Nature & History of Uruguay
In spite of being the second smallest country in South America both in terms of population and territory, Uruguay has a rich and long history, plenty of interesting and exciting facts.
How come that such a small country has been always seen as one of the most European societies in the continent? How was this country, called the Switzerland of America, formed? What events and anecdotes shaped this land and its inhabitants into what they are today?
Join us on a journey to explore this little but amazing country, its people, its history and its nature!
One of the most wanted bandits in the history of Uruguay takes us through recondite landscapes of the country, Important Bird Areas, natural reserves with exclusive birds and unique local cultures.
The last battle of a revolutionary leader of the 19th century happens in the most biodiverse region of the country. On the border with Brazil, towns hidden in the Cuchilla de Aedo range of hills tell of contemporary realities to this event.
Principal tour topics
The territory of what we know today as Uruguay is part of a huge continental mass that was formerly part of Gondwana, a super continent that comprised Australia, Africa, Antartic and South America. The fact that the land was formed a long time ago and the lack of any major fault lines explains why most of the country is soft rolling hills with some low hilly areas to the southeast and northeast.
Modern studies have confirmed that Uruguay has the oldest soils in Latin America and the erosion suffered by the land over the eons has flattened any important rock formations that it had at the beginning.
Nevertheless, any careful observer travelling throughout the country would immediately notice that there are some important differences in the landscapes and soils. Here are some tips:
The southern areas comprising the River Plate coast, with a mixture of clay and sand right next to the river and fertile clayish soil more to the north. They are used to be covered by swamps and moving sand dunes in the south and fertile rolling plains to the north. This is the area where more than half the population of the country is located.
The western fertile soils along the Uruguay River, the best agricultural soils of the country by far.
The abrupt hills of the south east. Major ridges that rise right from the Atlantic Ocean and stretch northeastwards forming impressive rock formations and steep terrain.
The basaltic plains of the north, extremely old soils, with little depth and scarce fertility, criss-crossed by fast moving and somewhat treacherous rivers and streams
The eastern plains, with large swamps and lakes. Home to an enormous variety of riparian birds
The rolling plains of the center divided by the powerful Black River. This is where most of the cattle rearing activities, for a long time the very base of our economy, are carried out.
The northeastern hills and ridges, an area of incredible beauty and wilderness of what is called the southernmost penetration of the Atlantic Forest from Brazil, regionally known as “Mata Atlantica”.
As you may see, for a relatively small country as this one, there is a lot to be seen and said about each area. Each part has a unique history, a particular formation and evolution, and because of their differences they favored diverse evolution of plants, animals and determined the way humans interacted with the environment.
When Uruguay was integrating the Gondwana super continent, half of its territory was under water. The other half, in the north, was part of a huge desert called Botucatú that comprised parts of Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and reached deep into modern day Africa. That desert suffered the greatest volcanic eruption in history when America began to separate from Africa and the original beasts that roamed the area were wiped out completely, drowned under 1 kilometer of basalt. Under this porous basaltic soil the world’s largest reserve of underground drinkable water was formed in the name of the Guarani and Arapey aquifers.
Very little has been found of the huge reptiles that ruled the area in those days. Apparently, only a thin swath of desert survived the magma onslaught between the modern-day cities of Tacuarembó and Rivera, and in that area numerous fossils have been found. Giant crocodiles, river sharks, slow moving herbivores and swift raptors are among the creatures discovered.
Fossil of 300 million years found in a Konservat Largerstäten deposit in Uruguay, the oldest in South America.
After the cosmic tragedy that supposedly brought the Cretacean era to an end, superior forms of life re-emerged in the form of mammals that quickly populated most of the planet.
Uruguay, a cold steppe at the time, was home to giant armadillos, medium-sized herbivores called notoungulates, ferocious sabre tooth tigers, enormous ostrich-like birds known as fororracos and slow-moving mastodons. Some primitive mammals, marsupials, also survived the competition of their larger and more advanced cousins and that is why America has in the form of the opossums the largest population of marsupia after Australia.
In those years the territory extended further south and the estuary that we know today as the River Plate did not exist, consequently there were few impediments for diverse animals to roam this extended “Pampa” that stretched from central Argentina to southern Brazil and it was this geographical freedom of movement that favored the arrival of the mammal that would tip the ecological balance of the area forever.
The arrival of the Homo sapiens
Around 13,000 years ago, when mastodons and wild deer still grazed peacefully in the arid steppes of southern South America, the first humans reached this part of the globe.
These initial tribes had some interesting cultural traits, they produced some clay figures, and in their late stages they became proto farmers. They settled mainly in the north, where the climate was a bit warmer and favorable.
Numerous changes took place during the period while these populations inhabited the land. Climate became more benign, the ocean increased its level and a new coastline of the River Plate was formed. Warmer temperatures led to an evolution in the landscape, from hardy grasses to softer and more abundant herbaceous plants as well as bushes and some forests in certain areas.
The new conditions attracted other tribes from southern Brazil that settled to the east of the country. These aborigines practiced also some kind of rudimentary agriculture along with their traditional hunting and gathering activities helped by domesticated dogs.
More favorable conditions attracted finally the tribes that have become the hallmark of our country, the Charruas. This nation came from the southwest, they belonged to the Patagon ethnicity and that made them quite different from the other tribes that initially occupied the territory.
They were described as tall, athletic and with ferocious countenances. In battle they were extremely brave and courageous. Later on, when horses were introduced by the Spaniards, they learned to tame the animals in such a way that the astounded chroniclers said that the horse and its Indian master were one single being. The Charruas displaced more peaceful tribes that were here before them and went on to clash violently with the Guaraní tribes that were penetrating from the north.
The Guaranies had in their favor their superior culture, they practiced nomadic agriculture, they had already mastered the art of navigating rivers and extracting fibers from plants to knit clothes. Their influence cannot be diminished and even our country name is a Guarani word.
A long-standing antagonism developed between the Charruas and the Guaranies, with no decisive victory to any of them, but before one of the peoples could claim victory, a third party swept into the scene.
The arrival of the white man
As the settlement of Europeans in the New World progressed from the north of the continent, the unoccupied territories further south had to be put to good use one way or another and following the advice of the authorities in Madrid. Hernán Arias de Saavedra or “Hernandarias” introduced some cattle in the eastern side of the Uruguay River in the hope that it could thrive on the abundant grasses that covered the land.
The result surprised even the most optimistic forecasts. The land became a “sea of cows” as they wrote back to Spain and suddenly, the area became attractive to both the Spaniards and the Portuguese, who taking advantage of the poorly defined limits between their territories and those of Spain, advanced as far south as they could.
In this land with no borders, no authority and abundant cattle is where the mythical gaucho emerges.
The gaucho was of no definite origin, he could be of Spanish, Portuguese, British, Welsh or Irish ascendancy mixed with Indians or slaves who had escaped to the countryside. In the open plains, the use of the horse was essential and the gaucho mastered the skill of riding horses, use “boleadoras” and spears to hunt and defend himself.
"Los Gauchitos" by the Uruguayan paintor Juan Manuel Blanes (1830 - 1901). The gaucho alone shows the typical clothes, the traditional infusion called mate, which he holds in his hand; and the boleadoras around his waist. In the other painting, four gauchos are playing taba.
This complex political landscape, with Portuguese intrusions, clashing land rights, free roaming gauchos and Indians plus a growing population in Montevideo increasingly frustrated at the ineptitude and greed of the Spanish administration created tensions that would soon explode in the independence movement that led to the fall of the Spanish Empire and the emergence of Uruguay