Uruguay - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Uruguay: the Bradt Guide

It seems that humans first crossed into the Americas from Asia over the Bering land-bridge about 60,000 years ago and headed south, crossing into South America around 15,000 years ago and reaching Tierra del Fuego approximately 4,000 years later. The oldest human artefacts (arrowheads and spearheads) yet found in Uruguay (in Maldonado department) have been dated to 12,900 years ago; at this time small family bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers were probably moving south from present-day Brazil. Remains dating from around 10,000 years ago have also been found in the northwest of the country.

Around 9,000 years ago, larger groups formed, eating a wider range of foods and with more advanced methods of shaping stones for blades, scrapers and bolas (throwing) stones. As the climate warmed about 8,000 years ago, the megafauna (such as giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers) died out.

In the centre and west of the country, rock carvings (grabados rupestres) began to appear c4,000 years ago to the north of the Río Negro, followed around 2,000 years ago by rock paintings (pinturas rupestres, in a range of reds) to the south of the river. In the east of the country, from approximately 4,000 years ago, large mounds known as cerritos (up to 40m in diameter and 7m in height) were constructed. Detailed investigation is only now beginning, but it seems that they were not, as assumed, burial mounds, but the sites of villages created as the climate changed and marshlands dried out. Traces of squash, maize and beans (as well as butia palm fruit) indicate that agriculture began far earlier than had been thought in this part of the continent. Strange bird-shaped stones known as ornitholithos, carved around 3,300 years ago, have been found mainly in the nearby coastal parts of Rocha and Maldonado departments; ceramics also appeared about 3,000 years ago.

From about 4,000 years ago, the people loosely known as the Charrúa were driven south into what is now Uruguay by the Guaraní. Although their population only numbered between 5,000 and 10,000, they were the best documented of the peoples encountered by Europeans after their first arrival here in 1516 (at latest), and the last to die out. Other peoples included the Chaná, Guenoa and Yaro. 

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Uruguay: the Bradt Guide


While not the flat pampas of popular imagination, most of Uruguay is nevertheless grassland and remarkably unforested – despite plentiful water resources and seemingly suitable sheltered locations, natural forest covers only 3.5% of the country’s area. About 3% more has been planted with trees, most noticeably eucalyptus in the west of the country to feed pulp mills, but also pine, especially around Rivera. In addition, large areas along the coasts were planted with pines around a century ago to control the sand dunes and make the area fit for development.

The largest natural area of Uruguay is tall-grass savannah, originally covered with around 400 species of grass (notably Andropogon, Bromus, Paspallum and Stipa spp), and interrupted by marshy areas (humedales) and watercourses lined with gallery forest (monte ribereño), the most common form of woodland, dominated by native willow (sauce criollo; Salix humboldtiana) and viraró (Ruprechtia salicifolia), as well as ceibo (coral tree; Erythrina crista-galli), the bright red bloom of which is the national flower.



It has to be said that native mammals are not exactly thick on the ground – sometimes it seems as if the European boar (Sus scrofa) and hare (Lepus europaeus) are the most common animals, together with the introduced axis deer (Axis axis) and fallow deer (Dama dama). However, you may see skunks (Conepatus chinga) and the weasel-like lesser grisón (Galictis cuja).


Southern Lawping, Uruguay by Ondřej Prosický, DreamstimeThe southern lapwing is just one of Uruguay's 459 species of bird © Ondřej Prosický, Dreamstime

Uruguay is home to a huge variety of birds relative to its area with 459 species, a quarter of the total in Brazil (whose area is 48 times larger) and 40% of those in Argentina (16 times larger). As such, BirdLife International has recognised 22 Important Bird Areas throughout the country. The greatest number of species (311) are found in the Bañados del Este, the wetlands along the Atlantic coast. 

Reptiles and amphibians

There are over 100 reptiles and amphibians, including around 35 species of snake, notably the crossed pit viper (crucero, víbora de la cruz or yarará; Bothrops alternatus), up to 1.4m in length, regarded as the most dangerous snake in Uruguay although its bite rarely kills (and it plays an important role in controlling rodents). A smaller relative is the yara (B. pubescens). The cascabel (víbora de cascabel; Crotalus durissus terrificus), or tropical rattlesnake, is almost as long at 1.3m and is very rare, only being found in northeastern Uruguay. The coral snake (víbora de coral; Micrurus altirostris) is smaller and has its fangs set at the rear of its jaw, so that it’s virtually incapable of poisoning a human. There are other smaller snakes, especially on the islands of the Río Uruguay, where the yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus) may also be found. This is also where the broad-snouted caiman (yacaré; Caiman latirostris), a small alligator, thrives.


