Many South Americans resist recognizing ancestry as being socially significant, especially as language, religion, and other cultural aspects tend to cross ethnic lines. In practice, however, an individual’s ethnic background can be a factor in determining social status, educational attainment, and economic opportunities. Ethnic distinctions tend to be geographic in nature and can be divided into three broad types of regions based on a predominant ethnic element in what otherwise are mixed populations, with those three elements being people of predominantly American Indian, African, and European descent. These regions have been defined to a large extent since the end of the colonial period. The people within them, however, are not of uniform ancestry but rather are clustered into different cultural groups. Moreover, ethnicity in South America is often self-determined.
Included in this designation are the Amazon and Orinoco basins, Paraguay, northern and central Chile, and the highlands of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. These were the areas of pre-Columbian chiefdoms and states at the time of the Spanish conquest. It was possible to grasp the social and economic organization of the Spanish empire on the relatively advanced institutions of these cultures; at the same time, Indian labour could be easily exploited. The original Indian population suffered from what has been regarded as a demographic disaster—during the first century of Spanish domination, the Indian population declined up to 95 percent in some areas—but a substantial number of Indians survived, and mixing between Indians and Europeans often was intense. Indian populations in the highlands began to recover during the 18th century.
The European component of the population was confined to towns and cities in colonial times, followed by more recent migrations to areas of the Amazon basin during the rubber boom of the early 20th century. African populations were limited to plantation zones in warmer mountain valleys and along the coast. In Chile a pronounced shift toward identification with European culture took place, even though the population had a substantial proportion of Indian ancestry.
This category includes the coastal areas of the Guianas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; most of eastern Brazil; and northwestern Argentina. Most of these areas are not considered “black” today but rather are identified in regional terms. Thus, coastal Ecuadorians in general are called montuvios, coastal Peruvians criollos, and northwestern Argentinescriollos or gauchos. Many Colombians of African descent who were designated as mulattos in colonial censuses were called mestizos in later censuses. Changes in African cultural identity were facilitated by the rapid adoption of the Christian religion and European languages in slave populations. "South America" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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