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For almost three hundred years Bolivia, or "Upper Peru" (Alto Perú), formed part of the Spanish Empire, and the Potosí silver mines were crucial for the colonial economy.The wars of independence (independence was achieved in 1825) were led by Spanish-speaking Creoles who consolidated a highly exclusive social order.A low population density of fifteen inhabitants per square mile is paralleled by a young, fast-growing population (over 41 percent less than fifteen years old). Spanish, the national and official language, is spoken in urban centers, while the dominant languages in the rural highlands are Quechua (the Incan lingua franca) and Aymara and in the southeast Guaraní.Members of the Oriente ethnic polities (e.g., Guarayos, Mojeños, Tacanas, Movimas, Chimanes) speak Spanish and their indigenous languages, which are members of the Amazonian language family.Most authors point to the wars of the Pacific and the Chaco and the 1952 populist revolution (along with subsequent state-building efforts) as the key events that created a sense of nationhood.A strong feeling of national identity coexists with other identities, some ethnic and some not, with varying levels of inclusiveness.The War of the Chaco (1932–1935), in which Bolivia lost vast territories and oil deposits to Paraguay, was critical for national consciousness-raising and the 1952 populist revolution.Other historical commemorations, such as Independence Day (6 August 1825) and the widely celebrated date of the signing of the agrarian reform law (2 August 1952), also serve as catalysts for collective memories.

There are three major geographic–ecological landscapes: the high and cold plateau ( altiplano ) between the eastern and western Andean mountain chains (Cordillera Oriental and Cordillera Occidental) at 12,000 to 14,000 feet (4,000 to 4,500 meters) above sea level, the intermontane valleys ( valles ) in the easternmost part of the Cordillera Oriental at an average of 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) elevation, and the vast lowlands (Oriente) beyond the eastern flanks of the Cordillera Oriental. Bolivia is named after Simón Bolívar, a leader in the nineteenth-century wars of independence against Spain.The national culture is an amalgam of Hispanic and pre-Hispanic elements with three cultural traditions: (1) Quechua/ Aymara (roughly 34 percent and 23 percent of the population, respectively), centered in the high-altitude plateau and valley mountain regions (highlands) and corresponding to the two (Quechua- and Aymara-speaking) traditions that existed before the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century; this "Andean" tradition extends from southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina and roughly corresponds to the boundaries of the Incan Empire, whose capital was Cuzco, Peru; (2) Spanish or Hispanic (roughly 87 percent of the population), derived from the cultural heritage of the conquering Spaniards; and (3) several dozen small Amazonian ethnic groups in the eastern lowlands. At 424,162 square miles (1,098,581 square kilometers), Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America.Regional identities, such as Spanish speakers in the Oriente contrasting themselves with Quechua- or Aymara-speaking highland dwellers, have always been important.For members of lowland ethnic polities, self-identification as Mojeño or Tacana is important in everyday life.

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