South American Indigenous History to Invasion

It is generally agreed that South American indigenes, who numbered 14 m. at the time of the Spanish Conquest, are derived from Mongoloid expansion, mainly hunters and gatherers, via the Bering Straits about 20,000 years ago. Rapid development was initiated around 2,600 years ago by the growth of agriculture. ‘The greatest cultural development occurred in the central Andes with the Inca Empire, which at its height encompassed about 1,000,000 square miles and had a population of about 6,000,000. The Chibcha in Colombia were probably the next most developed culture’ (NEB. 1991. Micropaedia. vol. 11: 37).


Steward’s classification of South American cultures to Invasion

Julian Steward’s classification is presented in his article ‘American Culture History in the Light of South America’ in Patricia Lyon’s Native South Americans - Ethnology of the Least Known Continent (Little, Brown and Co.. Boston/Toronto. 1974). Patricia Lyon prefaces this article by pointing out its deficiencies. ‘Steward’s approach… thus oversimplifies an extremely complex situation, obscuring differences which may be of considerable importance.’ (Lyon 1974: 3). However, Steward’s piece represents an improvement on the earlier 1940’s work of Cooper.

Steward postulates a Formative Period of American cultural development, during which ‘the highland areas from Mexico to Bolivia acquired dense populations, large and stable communities, a class-structured society and a priest-temple-idol cult. In the material arts, it produced basketry, ceramics, metallurgy, weaving, stone working, building arts,aesthetic expressions in art forms, and water transportation.’ (Steward in Lyon 1974: 19). This period predated Christ by some time, for ‘the essential patterns of New World civilisations were established in Mexico and Yucatan at least by the beginning of the Christian era. In the Andes they can be no less old, for maize, a basic crop, probably originated in South America.’ (Steward in Lyon 1974: 10).

Steward divides the tribes that evolved from this developmental stage into three groups each with different cultural characteristics; the Circum-Caribbean, the Tropical Forest and the Marginal. Steward suggests a hierarchy amongst the groups, the more sophisticated cultural attributes of the Circum-Caribbeans being transmitted to the other two groups by a process of diffusion.

  ‘The Circum-Caribbean cultures were probably derived from the same source as the early Andean cultures, but they acquired such features as pole-and-thatch houses, hammocks, dugout canoes, and tropical root-crops: that is, they became somewhat adapted to coasts, rivers and rain-forests. The Circum-Caribbean material culture, but not the social and religious patterns, diffused into the Tropical Forests, where, water-borne, they followed the coasts and rivers, diminishing through loss of their characteristic traits at the headwaters of the Orinoco and Amazon, and scarcely penetrating eastern Brazil, the Gran Chaco, Patagonia, or the Chilean archipelago, where the tribes remained Marginal hunters, gatherers, or fishers.’ (ibid: 5).

The Tropical forest tribes lacked the class-structured society of the Circum-Caribbeans but ‘derived its essential technologies and material culture’ from them. ‘It is really in Tierra del Fuego that the marginal culture survived in its starkest simplicity.’ (ibid: 15 and 8).

Diffusion to North America

This process of diffusion may have occurred from the Circum-Caribbeans to North America also, for ‘something like the Circum-Caribbean culture occurred in the southeastern United States, and it gradually diminished through trait loss in the Eastern Woodland area to the north and in the Plains to the West.’ (ibid: 5). The establishment of the Anasazi culture in the Southwest is an example of this cultural parallel. Steward realises the dangers of over-emphasising the culture parallels between North and South America, but ‘an historical explanation is evidently required (which) need not be in terms wholly of diffusion. The conceptual approach used here is that in each area the exploitation of the local environment by the technological devices culturally available set different limits to the variability of socio-political patterns and other features, so that historical influences were very great, moderate, or ineffective as the social and cultural ecology allowed greater or less latitude in the readaption of patterns.’ In most Marginal areas, ‘the natural environment made aboriginal types of farming impossible’. (ibid).

The Circum-Caribbean tribes in particular

Some features of Circum-Caribbean tribes were;

NB - the majority of these features apply to the Tairona civilisation.

Cultural development at the time of Conquest

‘The Conquest period tribes of the Circum-Caribbean area had a subsistence complex, social, religious, and war patterns, and material culture very similar to those postulated for the Formative Period cultures, but they differed from the latter in rain-forest adaptations, such as thatched houses, dugout canoes, woven baskets, and hammocks. The Eastern Woodland peoples of North America and the Tropical forest tribes of south America, both adjoining the Circum-Caribbean tribes, borrowed the latter’s technologies and rain-forest traits - basketry, pottery, dugouts, thatched houses, root crops, and so forth - but, partly because of less efficient food production and partly because of insufficient contacts with the higher cultures, they did not borrow the class system or the priest-temple-idol cult. Their social and religious patterns resembled the Marginal types. As the technological and material traits of the Tropical Forest and Eastern Woodland tribes diffused further, one after another was lost in areas which were remote or which were unsuited environmentally for their existence. Thus, in the far north and far south and in unfavorable localities within the farming areas, the tribes preserved the Marginal type of culture.’ (ibid: 20).

At the time of the Conquest, says Steward, ‘the essential features of the Formative Period survived in Ecuador, Colombia, in northern Venezuela, in the Greater Antilles, and in Central America. [This culture] showed considerable influence from the central Andes, especially in Ecuador and Colombia. In Central America, at least in the later, Pre-Columbian periods, the cultural flow was predominantly from South America.’ (ibid: 11).