Syncretism: Cultural Fusion in South America

What is syncretism?

Syncretism is simply the union of two cultures or ideologies to create a new one – in other words:

“Syncretism occurs when two religious systems, with all their beliefs, customs, rites, forms of organization and respective ethical standards, come together to form a new system.”

The concept of syncretism has several meanings, political, religious, or other. But in a general sense syncretism is all philosophy that tries to reconcile different doctrines both philosophical and theological. Since the nineteenth century the concept of syncretism has been used above all in a religious context, where it is used to describe the mixture of elements (deities, rites, or doctrines) of different origins.

Religious Syncretism

A very clear example of syncretism in the religious sense in our days is Santería, which is a mixture of Catholic saints with animism, the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.


As mentioned before, syncretism can have a political meaning, which is a sense of union provoked by external threats which can relieve internal differences. Syncretism flourished organically throughout history and religions, but always more easily among polytheistic religions, where there is no fear or repulsion of expanding the pantheon or cast of deities. Syncretism can occur too when it comes to governing a region, such was the case of Ancient Rome re-naming their gods with those names of the conquered peoples to gain trust and acceptance in their domain.

Syncretism is also present in the times of evangelization, when the peoples conquered by the Spaniards were converted to the Catholic faith. The aboriginal cultures mixed and left traces that today are still present in our current society.

In religious Syncretism we can observe the mixture of gods, cult, rituals, etc. A clear example of this is Ancient Egypt, where upon expansion, priests would blend their culture to local beliefs, consciously fostering the unions of gods and cults.

An example of religious syncretism today is Santeria, which has aspects within its practices that resemble those of local cultures, such as the use of a divine figure for every occasion. Forms of syncretism include:

Why does religious syncretism occur?

Within the context of religion, syncretism appears as an enrichment and complementation, as an extension of the limits of particular religions.

Cultural Syncretism

Cultural syncretism refers to the mixing and fusion of customs as a result of cultural intersection.

Today, for example, people in tha Patagonia (Chile, Argentina) use a “scrambled” language, where they speak both in Spanish and Mapuche, and very few current Mapuches know how to speak their original language.

Machitún. A Mapuche ceremony

Before, in the Mapuche marriage, the girl was taken out at the end of fights. But later, when they began to Spanishize, they went to ask the girl, but they paid the family, they took animals to gratify the old man.

Mestizaje or miscegenation

Mestizaje is the term that refers to the crossroads of Europeans, Africans and American Indians that happened since 1492 in Hispanic America.

The colonial society was characterized for being very hierarchical; the highest social class, the aristocracy, was composed mainly of European whites, that is, Spaniards or peninsulares (born in Spain), criollos (Spanish born in the Americas) and mestizos (half Spanish - half American), the latter only if they were recognized by their parents. The Spaniards were a small group, since many returned to their homeland. The criollos, on the other hand, were the children of Spaniards born in American territory, who were increasing every day. The important thing in the aristocracy was how much money they had and not how much indigenous blood flowed through their bodies. The middle class was formed mainly by poor Spaniards. The lower class was made up of mestizos, indios and others who had no ability to move up.

For a long time the indigenous population was subjected to the rule of the Spaniards and criollos. However, it was slowly decreasing in number as a consequence of miscegenation. They lived in the countryside and they could not maintain their original language, since the Spaniards imposed Spanish from the beginning. But in Chile, south of the Biobío, the story was different. Although they were not completely free and were also reduced by the Spaniards, the Huilliches that inhabited the region of Valdivia and Osorno were in relative independence.

Colonial Times

The majority population in the colonial era was the mestiza, who lived in the rural area. Being descendants of whites and aborigines, this population was very unstable, they did not belong anywhere, being despised by Spaniards and criollos, and not well seen by the aborigines . The mestizo had an indeterminate social habitat, but it prefered to mingle in the Spanish system. However, all social groups were permeable to miscegenation, which is why the population of the American continent is today mostly mestizo.

Traditionally, the union with indigenous women was used by the Spanish conquerors as a system of domination over the population.

In fewer numbers were the black slaves. Due to the high cost of bringing them to the southern parts of the continent, they were usually employed as domestic workers and trustees to their employers, they were part of the servitude of the wealthy homes.

On the other hand, there were the mulatos and the zambos. The first were children of whites and blacks, and the zambos were children of blacks and aborigines. This group was much more underprivileged than the mestizos. In many cases treated as slaves.

The union of the mestizo with the indio gave rise to the so-called cholo, and the union of the zambo with the indio gave rise to the chino.

In the colony all the groups were recognizable, but with the course of time the mixture was diminishing the differentiating features, which derived in an individual that fused all the characteristics into one.

Examples of Linguistic Syncretism

Here’s a list of everyday Spanish words of indigenous origin:

Zapallo: pumpkin.

Cancha: closed playground, court for races and games (in Quechua).

Bochinche: awful noise.

Guata (huata): belly.

Huahua: baby.

Kallampa: mushroom (in Quechua).

Carpa: tent (in Quechua).

In Summary

Mestizaje gave rise to cultural syncretism in South America, where language, beliefs, customs and knowledge were combined to achieve what only centuries could do: the origin of a mixed culture. This aspect can be clearly seen in our everyday language, since without even realizing it we use words of indigenous origin that satisfy our need for expression and communication.