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History of Bolivia

It is not known when the first people arrived to modern day Bolivia. It seems likely that the first people to arrive to South America arrived from the north and Panama sometime between 13,000-7,000 BC, then they slowly moved south. When they actually arrived to the region that Bolivia occupies is debated as no archeological evidence has proven settlement prior to about 1500 BC.

The first people to settle are also unknown, but the Aymara people arrived in about 1000 BC, if not earlier. These people began as fishers, hunters, and gathers, but over time developed a fairly advance society. They began farming and established a settlement in Tiwanaku (close to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia) as well as others. They also began developing crafts, such as metalworking, pottery, and basket weaving.

Over time the Aymara influence expanded as did their settlements, including their capital of Tiwanaku. As their population and influence grew, so did their boundaries, moving primarily north and south in the Andes Mountains. This empire continued to remain a power until about 1000 AD. Instead of simply killing those they took over, the Aymara wisely incorporated these people's technology, crafts, and other aspects of their culture into their own, greatly expanding their knowledge.

Trade and agriculture were the crutches of the culture and society. Through trade their standards of living increased and it kept positive relations with neighboring people so wars were uncommon. Agricultural production was also needed to sustain life as food storage was undertaken in times of famine. It was also through this process that the llama became an important part of, and in many ways symbolic of, the culture and people as these animals were essential in the transportation of goods.

In about 1000 there seems to have been a massive drought, essentially ending the power base in Tiwanaku and the Lake Titicaca region by the Aymara people. Many people moved to find farmlands, while the population greatly declined. The people and their culture survived and continue to survive to this day, most notably still in the Lake Titicaca region, although the city of Tiwanaku was abandoned.

From the time of the Aymara decline until the 1400s the people lived simple lives as trade was at a minimum and arts had taken a decline. Then, in 1438, the Incan Empire, which was based in Cuzco (in Peru), began to expand. By 1500 the Incans had taken most of the mountainous regions in Bolivia as the Aymara people were incorporated into this empire, which was primarily ethnic Quechua.

The Incans introduced new farming techniques, technology, crafts, and infrastructure to modern day Bolivia, while also encouraging the spread of the Quechua language and other aspects of the culture. The Aymara and Quechua got along fairly well so the Aymara often times maintained their native language, although they quickly adopted many Incan technologies and other aspects of their culture.

Incan rule lasted only a short period of time in Bolivia. The Spanish arrived in the early 1500s and, even though they didn't initially settle the lands, their stops along the coast left behind numerous European diseases that killed much of the local population. These diseases not only killed many of the people, but also killed many members of the Incan royal family, leading to instability in the empire.

The instability created by these diseases meant the Spanish explorers had a much easier task ahead of them in their takeover of the region. Francisco Pizarro quickly defeated the Incan rulers in 1532-1533. At this time the region of Bolivia was incorporated into the region of Peru.

As was common at the time, the region was fought over by the conquistadors as well as by Spain, who claimed control over much of South America. It wasn't until 1548 that Spain truly took power in modern day Bolivia and in that same year they established La Paz as their colonial capital.

Although Spain held control and power in Bolivia, their presence was limited in scope and the indigenous people fiercely fought this takeover. Many of the Quechua and Aymara hid in the mountains to maintain freedom, while many of the Chiriguano, who lived in the lowlands in the east, also maintained freedom and resisted Spanish control.

The region of Bolivia slowly grew under Spanish rule as their focus was on economic growth as opposed to takeover. The Spanish developed some colonies faster than others depending on the potential wealth each offered. Bolivia fell under the jurisdiction of Peru (and later that of Argentina), but held great potential itself, primarily due to the silver mines found in Sucre, Potosi, and the surrounding areas.

The Spanish made settlement of the region secondary as their focus remained on economic wealth, but the country also send Jesuit missionaries to the region in the 1500s to convert the people to Catholicism. These attempts were received very differently by the various groups in Bolivia. Many of the people readily converted, perhaps in order to gain economic and political power, which they gained with their conversion. Many of these converts also adopted the Spanish language and some even married Spanish settlers, creating a mestizo class.

Despite those who converted, most of the people refused to convert and maintained their traditional languages and religions. This cultural clash lasted for centuries and even today is prevalent. These differences led to a wide divide between the Spanish and the locals and also led to a number of rebellions against the Spanish rulers.