There are over 400 species of fish in Uruguay – saltwater, freshwater and those in the Río de la Plata which can’t quite make up their minds, such as sharks, sea bass (corvina) and rays, including the catchily named Plate skate (Atlantoraja platana), fanskates (Sympterygia spp) and sandskates (Psammobatis spp). There are over 20 species of pejerrey (silverside or silvermelt) of several genera, including the freshwater silverside (Odontesthes bonariensis) and the Río Negro basin silverside (O. humensis). Sharks in particular, such as the hammerhead shark (tiburón martillo; Sphyrna spp) and the vitamin or glass-snouted shark (tiburón vitamínico or trompa de cristal; Galeorhinus galeus), come to breed in the estuary of the Plate, where the Brazil and Malvinas/Falklands currents meet rivers bearing silt from the interior of the continent, stirring up a very nutritious soup. Other sea fish that you may at least find in restaurants include the brótola (Urophycis brasiliensis) and sea bream (sargo; Diplodus argenteus).

Marine mammals

Seals, Punta del Este Uruguay by Ksenia Ragozina, ShutterstockSeals come in to the harbour of Punta del Este in search of fish scraps © Ksenia Ragozina, Shutterstock

There are large colonies of both sea lions and fur seals on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast and you’re very likely to see them, especially the sea lions that breed on the Isla de Lobos and come into the harbour of Punta del Este in search of fish scraps. Elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) can also turn up on Uruguayan beaches in winter. 

People and culture

Uruguay’s population is close to 3.5 million, almost all on the coast and littoral and overwhelmingly urban, with 50% of the population living in Montevideo. As a largely secular urbanised society, it’s no surprise that population growth is low (the lowest in South America, at 0.27%) but that life expectancy is high, at 77 years.

The indigenous population has been essentially wiped out, although 8% of the population are mestizo (of mixed European and native descent). African slaves were present when Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo were founded during the 15th and 16th centuries, and they continued to be transported in considerable numbers – a full quarter of Uruguayans were of African descent in 1800 – until slavery was abolished in Uruguay in 1842. Their descendants have now been largely assimilated – just 4% of Uruguayans are black, but 10% of Uruguayans (over 13% of those under 20) claim to be afrodescendiente, although many are broadly indistinguishable from the bulk of the populace. Artigas, Rivera and Montevideo departments are today home to the largest proportions of afrodescendientes. The Afro-Uruguayan cultural influence is nevertheless far stronger than the assimilation would lead you to expect, with candombé drumming and carnaval in general a key part of Uruguayan identity throughout the population. However, 56% of Afro-Uruguayan children live below the poverty line, and the average black wage is 70% of the average white wage; in Montevideo, the Afro-Uruguayan areas of Barrio Sur and Palermo are clearly deprived and run-down, though also increasingly gentrified and trendy.

Candombé drumming, Uruguay by Kobby Daggan, ShutterstockCandombé drumming is a key part of Uruguayan identity © Kobby Daggan, Shutterstock

Most Uruguayans are in fact of Spanish and Italian stock – the first mass immigration, from c1824, was of French Basques, followed by their Spanish relatives. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was an exodus from southern Italy to Uruguay (as well as to Argentina and the USA) which has left pizza and pasta as omnipresent menu items and Italian words (and gestures) as distinctively Uruguayan aspects of the Spanish language. More Spaniards (especially Basques) arrived after 1936, fleeing Franco’s fascists.

You might think there is also a substantial population of Chinese and Koreans in Montevideo, but the groups of men you see hanging around are mainly crew from fishing and cruise ships. Nevertheless, there are a few Chinese and Korean restaurants in the city.

Around 45,000 Uruguayans live in the USA, mostly working in professional jobs; many also work in Europe, though mostly in less well-paid jobs. Over 15,000 Uruguayans apply every year for Italian citizenship (granted to all male descendants of Italian immigrants, and some female). Some apply for Spanish citizenship, but this is open only to children of Spanish citizens and to grandchildren of victims of Franco’s dictatorship.

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