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The Amazon River: Facts and History

Updated on April 4, 2015
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

Amazon River, Amazon Jungle, Brazil
Amazon River, Amazon Jungle, Brazil | Source

How Long is the Amazon River?

The Amazon River got its name through a case of mistaken identity. As the story goes, Francisco de Orellana, a Spaniard sailing down the river in search of gold and conquest in 1542, encountered opposition from the residents along the river. Fierce warriors of the Icamiaba people, whose communities were dominant in the area where the Amazon River meets the Rio Negro, routed the Europeans and sent them on their way--laboring under the misapprehension that they had been fought off by a band of warrior women. When the Holy Roman Emperor heard the story of these aggressive "women," he thought back to Greek mythology and declared that the name of the river would be Amazonas. And so it is.

Starting with that story, though, is like starting in the middle of a book. The history of the Amazon river, the people who lived in and around it, and what it has meant to the region begins many thousands of years before the river got a name.

The Amazon: River in a Rain Forest (Rivers Around the World)

The Amazon River

If not for the Nile, the Amazon River would be the longest river in the world. How long is the Amazon River? About 4,000 miles (the Nile stretches a few 100 miles longer.) Give it time, though; at somewhat over 11 million years old, the Amazon is still young as rivers go. Even as a shorter cousin more water moves through the Amazon River than through the its three largest competitors--the Yangtze, Nile and Mississippi rivers--combined. Its start has been traced to a glacial stream on a mountain top in the Andes of Peru, named Navado Mismi. From there the river flows throughout Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, sometimes only a few miles wide; other times, particularly during the wet season, so wide that people have trouble seeing the far shore. The waters, at the last, pour into the Amazon River Basin--which is, without dispute, the largest river basin in the world.

The origin of the Amazon River at Nevado Mismi marked only by a wooden cross
The origin of the Amazon River at Nevado Mismi marked only by a wooden cross | Source

The Amazon River Basin

The Amazon River Basin covers 30-40% of South America, and has a location in parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Venezuela. At around 2,670,000 square miles, the basin is large and full of ecological diversity, but is only sparsely populated by humans. The hot and humid climate is aided by the long wet seasons, though there are also low-wet seasons. On rare occasions, frigid air pours down from the Andes mountain ranges, causing great distress to the tropical plant life and animal inhabitants of the basin. This can have devastating effects even beyond animal and plant distress, because nestled within the Amazon River Basin is the Amazon Rainforest.

Walking the Jungle: An Adventurer's Guide to the Amazon
Walking the Jungle: An Adventurer's Guide to the Amazon

This book is a guide for the adventurer who wants to follow in the author's footsteps to discover the Amazon. It contains first-hand knowledge of how to get ready to visit the Amazon from someone who knows it well. An excellent resource.


The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest is said to be the location of more biodiversity than any other place, housing over a third of the world's species. In fact, each year it seems that researchers and scientists are discovering a new species, some of them the most impossible looking creatures. The rainforest is also thought to produce around 20% of the Earth's oxygen. The Amazon Rainforest, with its importance to the planet and a vast store of trees, is often caught between the competing interests of preservation and exploitation. More people are usually more familiar with this Amazon River location, which lies within the Amazon River Basin, than any other.

Satellite image of mouths of Amazon river in Brazil
Satellite image of mouths of Amazon river in Brazil | Source
The River Sea: The Amazon in History, Myth, and Legend
The River Sea: The Amazon in History, Myth, and Legend

A sweeping account of five centuries of history of the brave souls who have been drawn to the legendary Amazon River.


Wildlife of the Amazon River

Though the rainforest and its land animals are better known, the Amazon River itself is teeming with life. There are believed to be, at last count, over 2000 species of fish alone in the river, including a favorite of period films, the piranha. The river dolphin, with its slick pink skin, thrives in the river and has spawned a number of tall tales. The Amazon even has a seacow, or manatee, that swims only in the fresh waters of the Amazon, but avoids the salt. Snakes slither their way through the shallower waters, while the playful otter of the river is, like many things in the Amazon, a Giant Otter. The Amazon River, in other words, is home to reptiles of many sorts, mammals one thinks more as sea-dwelling creatures, and an abundance of fish species. The biodiversity of the Amazon River waters is often overlooked by casual viewers, but it is almost as important as that of the rainforest.

Amazon River Cultures

The Amazon River traverses many miles, through several countries and communities, so there is no main culture that dominates the Amazon River location. Though there is dispute over how long some inhabitants of the region have been there, it's thought to be anywhere from 12,000 years to 30,000 years. Like many major rivers, the Amazon River has acted as both a source of life and sustenance, and death and danger. It's length and breadth allowed communities along the river to use it as a highway to other areas, particularly in places where a land route was difficult or impossible to navigate. Some cities, towns and villages along the Amazon River sit well within the modern world, whereas others--a very few--may not know the modern world exists. Like the Amazon River itself, the land and communities surrounding it are full of history, life and a little bit of mystery.

Amazon Rivers Furo de Breves Para, Brazil
Amazon Rivers Furo de Breves Para, Brazil | Source

Amazon River Myths and Legends

The Amazon River and rainforest sprout myths and legends like toadstools. The river dolphin alone has many legends attached to it. The botos, as they are called, shift into handsome young men once the sun sets, come ashore and seduce the young women and wives of the village. After impregnating them, they return to the river and back into dolphins before sunrise. They also act as guardians of the Amazon River manatees and, most beneficial of all for the dolphins themselves, it is considered bad luck to kill a river dolphin. The Sirens of the Amazon River, on the other hand, stand at the far bank and sing sweetly, attempting to lure the men into walking into the very dangerous river.

Though these are some of the more benign legends, the region abounds with stories of frightening creatures, protected treasures and much more. A rich resource for novelists and filmmakers, who continue to entertain generations with stories of the Amazon River.

Amazon: Land of the Flooded Forest

Packing for a trip to the Amazon

If you do decide to visit the Amazon, make sure that you pack the appropriate clothing, and don't forget to check to see if you need a Visa as well as a passport. You may also need additional vaccinations to visit that area of the world.

© 2012 Paula Atwell

What have you learned about the Amazon River?

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    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Elsie Sometimes you have visit vicariously.

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 3 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Raintree Glad you enjoyed it. There is something about the rivers that is so powerful and impressive.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 3 years ago from New Zealand

      Very interesting information. I enjoy reading about other parts of the world, would love to visit, but it's a little too far for my old bones. Thanks for sharing.

    • RaintreeAnnie profile image

      RaintreeAnnie 3 years ago from UK

      The Amazon river really is a beautiful river, rich in its natural abundance and cultural/mythical associations. This was a very interesting read Thank you.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Wow! Good information.

      Thank you!

    • PinkstonePictures profile image

      PinkstonePictures 5 years ago from Miami Beach, FL

      Love to go and visit one day