The first inhabitants of South America were probably descendants of Asians who crossed the Bering Strait in prehistoric times. It is generally believed that they reached South America between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, but some archeological evidence suggests that settlement may have taken place earlier. These prehistoric people were nomadic hunters. The development of agriculture probably first took place along the coast of Peru. Simple village life with some cultivation also developed in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins at an early date.

Agriculture and civilization advanced most rapidly in the valleys of the Andes. The most magnificent civilization was that of the Inca Empire, which arose in about the 13th century A.D. Beyond the Andes, most of the Indians were still at a primitive cultural level at the end of the 15th century.