The Americas are the lands of the Western hemisphere or New World, consisting of the continents of North America and South America with their associated islands and regions. The Americas cover 8.3% of the Earth's total surface area (28.4% of its land area) and contain about 14% of the human population (about 900 million people). The Americas may instead be referred to as America; however, America may be ambiguous, as it can refer either to the entire landmass or to the United States of America.
South America broke off from the west of the supercontinent Gondwanaland
around 135 million years ago
(Ma), forming its own continent. Starting around 15 Ma, the collision of the Caribbean Plate
and the Pacific Plate
resulted in a series of volcanoes along the border that created a number of islands. The gaps in the archipelago of Central America
filled in with material eroded off North America and South America, plus new land created by continued volcanism. By 3 Ma, the continents of North America and South America were linked by the Isthmus of Panama
, thereby forming the single landmass of the Americas.
Archaeological finds establish the widespread presence of the Clovis culture
in North America and South America around 10,000 BCE. Whether this is the first migration of humans into North America and South America is disputed, with alternative theories
holding that humans arrived in North America and South America as early as 40,000 BCE.
The Inuit migrated into the Arctic section of North America in another wave of migration, arriving around 1000 CE. Around the same time as the Inuit migrated into North America, Viking settlers began arriving in Greenland in 982 and Vinland shortly thereafter. The Viking settlers quickly abandoned Vinland, and disappeared from Greenland by 1500.
Large-scale European colonization of the Americas began shortly after the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The spread of new diseases brought by Europeans and Africans killed most of the inhabitants of North America and South America, with a general population crash of Native Americans occurring in the mid-sixteenth century, often well ahead of European contact. Native peoples and European colonizers came into widespread conflict, resulting in what David Stannard has called a genocide of the indigenous populations. Early European immigrants were often part of state-sponsored attempts to found colonies in the Americas. Migration continued as people moved to the Americas fleeing religious persecution or seeking economic opportunities. Many individuals were forcibly transported to the Americas as slaves, prisoners or indentured servants.
The earliest known use of the name America for this particular landmass dates from April 25, 1507. It appears first on a small globe map with twelve time zones, and then a large wall map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in France. Nearby Strassbourg was energized by the Renaissance Spirit of science and innovation. Here, the Duke of Lorraine, purchased the latest invention of a printing press and recruited a think tank of experts to render
a new image of earth as a planet, using the reported findings of European explorers. An accompanying book, Cosmographiae Introductio, explains that the name was derived from the Latinized version of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci's name, Americus Vespucius, in its feminine form, America, as the other continents all have Latin feminine names.
Vespucci's role in the naming issue, like his exploratory activity, is unclear. Some sources say that he was unaware of the widespread use of his name to refer to the new landmass. Waldseemüller may have been misled by the Soderini Letter, now thought to be a forgery, which reports that the New World is populated by giants, cannibals, and sexually insatiable females and implies it was discovered first by Vespucci. Christopher Columbus, who had first brought the region's existence to the attention of Renaissance era voyagers, had died in 1506 (believing, to the end, that he had discovered and colonized part of India) and could not protest Waldseemüller's decision.
A few alternative theories regarding the landmass's naming have been proposed, but none of them has achieved any widespread acceptance.
One alternative, first advanced by Jules Marcou in 1875 and later recounted by novelist Jan Carew, is that the name America derives from the district of Amerrique in Nicaragua. The gold-rich district of Amerrique was purportedly visited by both Vespucci and Columbus, for whom the name became synonymous with gold. According to Marcou, Vespucci later applied the name to the New World, and even changed the spelling of his own name from Alberigo to Amerigo to reflect the importance of the discovery.
Another theory, first proposed by a Bristol antiquary and naturalist, Alfred Hudd, in 1908 was that America is derived from Richard Amerike (Richard ap Meryke), a Welsh merchant from Bristol, who is believed to have financed John Cabot's voyage of discovery from England to Newfoundland in 1497 as found in some documents from Westminster Abbey a few decades ago. Supposedly, Bristol fishermen had been visiting the coast of North America for at least a century before Columbus' voyage and Waldseemüller's maps are alleged to incorporate information from the early English journeys to North America. The theory holds that a variant of Amerike's name appeared on an early English map (of which no copies survive) and that this was the true inspiration for Waldseemüller.
