Atlantic History Potosí
Kris Lane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0401


The city of Potosí, in today’s Bolivia, sprang up soon after massive silver deposits were discovered in 1545 on a neighboring mountain, dubbed the Cerro Rico, or Rich Hill. A rare boomtown that managed to survive, Potosí’s population swelled to some 40,000 by 1570, and to over 100,000 by 1610, making it the most populous city of the colonial Americas. Visitors claimed the city’s colonial-era population topped out at around 150,000 in 1650 before declining to about half this number by 1700, and dropping to roughly 60,000 by 1720. Falling silver production and Indigenous death by disease and overwork drove the city’s population down, but the mining sector revived after 1750, only to be hammered again by the wars of independence in the 1810s and 1820s. By the time of Simón Bolívar’s visit in 1825, Potosí was a shadow of its former self but still treated as the promise of a new, independent future. The city underwent several booms and busts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, adding tin, zinc, lead, and other metals to its famous output of silver. Potosí today is a thriving regional capital driven, as in colonial times, by the mining industry. Potosí was an unlikely city, perched on a sloping plain at over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level. Only the legendary richness of its silver mines and access to water from the neighboring Kari Kari massif helped keep what soon became known as the Imperial Villa alive. Within a decade of discovery, all roads in the south-central Andes led to Potosí, supplying the Imperial Villa and its diverse inhabitants with all manner of food, drink, entertainment, and merchandise. A commercial as well as a mining hub, Potosí consumed enormous quantities of nearly every imaginable commodity, just as it consumed thousands of Indigenous mineworkers forced to migrate from the countryside each year. The paradox of Potosí was that the “Mountain that Ate Men” was also a global fountain of fortune, sustaining everyone from female Indigenous market vendors to the kings of Spain. Potosí silver made possible a thriving city with its own unique culture, a cosmopolitan hodgepodge. Some see Potosí’s tortured history as an object lesson in the promise and peril of uninhibited resource extraction and the unintended consequences of early globalization.


Potosí has long been known for its key role in stimulating global trade, and several recent works place the city and its mines in global context. Lane 2019 offers a general introduction and overview, highlighting Potosí’s role as a consumer of global products and magnet for global migration, as well as its more obvious role as provider of much global silver. Tovar Pinzón 2020 focuses on Potosí’s legacy as a major provider of liquid capital to the world in the first century or so after discovery even as it made life miserable for Indigenous mineworkers, their families, and descendants. Barragán 2019 focuses on the symbolism of Potosí’s Cerro Rico or Rich Hill as a global “brand” of sorts. Barragán and Zagalsky 2023 brings together original essays on Potosí’s inner workings as well as its global connections, tracing long-range trends in mining and refining technology, environmental transformation, bureaucracy, labor, and mintage.

  • Barragán, Rossana. Potosí global: Viajando con sus primeros imágenes, 1550–1650. La Paz, Bolivia: Plural, 2019.

    This book deploys images of Potosí in its heyday to demonstrate how a “silver mountain” came to represent wealth from Europe to China. The Potosí of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was also the Potosí of Indigenous artist Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala—they were near-contemporaries. The Cerro Rico also appeared in Ottoman manuscripts, matching local tastes and fantasies. Barragán drives home the point that Potosí and, particularly, the Cerro Rico became genuinely global “icons” in early modern times.

  • Barragán, Rossana, and Paula Zagalsky, eds. Potosí in the Global Silver Age (16th–19th Centuries). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2023.

    This collection of essays treats many aspects of Potosí’s long history under Spanish rule, bringing up to date older topics such as labor, technical infrastructure, and minting, while also adding newer ones such as environmental transformations and global interconnections. Scholars are increasingly interested in the global impact of Potosí’s several cycles of boom and bust, and this volume represents the state of that field of inquiry.

  • Lane, Kris. Potosí: The Silver City That Changed the World. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvj7wm45

    A concise history of Potosí and its hinterland from discovery in the sixteenth century until today, mostly focused on the colonial era. The city and mines are treated in relation to the countryside but also within larger, global networks of migration, trade, and colonial power. Potosí was not only the world’s single richest silver deposit, but also the longest-lived or most resilient.

  • Tovar Pinzón, Hermes. Potosí: El rostro de la muerte. Megaminería y globalización en los siglos XVI y XVII. La Paz: Centro de Estudios para la América Andina y Amazónica, 2020.

    Renowned Colombian historian Tovar Pinzón connects Potosí to other South American extractive regimes, including the gold-platinum complex of Colombia, which also dates to the colonial period. The author sees mostly continuity and a general failure to harness mineral wealth toward social development in the Spanish colonies, with Potosí serving as an outsize example and cautionary tale. In short, the Cerro Rico was more a source of global wealth and capitalist transformation than regional wealth accumulation and reinvestment in infrastructure, education, and healthy living. Environmentally, Potosí was a disaster.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.