Categories College Essays

Indigenous People of Latin America: An Introduction

50 million people living in Latin America are considered to be ‘indigenous’. Far from being a single group, the Amerindians of Latin America are made up of many different groups with very different languages, traditions and ways of life. Different peoples can be defined by their use of a distinct language, as well as other indicators of identity such as dress, music and religious beliefs.

The indigenous peoples of Latin America can be divided into two very broad categories:

  1. Those who are the descendants of pre-Columban civilisations. They tend to be concentrated in mountain areas and have practiced organized agriculture for many centuries before the European conquest.
  2. Those who tend to live in forest regions as hunter-gatherers or small-time farmers. They have lived in much the same way for thousands of years.

While the indigenous peoples of Latin America represent a rich diversity of cultures, there are some common elements which mark them out from the European culture brought by colonizers in the 17th and 18th centuries:

  • Most indigenous peoples have a traditional way of dressing which indicates their sense of tribal belonging. Even where European elements have been added, indigenous peoples continue to wear traditional outfits to show which region and /or people they belong to.
  • Indigenous people in Latin America all tend to live in ways which are adapted to their local environment – they have built up the collective wisdom necessary to survive at extremely high altitudes or deep in the rainforest. They use natural materials for house-building and making clothes – not only out of economic necessity but also out of a respectful relationship with the natural world.
  • Traditional medicine practices such as shamanism and herbalism continue to be used to this day. Belief in witchcraft or magic tends to be more prominent among indigenous peoples than other Latin Americans.
  • The tribal peoples of the rainforest tend to think in terms of collective land ownership rather than the European concept of individual purchase of land. In recent years many indigenous peoples of the rainforest have fought hard against their own governments to have the collective ownership of their tribal lands recognized, and to oppose environmentally-damaging activities on their land by outsiders interested only in profit.
  • ‘Indigenous’ is the term used to describe Latin Americans descended from the first humans who migrated to the region from Asia over 12,000 years ago.
  • 50 million Latin Americans are indigenous people.
  • That is 11% of the total population of Latin America.
  • Bolivia and Guatemala have majority indigenous populations.
  • There are an estimated 31 indigenous languages spoken in Central America and Mexico, and an estimated 350 spoken in South America.
  • The current Bolivian President Evo Morales is an indigenous man.
  • The first indigenous person elected to a presidency in the Americas was Benito Juarez who became president of Mexico in 1858.
  • Indigenous populations tend to be the poorest in Latin American countries. For example, in Guatemala 86.6 % of indigenous people qualify as ‘poor’ compared to just under 60% of the the population as a whole.
  • Many indigenous peoples of the high mountain ranges are noticably shorter than people of European descent. Their compact size actually allows them to surivive much better at high altitudes.

The ancestors of the indigenous people living in the Americas today are descended from the hunter-gatherers who migrated to the continent from Asia over 12,000 years ago. At this time there was a land bridge between Russia and Alaska which allowed migration of humans and animal species. The genetic connection to Asians is evident among the indigenous people who are noted for their dark eyes, straight black hair and lightly tanned skin.

While many indigenous peoples lived in tribal groupings and continued to live from hunter-gathering or simple farming, others developed into sophisticated hierarchical societies. Civilizations such as the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs built cities and roads, created huge and ornate temple structures and developed complex systems of law and taxation.

European conquest meant huge upheaval for indigenous people. In the 1600s there were forced conversions to Catholicism under pain of being burned to death. European colonizers took ownership of the best land and resources and those indigenous who hadn’t died from war or disease had to try to survive in the most difficult of environments – the high mountains or the deep forest.

While some indigenous people mixed with the colonizers, others isolated themselves and kept to their traditional languages and way of life. The Indigenous have typically held a low social and economic position in Latin American society but hopefully that is beginning to change. As well as the election of an indigenous man as president of Bolivia, the region is seeing indigenous people become increasingly aware of their rights and their ability to organized collectively to oppose government decisions which harm them and their way of life.

Many of the people living in the Andean mountains of South America and the mountains of Guatemala in Central America are descendants of sophisticated Pre-Columbian civilisations. Their cultures are very different from the hunter-gatherers of the Amazon Basin, for example.

There are two major indigenous groupings in the Andean mountain range, defined by language and by a sense of having a shared history. These two groups are the Quechua or Quichua people and the Aymara people. Both groups cross national boundaries between Boliva, Peru and Ecuador.

Major pre-Columbian civilisations include the Olmecs and Aztecs of Mexico, the Inca and Tiahuanaco civilisations of the Andes and the Mayans of Central America.

Some of the most well-known indigenous peoples descended from these civilizations:

  • Quecha
  • Aymara
  • Mayan

Many indigenous groups live in the Amazon rainforest and also in the rainforests of Central America. Some have come to have substantial contact with wider Latin American culture, while others have remained remote, living a way of life untouched by outsiders.

Forest-dwelling peoples live by one of two methods of livelihood: slash and burn agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifestyles. In the twenty-first century, a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is only possible deep within the Amazon forest where there is still a plentiful supply of animals to hunt. Nearer the edges of the forest most indigenous groups practice small-time agriculture called ‘slash-and-burn’. Although it sounds harsh for the forest, the indigenous only clear a small area of a forest at a time, grow a garden of tubers and vegetables there for a few years, and then move on, allowing the forest to heal and grow back stronger than ever.

Some of the most well-known rainforest peoples:

  • Shuar
  • Yanomami
  • Kogui

I have written about my experiences with the Shuar people of Ecuador in the article Shuar: Meeting the Headshrinkers of the Amazon Basin, including about their culture and beliefs, and their practice of shrinking heads.

The video below outlines some of the issues facing the indigenous people of Latin America today. These issues include:

  • poverty
  • land ownership
  • inequality
  • preserving their traditional culture and language in the face of globalization