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North America is the northern continent of the Americas, situated in the Earth's northern hemispheremarker and in the western hemispheremarker. It is bordered on the north by the Arctic Oceanmarker, on the east by the North Atlantic Oceanmarker, on the southeast by the Caribbean Seamarker, and on the west by the North Pacific Oceanmarker; South America lies to the southeast. North America covers an area of about 24,709,000 square kilometers (9,540,000 square miles), about 4.8% of the planet's surface or about 16.5% of its land area. As of July 2008, its population was estimated at nearly 529 million people. It is the third-largest continent in area, following Asia and Africa, and the fourth in population after Asia, Africa, and Europe.


North and South America are generally accepted as having been named after the Italianmarker explorer Amerigo Vespucci by the German cartographers Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann. Vespucci, who explored South America between 1497 and 1502, was the first European to suggest that the Americas were not the East Indies, but a different landmass previously unknown by Europeans. In 1507, Waldseemüller produced a world map, in which he placed the word "America" on the continent of South America, in the middle of what is today Brazil. He explained the rationale for the name in the accompanying book Cosmographiae Introductio,

ab Americo inventore ... quasi Americi terram sive Americam (from Americus the discoverer ... as if it were the land of Americus, thus America).

For Waldseemüller, no one should object to the naming of the land after its discoverer. He used the Latinized version of Vespucci's name (Americus Vespucius), but in its feminine form "America", following the examples of "Europa" and "Asia".

Later, when other mapmakers added North America, they extended the original name to it as well: in 1538, Gerard Mercator used the name America to all of the Western Hemisphere on his world map.

Some argue that the convention is to use the surname for naming discoveries except in the case of royalty and so a derivation from "Amerigo Vespucci" could be problematic. Ricardo Palma (1949) proposed a derivation from the "Amerrique" mountains of Central America—Vespucci was the first to discover South America and the Amerrique mountains of Central America, which connected his discoveries to those of Christopher Columbus.

Alfred E. Hudd proposed a theory in 1908 that the continents are named after a Welsh merchant named Richard Amerike from Bristol, who is believed to have financed John Cabot's voyage of discovery from England to Newfoundland in 1497. A minutely explored belief that has been advanced is that America was named for a Spanish sailor bearing the ancient Visigothic name of 'Amairick'. Another is that the name is rooted in a Native American language.



North America is the source of much of what humanity knows about geologic time periods. The geographic area that would later become the United States has been the source of more varieties of dinosaurs than any other modern country. According to paleontologist Peter Dodson, this is primarily due to stratigraphy, climate and geography, human resources, and history. Much of the Mesozoic Era is represented by exposed outcrops in the many arid regions of the continent. The most significant Late Jurassic dinosaur-bearing fossil deposit in North America is the Morrison Formation of the western United States.


Scientists have several theories as to the origins of the early human population of North America. The indigenous peoples of North America themselves have many creation myths, by which they assert that they have been present on the land since its creation.

Before contact with Europeans, the natives of North America were divided into many different polities, from small bands of a few families to large empires. They lived in several "culture areas", which roughly correspond to geographic and biological zones and give a good indication of the main lifeway or occupation of the people who lived there (e.g. the Bison hunters of the Great Plains, or the farmers of Mesoamerica). Native groups can also be classified by their language family (e.g. Athapascan or Uto-Aztecan). It is important to note that peoples with similar languages did not always share the same material culture, nor were they always allies.

Scientists believe that the Inuit people of the high Arctic came to North America much later than other native groups, as evidenced by the disappearance of Dorset culture artifacts from the archaeological record, and their replacement by the Thule people.

During the thousands of years of native inhabitation on the continent, cultures changed and shifted. Archaeologists often name different cultural groups they discover after the site where they are first found. One of the oldest cultures yet found is the Clovis culture of modern New Mexicomarker. A more recent example is the group of related cultures called the Mound builders (e.g. the Fort Walton Culture), found in the Mississippi river valley. They flourished from 300 BC to the 150s AD.

