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North America (Spanish: América del Norte or Norteamérica; French: Amérique du Nord; Dutch: Noord-Amerika; Papiamento: Nort Amerika; Kalaallisut: Amerika Avannarleq) is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the southeast by South America, and to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean.
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 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 have many creation myths by which they assert that they have been present on the land since its creation. The consensus is that indigenous North Americans first arrived from Asia during the last Ice Age, most likely through the Bering Land Bridge and possibly by primitive boats also.
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). 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 were first found. One of the oldest cultures yet found is the Clovis culture of modern New Mexico. 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 and temples, 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 in southern Mexico and Guatemala when the Spanish explorers arrived, but political dominance in the area had shifted to the Aztec Empire whose capital city Tenochtitlan was located further north in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs were conquered in 1521 by Hernán Cortés.
Upon the arrival of the Europeans in the "New World", the 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.
In the late 18th century and beginning of the 19th, several independence movements started across North America. The 13 British colonies on the North Atlantic coast declared independence in 1776, becoming the United States of America. New Spain, a territory that stretched from modern-day southern U.S. to Central America, declared independence in 1810 becoming the First Mexican Empire. In 1823 the former Captaincy General of Guatemala, then part of the Mexican Empire, became the first independent state in Central America, officially changing its name to the United Provinces of Central America.