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Bolivian History

Almost everywhere in Bolivia you'll stumble across reminders of the country's long, eventful, and tragic history. A civilization said to be more advanced than the Inca thrived in Bolivia sometime between 1600 BC and AD 1200 in an area 74 km (46 mi) west of La Paz called Tiwanaku. It's considered by many to be the "cradle of the American civilizations." When the Inca arrived, the city was already in ruins, destroyed by a drought. Spanish conquistadors conquered the Inca civilization in the 1500s—their stay has left its mark, particularly in Sucre and Potosí.

From its earliest days, Bolivia's fortunes have risen and fallen with its mineral wealth. Centuries ago it was the Inca and Aymara who dug deep for precious silver. In the 17th century, Spain's colonization of South America was fueled largely by the vast amounts of silver hidden deep in Cerro Rico, the "Rich Hill" that towers over Potosí in southern Bolivia. Cerro Rico's seemingly inexhaustible lode, first discovered in 1545, quickly brought thousands of prospectors to what was at the time the greatest mining operation in the New World. During the 17th and 18th centuries Potosí was the most populous and wealthiest city in the Americas. For the Spanish, the phrase "vale un Potosí" ("worth a Potosí") became a favorite description for untold wealth. But there's a darker side to the story. Some 8 million indigenous Quechua people died in the mines after being forced to stay inside the airless tunnels for as long as six months. Even today, men who work in the mines have far shorter than average life spans and suffer the same fate as their ancestors.

Bolivia was named in honor of its liberator, Simón Bolívar, who proclaimed the country's independence from Spain in 1825; until then, it had been simply called Alto Peru. The country was once much, much larger than it is today, but losing wars has been a costly habit. It originally extended to the Pacific, but after rich deposits of nitrates were discovered in the Atacama Desert, Chile began to eye the region. During the War of the Pacific that broke out in 1879, Chile captured Bolivia's short stretch of coastline, leaving the country landlocked. Bolivia stubbornly believes that someday it will once again have a seaport. In addition, Bolivia lost 38,000 square miles when Brazil annexed a large part of the Amazon basin in 1903, then twice as much again after a dispute with Paraguay in 1935.

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