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Bolivia, Population

The population of Bolivia (2002 estimate) is 8,445,134, giving the country a population density of 8 persons per sq km (20 per sq mi), one of the lowest in South America. Roughly 55 percent of all the people are Native American, and about 30 percent are mestizo (of mixed Native American and European ancestry). The remaining inhabitants are white, mainly of Spanish descent. Some 38 percent of the people live in rural areas.

The official languages of Bolivia are Spanish and two Native South American languages, Quechua and Aymara; of those the Native American languages are more commonly spoken. Roman Catholicism is the religion of the great majority of the population.

The Native Americans are divided into the two major native language groups, the Aymara and the Quechua. Of the groups that presently live in Bolivia, the Aymara have probably been there the longest. They had a well-developed civilization along the shores of Lake Titicaca for many centuries before the Quechua-speaking Incas conquered them. Native American language, religion, and customs prevail in rural areas, and the Native American influence remains strong in the poorer districts of even major cities.

In past centuries the indigenous communities resisted European influences, a response to the European conquest of the region in the early 1500s. European settlers established a rigid class system in which an upper class of European colonists ruled over a lower class of Native Americans.

The Bolivian upper classes speak Spanish and trace their ancestry to the early Spanish colonists. However, since the settlers and Native Americans intermixed from the very beginning of the conquest, few of the old aristocratic families can claim pure European ancestry. Until the 1950s these aristocratic families, plus a few recent immigrants from other South American countries and Europe, had a monopoly on wealth, education, and political power. They owned almost all the land and controlled most large businesses and some of the mining industry. Even the country’s educational system was geared to training this elite. Since the revolution of 1952, however, Bolivian society has become more open and allows for more social mobility.

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