The more southern cultural groups of North America were responsible for the domestication of many common crops now used around the world, such as tomatoes and squash. Perhaps most importantly they domesticated one of the world's major staples, maize (corn).


As a result of the development of agriculture in the south, many important cultural advances were made there. For example, the Maya civilization developed a writing system, built huge pyramids, had a complex calendar, and developed the concept of zero around 400 CE, a few hundred years after the Mesopotamians. The Mayan culture was still present when the Spanish arrived in Central America, but political dominance in the area had shifted to the Aztec Empire further north.

Upon the arrival of the Europeans in the "New World", Native American population declined substantially, primarily due to the introduction of European diseases to which the Native Americans lacked immunity. Native peoples found their culture changed drastically. As such, their affiliation with political and cultural groups changed as well, several linguistic groups went extinct, and others changed quite quickly. The names and cultures that Europeans recorded for the natives were not necessarily the same as the ones they had used a few generations before, or the ones in use today.

Geography and extent

A satellite composite image of North America.

North America occupies the northern portion of the landmass generally referred to as the New World, the Western Hemispheremarker, the Americas, or simply America (which is sometimes considered a single continent and North America a subcontinent). North America's only land connection to South America is at the Isthmus of Panama. The continent is generally delimited on the southeast by the Darién watershedmarker along the Colombiamarker-Panamamarker border, or at the Panama Canalmarker; according to other sources, its southern limit is the Isthmus of Tehuantepecmarker, Mexicomarker, with Central America tapering and extending southeastward to South America. Before the Central American isthmus was raised, the region had been underwater. The islands of the West Indiesmarker delineate a submerged former land bridge, which had connected North America and South America via what are now Floridamarker and Venezuelamarker. Much of North America is on the North American Plate.

The continental coastline is long and irregular. The Gulf of Mexicomarker is the largest body of water indenting the continent, followed by Hudson Baymarker. Others include the Gulf of Saint Lawrencemarker and the Gulf of Californiamarker.

There are numerous islands off the continent’s coasts: principally, the Arctic Archipelagomarker, the Bahamasmarker, Turks & Caicos, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the Aleutian Islandsmarker, the Alexander Archipelagomarker, the many thousand islands of the British Columbia Coast, Newfoundlandmarker and Greenlandmarker, a self-governing Danishmarker island, and the world's largest, is on the same tectonic plate (the North American Plate) and is part of North America geographically. Bermudamarker is not part of the Americas, but is an oceanic island which was formed on the fissure of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge over 100 million years ago. The nearest landmass to it is Cape Hatterasmarker, North Carolinamarker, and it is often thought of as part of North America, especially given its historical, political and cultural ties to Virginiamarker and other parts of the continent.

Physical geography

The vast majority of North America is on the North American Plate. Parts of Californiamarker and western Mexicomarker form the partial edge of the Pacific Plate, with the two plates meeting along the San Andreas faultmarker. The southernmost portion of the continent and much of the West Indiesmarker lie on the Caribbean Plate, whereas the Juan de Fuca and Cocos plates border the North American Plate on its western frontier.

The continent can be divided into four great regions (each of which contains many subregions): the Great Plainsmarker stretching from the Gulf of Mexicomarker to the Canadian Arctic; the geologically young, mountainous west, including the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, Californiamarker and Alaskamarker; the raised but relatively flat plateau of the Canadian Shield in the northeast; and the varied eastern region, which includes the Appalachian Mountainsmarker, the coastal plain along the Atlantic seaboard, and the Floridamarker peninsula. Mexico, with its long plateaus and cordillerasmarker, falls largely in the western region, although the eastern coastal plain does extend south along the Gulf.

The western mountains are split in the middle and into the main range of the Rockies and the coast ranges in California, Oregonmarker, Washingtonmarker, and British Columbiamarker with the Great Basin—a lower area containing smaller ranges and low-lying deserts—in between. The highest peak is Denalimarker in Alaska.

