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South America

South America, southern of the 2 continents comprising the Western Hemisphere. South America is separated from North America at the Isthmus of Panama. Covering an area of 6,880,000 sq mi (17,819,000 sq km), South America contains the 12 independent republics of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. There also remains one European possession on the continent, French Guiana.

Land and climate

Roughly triangular in shape, South America extends some 4,750 mi (7,640 km) north to south and, at its widest, is 3,300 mi (5,300 km) east to west. It is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Drake Passage on the south, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. The continent contains 3 main river basins, the Amazon, Paraná, and Orinoco. The Amazon, the world's most voluminous river, forms a basin containing the world's largest tropical rain forest. The Andes Mountains run in a nearly continuous chain from north to south. Other major topographical features include the grasslands of the pampas, the Gran Chaco, and the Patagonian plateau. The climate ranges from extreme cold in the high Andes to tropical heat and humidity in the lowlands and rain forests at the equator.


South America is rich in unique varieties of plant and animal life as well as mineral resources, including oil, iron ore, copper, tin, lead, zinc, manganese, gold, nitrate, and bauxite. Much of South America's natural wealth remains to be fully developed. The continent has very little coal, but considerable hydroelectric potential.


The peoples of South America are divisible into 4 main groups. These are Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the continent; descendants of Europeans, mostly Spanish and Portuguese; Africans, originally taken to South America as slaves; and peoples of mixed ancestry, usually divided into mestizos, a mixture of European and Native American, or mulattoes, a mixture of African and European. The total population of the continent is about 448 million with about one-third of that number in Brazil. The chief official languages are Spanish and Portuguese, the latter spoken in Brazil. In Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, the official languages are, respectively, English, Dutch, and French. The most widely spoken of the Native American languages are Guaraní in Paraguay; Quechua in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador; and Aymará in Bolivia. About 90% of South Americans are at least nominally Roman Catholic.

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21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - Sour gum to Stereotyping