The Sixteenth Century: First Contact
In 1500 a population of over one million Guaraní speaking peoples occupied territory stretching from the Andean foothills to the Brazilian coast and the Rio de la Plata. Guaraní women cultivated corn and manioc, with both of these crops facilitating high food yields and populations levels while also allowing remarkable long-distance travel, due to the ease with which the plants could be transported and replanted. This flexibility allowed Guaraní speakers to circulate through the southern Atlantic rainforest and the surrounding river systems, all while maintaining a decentralised political structure. Guaraní women transported silver from the Andes to the Paraná delta in the course of these journeys, with their actions giving Argentina its name: Argentum is Latin for silver, deriving from the Rio de la Plata (the river of silver). This title was bestowed by early Spanish sailors who observed the silver ornaments and tools that Guaraní women had carried for over two thousand kilometres along these circulation routes.
In the 1494 treaty of Tordesillas, the monarchs of Spain and Portugal split the globe between them, with the dividing line running through the Atlantic rainforest, though neither country could agree exactly where. The Portuguese claimed the Brazilian coast and the Spanish invaded the Paraguayan interior, with silver from the defeated Inca empire and sugar from Portugal’s coastal plantations constituting the first two commodity booms in South America. Guaraní and other Indigenous and African workers were enslaved on the early sugar plantations, their labour yielding profits for the merchants and bankers of Antwerp and Genoa, as the map below demonstrates.