time from each other. The first, called the Trans-Amazonian cycle, took place approximately 2.2 to 1.8 billion years ago; and the second, the Brazilian cycle, between about 900 and 570 million years ago.
The Trans-Amazonian cycle
Trans-Amazonian rocks can be subdivided into three distinct groups: orogenic belts, such as the Maroni-Itacaiúnas belt of the Amazonia craton or the Salvador-Juazeiro belt of the São Francisco; stable cover rocks, such as the Chapada Diamantina formation in Bahia or the Carajás and Roraima platform deposits; and large extensional dike swarms (groups of tabular intrusions of igneous rock into sedimentary strata). The orogenic belts represent old mountain chains that had been formed either along the margins of the continent as geosynclines (downwarps of the Earth’s crust) and then uplifted, such as the Maroni-Itacaiúnas belt, or were the result of collisions between continental blocks, such as the Tandil belt in Buenos Aires, Arg.
Such collisions are believed to have formed a supercontinent (sometimes called the first Pangaea) some 1.8 billion years ago. The sedimentary cover of this supercontinent (preserved on the Amazonia craton), consisting of postcollision rhyolites and clastic shelf deposits, was deep and widespread and obliterated earlier suture boundaries. Extensive stratified iron and manganese deposits are found in these sequences, such as near Carajás, Braz. Early phases of continental-plate dispersal produced extensive dike swarms of mafic rock, including a zone some 60 miles wide in west-central Uruguay where hundreds of gabbro dikes are now emplaced along a 150-mile stretch.
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