The United States Geographical Survey states that the geographic center of North America is "6 miles west of Balta, Pierce County, North Dakotamarker" at approximately , approximately 15 miles (25 km) from Rugby, North Dakotamarker. The USGS further states that “No marked or monumented point has been established by any government agency as the geographic center of either the 50 States, the conterminous United States, or the North American continent.” Nonetheless, there is a 15-foot (4.5 m) field stone obelisk in Rugby claiming to mark the center.

Image:North america terrain 2003 map.jpg|North America bedrock and terrainImage:North america basement rocks.png|North American cratons and basement rocksImage:North america craton nps.gif|North American craton

Human geography

The prevalent languages in North America are English, Spanish, and French. The term Anglo-America is used to refer to the anglophone countries of the Americas: namely Canadamarker (where English and French are co-official) and the United Statesmarker, but also sometimes Belizemarker and parts of the Caribbeanmarker. Latin America refers to the other areas of the Americas (generally south of the United States) where the Romance languages, derived from Latin, of Spanish and Portuguese (but French speaking countries are not usually included) predominate: the other republics of Central America (but not always Belizemarker), part of the Caribbeanmarker (not the Dutch, English or French speaking areas), Mexicomarker, and most of South America (except Guyanamarker, Surinamemarker, French Guianamarker (FRmarker) and The Falkland Islands (UKmarker).

The French language has historically played a significant role in North America and retains a distinctive presence in some regions. Canada is officially bilingual; French is the official language of the province of Quebecmarker and is co-official with English in the province of New Brunswickmarker. Other French-speaking locales include the province of Ontariomarker (the official language is English, but there is an estimated 500 000 Franco-Ontarians), the French West Indies and Saint-Pierre and Miquelonmarker, as well as the U.S. state of Louisianamarker, where French is also an official language. Haitimarker is included with this group based on historical association but Haitians speak Creole and French. Similarly there remains small segments in Saint Luciamarker and the Commonwealth of Dominicamarker that speak unique French and creole languages alongside their English speaking majorities.

Socially and culturally, North America presents a well-defined entity. Canada and the United States have a similar culture and similar traditions as a result of both countries being former Britishmarker colonies. A common cultural and economic market has developed between the two nations because of the strong economic and historical ties. Spanish-speaking North America shares a common past as former Spanish colonies. In Mexico and the Central American countries where civilizations like the Maya developed, indigenous people preserve traditions across modern boundaries. Central American and Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations have historically had more in common due to geographical proximity and the fact that, after winning independence from Spain, Mexico never took part in an effort to build a Central American Union. Northern Mexico, particularly cities such as Monterreymarker and Chihuahuamarker, are strongly influenced by the culture and way of life of the United States. Emigration to Canada and the United States remains a significant attribute of many nations close to the southern border of the United States. As the British Empire and its influences declined, the Anglophone Caribbean states have witnessed the economic influence of northern North America increase on the region. In the Anglophone Caribbean this influence is in part due to the fact that the majority of English speaking Caribbean countries have populations of less than 200,000 people and many of these countries now have expatriate diasporas living abroad that are larger than those remaining at home.

Economically, Canada and the United States are the wealthiest and most developed nations in the continent, followed by Mexico, a newly industrialized country; the countries of Central America and the Caribbean are at various levels of development. The most important trade blocs are the Caribbean Community and Common Market , the North American Free Trade Agreement , and the recently signed Central American Free Trade Agreement —the last of these being an example of the economic integration sought by the nations of this sub-region as a way to improve their financial status.

Demographically, North America is a racially and ethnically diverse continent. Its three main racial groups are Whites, Mestizos and Blacks (chiefly African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans). There is a significant minority of Amerindians and Asians among other less numerous groups.

Countries and territories

North America is often divided into subregions but no universally accepted divisions exist. Central America comprises the southern region of the continent, but its northern terminus varies between sources. Geophysically, the region starts at the Isthmus of Tehuantepecmarker in Mexico (namely the Mexican states of Campechemarker, Chiapasmarker, Tabascomarker, Quintana Roomarker, and Yucatánmarker). The United Nations geoscheme includes Mexico in Central America; conversely, the European Union excludes both Mexico and Belizemarker from the area. Geopolitically, Mexico is frequently not considered a part of Central America.
Non-Native American Nations Control over N America 1750-2008
Northern America is used to refer to the northern countries and territories of North America: Canada, the United States, Greenland, Bermuda, and St. Pierre and Miquelon. They are often considered distinct from the southern portion of the Americas, which largely comprise Latin America. The term Middle America is sometimes used to collectively refer to Mexico, the nations of Central America, and the Caribbeanmarker.

