Perhaps 200 centuries before Balboa stood atop a rise in Panama looking out across the margin of a great, then the peaceful ocean, bands of humans were for the first time filtering south across the same ground —the isthmus that joins the two American continents. Their forebears had peopled the north; their progeny would people the south.
These Paleo-Indians were hunter-gatherers, and in any generation, the scope of their migrations was dictated by the necessity to follow the game and exploit new sources of edible plants. As they progressed into the continent, their adaptation to varying terrain, climate, vegetation, and fauna shaped their cultures.
How quickly and to what extent Paleo-Indians peopled South America is not clear. Evidence suggests settlement in the central Andes 20,000 years ago, Caribbean coast 13,000, Patagonia 12,500, western Brazil 12,000, and eastern Brazil 10,000.
It appears, however, that between 18,000 and 13,000 years ago and again between 4,000 and 2,000 years ago, a much drier climate reduced Amazonian forests to scattered refugees. During those periods, migrations of various groups may have been easier and may help account for the varied languages spoken there.
As shown on the map, Indian groups can be divided broadly into six regions, based on both geography and cultural variations (tinted areas; see key below). Names, locations, and customs of selected groups are shown as they were when contacted by non-Indians—over a period that has spanned nearly 500 years.
Since the first contact, Indian groups have been decimated, and worse, by force of arms or by introduced diseases such as measles and smallpox.
Those groups with the highest civilizations or with homelands most accessible from the coast were ravaged first. Others more remote were affected by the implements of European culture through networks of trade long before they saw their first non-Indians. A large percentage of the Indian population has been absorbed into today’s society.
The continent was first a New World for Paleo-Indians and their Indian descendants who lived with Andean snows and Amazonian rains, Patagonian emptiness and the unrelenting winds of Tierra del Fuego. Then, in the name of religion and gold proclaimed in blood, the continent became a New World again. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has written that “for us European earth-dwellers, the adventure played out in the heart of the New World signifies in the first place that it was not our world and that we bear responsibility for the crime of its destruction; and secondly, that there will never be another New World.. ..”
National Geographic (1982)