The northernmost point of the Americas is Kaffeklubben Island
, which is the northernmost point of land on Earth. The southernmost point is the islands of Southern Thule
, although they are sometimes considered part of Antarctica
. The easternmost point is Nordostrundingen
. The westernmost point is Attu Island
The western geography of the Americas is dominated by the American cordillera, with the Andes running along the west coast of South America and the Rocky Mountains and other Pacific Coast Ranges running the western side of North America. The 2300 km long Appalachian Mountains run along the east coast of North America from Alabama to Newfoundland. North of the Appalachians, the Arctic Cordillera runs along the eastern coast of Canada.
Between its coastal mountain ranges, North America has vast flat areas. The Interior Plains spread over much of the continent with low relief. The Canadian Shield covers almost 5 million km² of North America and is generally quite flat. Similarly, the north-east of South America is covered by the flat Amazon Basin. The Brazilian Highlands on the east coast are fairly smooth but show some variations in landform, while further south the Gran Chaco and Pampas are broad lowlands.
With coastal mountains and interior plains, the Americas have several large river basins
that drain the continents. The largest river basin in South America is that of the Amazon
, which has the highest volume flow of any river on Earth. The largest river basin in North America is that of the Mississippi
, covering the second largest watershed
on the planet. The second largest watershed of South America is that of the Paraná River
, which covers about 2.5 million km².
The total population of the Americas is 858,000,000 people per the United Nations' Population and Vital Statistics Report, and is divided as follows:
- North America: 2001 with 495 million and in 2002 with 501 million (includes Central America and Hawaii)
- South America: 2001 with 352 million and in 2002 with 357 million
The population of the Americas is made up of the descendants of eight large ethnic groups
and their combinations.
- The Indigenous peoples of the Americas, being Amerindians, Inuit, and Aleuts.
- Those of European ancestry, mainly Spanish, British, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Polish, German, Dutch, and Danish people.
- Mestizos, those of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry.
- Those of Black African ancestry, mainly of West African decent.
- Mulattoes, people of mixed Black African and European ancestry.
- Zambos (Spanish) or Cafusos (Portuguese), those of mixed Black African and Amerindian ancestry.
- Asians, that is, those of Eastern, South, and Southeast Asian ancestry.
- Those from the Middle East (Middle Easterners).
- Amerasian, those of mixed, usually European, and Asian ancestry.
The majority of the population live in Latin America, named for its dominant languages, Spanish and Portuguese, both of which are descended from Latin. Latin America is typically contrasted with Anglo-America, where English (a Germanic language) prevails; namely, Canada (with the exception of francophone Canada: see Québec and Acadia) and the United States, both in North America, have predominantly British roots and are quite different in terms of linguistic, cultural, and economic situation from other countries in the Americas.
The most prevalent faiths in the Americas are as follows:
- Christianity (North America: 85 percent; South America: 93 percent)
- Roman Catholicism (practiced by 85 percent of Mexican population; approximately 24 percent of the United States population and more than 40 percent of all of Canadians)
- Protestantism (practiced mostly in United States, where half of the population are Protestant, and Canada, with slightly more than a quarter of the population; there is a growing contingent of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements in predominantly Catholic Latin America)
- Eastern Orthodoxy (found mostly in the United States and Canada—0.5 percent of the US citizenry; this Christian group is growing faster than many other Christian groups in Canada and now represents roughly 3 percent of the population)
- Other Christians and non-denominational Christians (some 1,000 different Christian denominations and sects practiced in the Americas)
- Atheism (mostly found in North America—atheists make up 16 percent of Canadians, 12 percent of the U.S. population, and less than 5 percent of Mexicans; 4 percent of South Americans are atheistic)
- Judaism (practiced by 2 percent of North Americans—approximately 2.5 percent of the U.S. population and 1.2 percent of Canadians; 0.23 percent of Latin Americans—Argentina has the largest Jewish communities in Latin America with 200,000 members)
- Islam (1.9 percent of Canadians (600,000 persons), 0.6% percent of the U.S. population (1,820,000 persons), and 0.2% of Mexicans (<250,000 persons). Together, Islam constitutes approximately 0.5% of the North American population. North American cities with high concentrations of Muslims include Toronto, Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York City.; 0.3 percent of all Latin Americans)
Other faiths include Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Bahá'í in small numbers, plus some native animists.