The greatest of these rebellions came in 1780 with the rebellion of Tupac Amaru II. Amaru killed a local Spaniard who was cruel to the indigenous population, then united other indigenous people to his cause. His rebellion was well received by the locals, but the Spanish sent an army to destroy it in 1781, killing Amaru. Despite this, many others continued to revolt against Spain and tensions between the two groups remained high.

At this same time many ethnic Spanish in the middle class, commonly referred to as criollos, also grew weary of Spanish rule. The arguments of the criollos and the indigenous people were magnified in the early 1800s when Spain was taken over by France.

With the fall of Spain conflicts quickly escalated in what is today Bolivia between numerous groups. Many people in the upper class supported Spanish rule, but much of the middle class and indigenous people sought independence. These debates led to war and finally the takeover of the region by Peru in 1817. However, the region did gain freedom from Spain with the help of Antonio Jose de Sucre (from Argentina) and Simon Bolivar (from Venezuela), after whom the country was later named. In 1825 Bolivia finally gained complete independence as it broke away from Peru.

Separation from Peru and border conflicts didn't ease after this time. Peru and Bolivia again joined as a confederation and went to war with Chile, then with each other. Although Bolivia initially won these battles, the tides later turned as Chile became a military power and took much land from Bolivia including their coastline along the Pacific Ocean. The result of losing this war, the War of the Pacific, Bolivia became a landlocked country in 1883.

This was the end of Bolivia's wealth and power. Sadly since this time Bolivia has struggle politically and economically. The country has relied on natural resources for economic growth and stability, beginning with silver, then moving to tin, and today is reliant on natural gas. Education and social progress have also been slow to catch up as economic progress has lagged behind and most of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population.

The economic, social, and political stagnation have prevented great changes in the country, but it has also maintained the historic culture and today Bolivia has one of the most authentic indigenous cultures in the Americas. The Quechua and Aymaras continue to live much as they have in the past with traditional dress, food, languages, and to a lesser degree religion (although over time most of the people have converted to Catholicism). Sadly, this also means that many of these people live in poverty as they have few social rights and the economic situation doesn't allow for many opportunities.

The 1900s saw much of the same that the country experienced in the late 1800s, which sadly includes poverty and little social, economic, or political progress. The state again declined in 1936 when Bolivia lost the Chaco War with Paraguay, again ceding more lands. The greatest result from this war, in addition to the loss of land, were the social changes the people began to demand.

In the early 1940s, as much of the world was at war, Bolivia turned inward to address some of their social issues. This was led by Gualberto Villarroel in the mid-1940s, which eventually led to conflict and a civil war in 1949. The results of the war were social changes and greater rights for all citizens, but most notably with rights being extended to the indigenous people, which made up the majority of the population.

The changes didn't always work as planned and resistance led to a military overthrow of the government in 1964. This only continued the troubled political and economic state in the country as civil rights were often suppressed and freedoms revoked. From president to president the economy, the political situation, and the social situation fluctuated, both for the better and worse. During this time the black market also rose in prominence, most notably in the growth of drugs, which were smuggled to North America. Sadly this market was more stable than the legal market at the time so was an attractive option for the people.

In 1982 a civilian government again took control of the country, but many of the same problems continued, with economic decline hitting a trough in the mid-1980s. However, with the civilian government leading the country social changes and freedoms expanded as human rights violations lessened and even ended in many cases.

Although the country has since become fairly stable and human rights have greatly improved, the country is still far from where it wants to be. Political debates have continued as the government has sought to privatize a number of institutions, but many of the indigenous people seek greater public control and social programs. This led to numerous protests in the 2000s as well as the resignation of a number of presidents. In the midst of resignations, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze, a Supreme Court judge took over in 2005 until elections could be held.

The result of the elections was that Evo Morales took over as president, a very liberal indigenous candidate. Morales has taken over numerous private industries in Bolivia and his actions have led to numerous economic trade restrictions on the country as the political structure is changing to a more communist structured economy. Numerous parts of the country have also passed referendums for autonomy from the central government. In this state, the future of Bolivia is still very much uncertain.

This page was last updated: February, 2013