Country or



(July 2008 est.)
Population density

(per km²)
Anguillamarker (UKmarker) 138.3 The Valleymarker
Antigua and Barbudamarker 190.8 St. John'smarker
Arubamarker (Netherlandsmarker) 526.1 Oranjestadmarker
Bahamasmarker 30.5 Nassaumarker
Barbadosmarker 654.2 Bridgetownmarker
Belizemarker 13.1 Belmopanmarker
Bermudamarker (UK) 1255.4 Hamiltonmarker
British Virgin Islandsmarker (UK) 157.1 Road Townmarker
Canadamarker 3.7 Ottawamarker
Cayman Islandsmarker (UK) 182.7 George Townmarker
Clipperton Islandmarker (Francemarker) 0.0
Costa Ricamarker 82.1 San Josémarker
Cubamarker 103.0 Havanamarker
Dominicamarker 96.2 Roseaumarker
Dominican Republicmarker 195.1 Santo Domingomarker
El Salvadormarker 335.9 San Salvadormarker
Greenlandmarker (Denmarkmarker) 0.027 Nuukmarker
Grenadamarker 262.6 St. George'smarker
Guadeloupemarker (France) 254.4 Basse-Terremarker
Guatemalamarker 119.4 Guatemala Citymarker
Haitimarker 321.6 Port-au-Princemarker
Hondurasmarker 68.2 Tegucigalpamarker
Jamaicamarker 255.1 Kingstonmarker
Martiniquemarker (France) 396.5 Fort-de-Francemarker
Mexicomarker 57.2 Mexico Citymarker
Montserratmarker (UK) 49.8 Plymouthmarker; Bradesmarker
Navassa Islandmarker (USAmarker) 0.0
Netherlands Antillesmarker (Netherlands) 234.8 Willemstadmarker
Nicaraguamarker 48.1 Managuamarker
Panamamarker 42.3 Panama Citymarker
Puerto Rico (USA) 446.2 San Juanmarker
Saint Barthélemymarker (France) 356.8 Gustaviamarker
Saint Kitts and Nevismarker 152.6 Basseterremarker
Saint Luciamarker 259.1 Castriesmarker
Saint Martin (France) 544.0 Marigotmarker
Saint Pierre and Miquelonmarker (France) 29.1 Saint-Pierre
Saint Vincent and the Grenadinesmarker 304.5 Kingstownmarker
Trinidad and Tobagomarker 204.2 Port of Spainmarker
Turks and Caicos Islands (UK) 52.0 Cockburn Townmarker
United Statesmarker 33.2 Washington, D.C.marker
U.S.marker Virgin Islandsmarker (USA) 317.5 Charlotte Amaliemarker
Total 22.9

The term North America may mean different things to different people in the world according to the context. Usage other than that of the entire continent includes:

  • In English, North America may be used to refer to the United States and Canada together. Alternatively, usage often includes Mexico (as with North American Free Trade Agreement) and other entities.
  • In Latin America, Spain, Portugal, and some other parts of Europe, North America usually designates a subcontinent (subcontinente in Spanish) of the Americas containing Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and often Greenland, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, and Bermuda.

Historical toponymy

North America, in whole or in part, has been historically referred to by other names:


Many of the nations of North America cooperate together on a shared telephone system known as the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) which is an integrated telephone numbering plan of 24 countries and territories: the United Statesmarker and its territoriesmarker, Canadamarker, Bermudamarker, and 16 Caribbeanmarker nations.