Various languages are spoken in the Americas. Some are of European origin, others are spoken by indigenous peoples or are the mixture of various idioms like the different creoles.
The dominant language of Latin America is Spanish, though the largest nation in Latin America, Brazil, speaks Portuguese. Small enclaves of French- and English-speaking regions also exist in Latin America, notably in French Guiana and Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, respectively, and Haitian Creole, of French origin, is dominant in the nation of Haiti. Native languages are more prominent in Latin America than in Anglo-America, with Nahuatl, Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní as the most common. Various other native languages are spoken with lesser frequency across both Anglo-America and Latin America. Creole languages other than Haitian Creole are also spoken in parts of Latin America.
The dominant language of Anglo-America, as the name suggests, is English. French is also official in Canada, where it is the predominant language in Québec and an official language in New Brunswick along with English. It is also an important language in the U.S. state of Louisiana. Spanish has become widely spoken in parts of the United States due to heavy immigration from Latin America. High levels of immigration in general have brought great linguistic diversity to Anglo-America, with over 300 languages known to be spoken in the United States alone, but most languages are spoken only in small enclaves and by relatively small immigrant groups.
The nations of Guyana, Suriname, and Belize are generally considered not to fall into either Anglo-America or Latin America due to lingual differences with Latin America and geographic and cultural differences with Anglo-America; English is the primary language of Guyana and Belize, and Dutch is the primary language of Suriname.
- Spanish – spoken by approximately 320 million in many nations, regions, islands, and communities throughout both continents.
- English – spoken by approximately 300 million people in the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Belize, Guyana, the Falklands and many islands of the Caribbean.
- Portuguese – spoken by approximately 185 million in South America, mostly Brazil
- French – spoken by approximately 12 million in Canada (majority 7 million in Québec—see also Québec French), and Acadian communities in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia); the Caribbean (Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique); French Guiana; the French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon; and Acadiana (a Francophone area in southern Louisiana, United States).
- Quechua – native language spoken by 10–13 million speakers in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwest Argentina.
- Haitian Creole – creole language, based in French and various African languages, spoken by 6 million in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora in Canada and the United States.
- Guaraní (avañe'ẽ) – native language spoken by approximately 6 million people in Paraguay, and regions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.
- Italian – spoken by approximately 4 million people, mostly New England / Mid-Atlantic in the United States, southern Ontario and Quebec in Canada, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and also includes pidgin dialects of Italian such as Talian (Brazil), and Chipilo (Mexico).
- German – Some 2.2 million. Spoken by 1.1 million people in the United States plus another million in parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador.
- Aymará – native language spoken by about 2.2 million speakers in the Andes, in Bolivia and Peru.
- Quiché and other Maya languages – native languages spoken by about 1.9 million speakers in Guatemala and southern Mexico.
- Nahuatl – native language of central Mexico with 1.5 million speakers. Also was the language of the Aztec People of Mexico.
- Antillean Creole – spoken by approximately 1.2 million in the Eastern Caribbean (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, Saint Lucia) and French Guiana.
- Chinese languages a spoken by at least 5 million people living mostly in the United States, Canada, and Argentina.
- Javanese is a major language in Suriname
- Tagalog has been present in the continent since the Spanish empire. It is now spoken by 1.5 million people mostly living in the United States and Canada.
- Vietnamese is spoken by 1 million recent immigrants to the United States.
- Various Indian languages such as Hindi and Punjabi are spoken by Indo-Carribeans and have huge populations in the United States and Canada.
- Korean has recently become a major language in the United States with about 1 million speakers.
