Latin America is a region of the Americas that is home to many Romance languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and French. It is a region that has been shaped by its colonial past, with many countries having been colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese empires. The United Nations has played a role in defining the region, establishing a geoscheme for the Americas that divides it into North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) was founded in 1948 and initially included Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Later on, former colonial powers Spain (197) and Portugal (198) obtained membership. In addition to these countries, other non-colonial powers such as Italy (1990), Germany (200), Japan (200), South Korea (200), Norway (201), and Turkey (201) have also become members of ECLAC. The origin of the term 'Latin America' is not universally agreed upon. It was first used in the 19th century after the political independence of the countries of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.
It also became popular in France in 1860 during the reign of Napoleon III. Research has shown that the idea that a part of the Americas has a linguistic and cultural affinity with Romance cultures as a whole dates back to the 1830s. Michel Chevalier postulated that part of the Americas was inhabited by people of the Latin race and could therefore ally itself with Latin Europe in a struggle with Teutonic Europe, Anglo-Saxon America and Slavic Europe. The distinction between Latin America and Anglo-America is based on language; Latin America is composed of countries where Romance languages are spoken while Anglo-America is composed of countries where English is spoken.
However, neither area is culturally or linguistically homogeneous; in substantial parts of Latin America (for example Brazil), indigenous languages are still spoken by large populations. The oldest known human settlement in Latin America was identified in Monte Verde near Puerto Montt in southern Chile. Its occupation dates back some 14,000 years ago and there is controversial evidence of an even earlier occupation. Over millennia people spread to all parts of North and South America and the Caribbean islands.
The diversity of geography, topography, climate and arable land meant that populations were not evenly distributed; sedentary populations from fixed settlements supported by agriculture gave rise to complex civilizations in Mesoamerica (central and southern Mexico and Central America) and the high Andean populations of Quechua and Aymara as well as Chibcha. Agricultural surpluses from intensive maize cultivation in Mesoamerica and resistant potatoes and grains in the Andes were able to sustain distant populations beyond farmers' homes and communities. This allowed for the creation of social hierarchies as well as urbanization with stable settlements in villages and major cities; it also enabled specialization of artisanal labor and transfer of products through tribute and trade. In Mesoamerica writing systems were developed while knotted quipus emerged as an accounting system in the Andes.
The Spanish extensively explored the continental territories they claimed but settled in large numbers in areas with dense indigenous populations and exploitable resources such as silver. The first Spanish conquistadors saw indigenous people themselves as an exploitable resource for tribute and labor; individual Spaniards received grants for assigning forced labor as a reward for their participation in the conquest. In most of Latin America indigenous people were the largest component with some black slaves serving in auxiliary positions. The three main racial groups during colonial times were whites (Europeans), blacks, and indigenous people; over time these populations intermingled resulting in castes. The Roman Catholic Church launched a spiritual conquest to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity without allowing any other religion; this was done through its institutional power granted by Pope Alexander VI who gave it great power over ecclesiastical appointments as well as its functioning in overseas possessions. In 19th century policy makers sought to end slavery and slave trade even in Latin America; Britain made ending slave trade a condition for diplomatic recognition with Brazil whose economy was totally dependent on slaves.
Abolitionists pushed for an end to slavery which finally ended in 1888 followed by fall of Brazilian monarchy. The French were also seeking trade links with Latin America to export luxury goods as well as establish financial links including granting foreign loans to governments often in dire need of income. Mexican conservatives sought European monarchs to place them on Mexican throne while Napoleon III invaded Mexico.