See also

Organizations and agreements:


  1. p. 9, The Cosmographiæ Introductio of Martin Waldseemüller in Facsimile, translated by Edward Burke and Mario E. Cosenza, introduction by Joseph Fischer and Franz von Wieser, edited by Charles George Herbermann, New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1907.
  2. The Naming of America: Fragments We've Shored Against Ourselves. By Jonathan Cohen
  3. Dodson, Peter (1997). "American Dinosaurs." Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs. Edited by Phillip J. Currie and Kevin Padian. Academic Press. p. 10-13.
  4. Weishampel, David B; et al (2004). "Dinosaur distribution (Late Jurassic, North America)." In: Weishampel, David B.; Dodson, Peter; and Osmólska, Halszka (eds.): The Dinosauria, 2nd, Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 543–545. ISBN 0-520-24209-2.
  5. pp. 42–46, A Concise History of World Population: An Introduction to Population Processes, Massimo Livi Bacci, Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2001, 3rd ed., ISBN 0-631-22335-5.
  6. The five rings of the Olympic flag represent the five inhabited, participating continents ( Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania).
  7. Océano Uno, Diccionario Enciclopédico y Atlas Mundial, "Continente", page 392, 1730. ISBN 84-494-0188-7
  8. Los Cinco Continentes (The Five Continents), Planeta-De Agostini Editions, 1997. ISBN 84-395-6054-0
  9. Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Central America"
  10. The American Heritage Dictionary, "Central America"
  11. Land areas and population estimates are taken from The 2008 World Factbook which currently uses July 2008 data, unless otherwise noted.
  12. Depending on definitions, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago have territory in one or both of North and South America.
  13. Water area makes up a considerable portion of this entity's total area. Therefore, for a more accurate figure on which to calculate population density, this figure includes land area only.
  14. Estimates as of July 2006. Since Guadeloupe and Martinique have been upgraded from overseas departments to regions of France, they are no longer listed separately in The World Factbook. Therefore, these figures are from the last edition in which they appear -- 2006.
  15. Due to ongoing activity of the Soufriere Hills volcano beginning in July 1995, much of Plymouth's de jure capital was destroyed and government offices were relocated to Brades.
  16. Panama is generally considered a North American country, though some authorities divide it at the Panama Canal; land area and population figures are for the entire country.
  17. Includes the U.S. state of Hawaii, which is distant from the North American landmass in the Pacific Ocean and is, thus, commonly included with the other territories of Oceania.
  18. Burchfield, R. W., ed. 2004. "America." Fowler's Modern English Usage (ISBN 0-19-861021-1) New York: Oxford University Press, p. 48 -- quotation reads: "the term 'North America' is mostly used to mean the United States and Canada together. Countries to the south of the United States are described as being in Central America (Mexico, Nicaragua, etc.) or South America (Brazil, Argentina, etc.)"; see also: McArthur, Tom. 1992. "North American." The Oxford Companion to the English Language (ISBN 0-19-214183-X) New York: Oxford University Press, p. 707.
  19. the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: refers to "Three nations, on the same continent"
  20. Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen. (1997). "The Myth of Continents." (ISBN 0520207432) University of California Press, p. 40 -- quotation reads: "In regard to North America one can detect a similar shift between official designation and popular conception. Strictly speaking, the North American continent includes Panama and all points north, but in common parlance Central America is usually excluded, while in some circumstances Mexico is deleted as well"; see also the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: refers to "Three nations, on the same continent"
  21. Countries of North America: includes Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and the United States
  22. What's the difference between North, Latin, Central, Middle, South, Spanish and Anglo America?,
  23. North America, Microsoft Encarta. Archived 2009-10-31.
  24. North America, : describes "North America includes Canada, the United States, Mexico, and their related territories, lying north of Central and South America"
  25. Security and Prosperity Partnership Of North America
  26. In Ibero-America, North America is considered a subcontinent containing Canada, the United States, Mexico, Greenland, Bermuda and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon." Norteamérica (Mexican version)"/ (Spaniard version). Encarta Online Encyclopedia.. Archived 2009-10-31.
  27. .
  28. In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to lead an exploration of what is now the North Carolina coast, and they returned with word of a regional "king" named "Wingina." This was modified later that year by Raleigh and the Queen to "Virginia", perhaps in part noting her status as the "Virgin Queen;"

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