- Japanese was once a major minority language in the United States but has recently dwindled in terms of population.
- Hmong is an indigenous language in Southeast Asia, whose largest number of speakers outside Asia is in the United States
- American Sign Language – An estimated 100,000–500,000 people within the Deaf Community use ASL as their primary language in the United States and Canada.
- Mapudungun (or Mapuche) – native language spoken by approximately 440,000 people in Chile and Argentina.
- Navajo – native language spoken by about 178,000 speakers in the Southwest U.S. on the Navajo Nation (Indian reservation). The tribe's isolation until the early 1900s provided a language used in a military code in World War II.
- Dutch – spoken in the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, and Suriname by about 210,000 speakers.
- Miskito – Spoken by up over 180,000 Miskitos. They are Indigenous people who inhabit the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and the easternmost region of Honduras.
- Pennsylvania Dutch – Some descendants of the Pennsylvania Dutch in the Northeast U.S. speak a local form of the German language which dates back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They number about 85,000.
- Inuit – native language spoken by about 75,000 across the North American Arctic and to some extent in the subarctic in Labrador.
- Danish – and Greenlandic (Inuit) are the official languages of Greenland; most of the population speak both of the languages (approximately 50,000 people). A minority of Danish migrants with no Inuit ancestry speak Danish as their first, or only, language.
- Cree – Cree is the name for a group of closely-related Algonquian languages spoken by approximately 50,000 speakers across Canada.
- Nicaraguan Creole – Spoken in Nicaragua by up to 30,000 people. It is spoken primarily by persons of African, Amerindian, and European descent on the Caribbean Coast.
- Garífuna (or Garinagu) - native language spoken by the Garífuna people who inhabits parts of the caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The vast majority of them live in Honduras.
- Welsh – In Argentina, two towns of Trelew and Rawson were settled by Welsh immigrants in the late nineteenth century and the Welsh language remains spoken by about 25,000, including the towns' older residents.
- Cherokee – native language spoken in a small corner of Oklahoma, U.S. by about 19,000 speakers. The use of this language has rebounded in the late twentieth century. It is known to possess its own alphabet, the Cherokee syllabary.
- Gullah – a creole language based on English with strong influences from West and Central African languages spoken by the Gullah people, an African American population living on the coastal region of the U.S. states of South Carolina and Georgia.
Most of the non-native languages have, to different degrees, evolved differently from the mother country, but are usually still mutually intelligible. Some have combined, however, which has even resulted in completely new languages, such as Papiamentu, which is a combination of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch (representing the respective colonizers), native Arawak, various African languages, and, more recently, English. Because of immigration, there are many communities where other languages are spoken from all parts of the world, especially in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada, four very important destinations for immigrants.
In many parts of the world, America
in the singular
is commonly used as a name for the United States of America; however, (the) Americas
and generally with the definite article
) is invariably used to refer to the lands and regions of the Western hemisphere. Usage of America
to also refer to this collectivity remains fairly common.
While many in the United States of America generally refer to the country as America and themselves as Americans, many people elsewhere in the Americas resent what they perceive as misappropriation of the term in this context and, thus, this usage is frequently avoided. In Canada, their southern neighbor is seldom referred to as "America", with the United States, the U.S., or (informally) the States used instead. English dictionaries and compendiums differ regarding usage and rendition.
Whether usage of America
or the Americas
is preferred, American
is a self-referential term for many people living in the Americas. However, much of the English-speaking world uses the word to refer solely to a citizen
, or national
of the United States of America. Instead, the word pan-American
is sometimes used as an unambiguous adjective to refer to the Americas.
In addition, many Canadians resent being referred to as Americans because of mistaken assumptions that they are U.S. citizens or an inability—particularly of people overseas—to distinguish Canadian English and American English accents.
In Spanish, América is the name of a region considered a single continent composed of the subcontinents of Sudamérica and Norteamérica, the land bridge of Centroamérica, and the islands of the Antillas. Americano/a in Spanish refers to a person from América in a similar way that europeo or europea refers to a person from Europe. The terms sudamericano/a, centroamericano/a, antillano/a and norteamericano/a can be used to more specifically refer to the location where a person may live.
Citizens of the United States of America are normally referred to by the term estadounidense instead of americano or americana. Also, the term norteamericano may refer to a citizen of the United States. This term is primarily used to refer to citizens of the United States, rarely those of other North American countries.
In Portuguese, the word americano refers to the whole of the Americas. But, in Brazil and Portugal, it is widely used to refer to the citizens of the United States. Sometimes norte-americano is also used, but americano is the most common term employed by people and media at large, while norte-americano (North American) is more common in books. The least ambiguous term, estadunidense (used more frequently in Brazil) or estado-unidense (used more frequently in Portugal), something like "United Statian" or "estadounidense" in Spanish language), and "ianque"—the Portuguese version of "Yankee"—are also used, though almost exclusively in academic language.
América, however, is not that frequently used as synonym to the country, and almost exclusively in current speech, while in print and in more formal environments the US is usually called either Estados Unidos da América (i.e. United States of America) or only Estados Unidos (i.e. United States). There is some difference between the usage of these words in Portugal and in Brazil, the Brazilians being less prone than the Portuguese to apply the term América to the country. A well-known example of such use is the translation of the title of Alain Resnais' movie "Mon Oncle d'Amérique": "O Meu Tio da América".
In French, as in English, the word Américain
can be confusing as it can be used to refer either to the United States, or to the American continents.
The noun Amérique sometimes refers to the whole as one continent, and sometimes two continents, southern and northern; the United States is generally referred to as les États-Unis d'Amérique, les États-Unis, or les USA. However, the usage of Amérique to refer to the United States, while technically not correct, does still have some currency in France.
The adjective américain is most often used for things relating to the United States; however, it may also be used for things relating to the American continents. Books by United States authors translated from English are often described as "traduit de l'américain".
Things relating to the United States can be referred to without ambiguity by the words états-unien, étasunien, or étatsunien, although their usage is rare.
In Dutch, the word Amerika
almost always refers to the United States. Although the United States is equally often referred to as de Verenigde Staten
or de VS
only extremely rarely refers to the entire continent of the Americas. There is no alternative and commonly used Dutch word for the Americas. Therefore, in order to stress that something concerns the Americas as a whole, Dutch uses a combination, namely Noord- en Zuid Amerika
(North and South America).
Latin America is generally referred to as Latijns Amerika or, less frequently, Zuid Amerika (South America).
The adjective amerikaans is most often used for things or people relating to the United States. There are no alternative words to distinguish between things relating to the United States or to the Americas. Dutch uses the local alternative for things relating to elsewhere in the Americas, such as Argentijns for Argentinian etc.
In the 19th century in Russia the word "America" was used for a traditional continent such as Europe and Asia. In the 20th century these traditional continents are known as "parts of the world". Now the term "continent" means any of six large continuous landmasses (Eurasia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and Australia). Now the word Ameriсa
refers to the United States more often than to America as a "part of the world". There is no term as "Americas" in Russian.
Overseas regions and dependencies
Multinational organizations in the Americas
- "Americas". The Columbia Gazetteer of the World Online. 2006. New York: Columbia University Press.
- "Americas". Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed. 1986. (ISBN 0-85229-434-4) Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
- Burchfield, R. W. 2004. Fowler's Modern English Usage. (ISBN 0-19-861021-1) Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Fee, Margery and McAlpine, J. 1997. Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage. (ISBN 0-19-541619-8) Toronto: Oxford University Press.
- Kane , Katie Nits Make Lice: Drogheda, Sand Creek, and the Poetics of Colonial Extermination Cultural Critique, No. 42 (Spring, 1999), pp. 81-103 doi:10.2307/1354592
- Pearsall, Judy and Trumble, Bill., ed. 2002. Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd ed. (rev.) (ISBN 0-19-860652-4) Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Churchill, Ward A Little Matter of Genocide 1997 City Lights Books ISBN 0872863239
- What's the difference between North, Latin, Central, Middle, South, Spanish and Anglo America? Geography at about.com.