The Asian derivation of the Native Americans is supported by the physical similarity of the native populations of East Asia and the Americas; studies indicate that the DNA patterns of modern Native Americans are very similar to those of Asian populations. All human skeletal remains from the Americas, including the very oldest, have been found in geologically recent contexts and belong to anatomically modern human beings. While recent analyses of the early skeletal material from the Americas indicate these populations exhibited considerable variability, and had dental and cranial characteristics rather different from those of modern Native American populations, such differences probably resulted from a process of gradual physical evolution after one or more Asian-derived groups had reached the Americas.
The best known Paleo-Indian culture is that of the fluted-point hunters (see Clovis culture and Folsom culture), found throughout much of North America and dating to c.9300-8000 B.C.; they were specialized big-game hunters adapted to an open, temperate, terrestrial environment. For many years, most authorities believed the fluted-point hunters were the oldest Paleo-Indians in the Americas. The Paleo-Indians had reached the southern tip of South America by 9000-8500 B.C.
During the Pleistocene, glaciers covered much of North America, and the growth and contraction of these giant ice sheets may have played a crucial role in the timing of human migration into the Americas. During the height of the Wisconsin Glaciation (c.17,000-13,000 B.C.)—and perhaps several thousand years before and afterward as well—the ice formed a continuous sheet across N North America, preventing any overland migration from Alaska into the Great Plains of North America. For much of the 20th century, most Americanists held that the first Paleo-Indians entered lower North America only after the height of the Wisconsin Glaciation, when an ice-free corridor had emerged between the continental ice sheets in Canada. This development may have taken place as recently as 10,000 B.C. Then, according to this theory, the first Paleo-Indians moved rapidly southwards into North and South America, the speed of their migration being conditioned by the great abundance of game animals and the absence of human competitors in this virgin territory. These first inhabitants of North America were identified as the Clovis and Folsom fluted-point hunters.
A minority of archaeologists always opposed this theory and argued for the existence of an earlier, pre-Clovis occupation of the Americas. The presence of humans at the southern tip of South America by 9000—8500 B.C. suggested to some investigators that the fluted-point hunters were not the first migrants into the Americas, as this would have necessitated a very rapid rate of migration by these hunters. However, the absence of clearly convincing pre-Clovis sites frustrated the development of alternative models for the original human migration into the Americas. Some supposedly pre-Clovis sites contained very crude stone artifacts that had almost certainly been produced by natural processes. Other sites, such as the Meadowcroft Rock shelter near Pittsburgh and Wilson Butte Cave in Idaho, are more convincing, but many archaeologists remain skeptical and believe these and other early sites to have been misdated.
Two early South American sites have now won broad acceptance among archaeologists, giving impetus to the proponents of the pre-Clovis hypothesis. Monte Verde, near Puerto Montt in S Chile (c.10,500 B.C.), is a remarkable pre-Clovis site in a moist peat bog with preserved perishable wooden and bone material. A large variety of plant remains were recovered at the site, along with mastodon meat, indicating its inhabitants practiced a hunting-and-gathering economy in a cool temperate rain forest. Pedra Pintada, near Monte Alegre in the lower Amazon (c.9,000-8,200 B.C.), is essentially contemporary with Clovis and represents a previously unknown Paleo-Indian subsistence pattern based on fishing, foraging, and limited hunting in the tropical rain forest. These early sites have shattered the archaeological consensus that the fluted-point hunters were the first Native Americans. While still earlier radiocarbon dates have been reported from some South American sites, including Monte Verde—reaching back to 30,000 B.C.—dates earlier than 12,000 B.C. are currently regarded as unproven by most Americanists.
Given the presence of the great North American glaciers throughout most of the late Pleistocene, the presence of humans in South America in the pre-Clovis era represents a puzzle. No new consensus on the problem of the antiquity of humans in the Americas has yet emerged. One possibility is that the original southward migration into the Americas occurred along the Pacific coast by groups who possessed boats. There is currently no direct evidence for such a migration along the Pacific Coast of North America, and this is not surprising, as rising sea levels during the Holocene would have concealed or destroyed early coastal settlements there. Recently, two pre-Clovis coastal sites, Quebrada Jaguay and Quebrada Tacahuay, have been reported in S Peru. They both date to c.10,000 B.C. and, along with Monte Verde, provide possible evidence for such a coastal migration. Another possibility is that the first Paleo-Indians migrated into lower North America over land prior to the formation of the continental ice sheet across Canada. Many experts believe the continental ice sheets presented an insurmountable barrier to terrestrial migrations after c.20,000 B.C.
After c.8000 B.C. the Pleistocene ended. Changing environmental conditions and the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna forced human groups to diversify their economic strategies and become more reliant on foraging and capturing small game. Known collectively as Archaic adaptations, these new subsistence strategies were highly specialized responses to local environmental conditions and actually emerged in different times in different places. In some regions, such as the Great Plains of North America, human reliance on big-game hunting continued until historic times. In contrast, the early South American sites described above indicate that a subsistence strategy based on plant foraging, the hunting of small game, and fishing actually emerged during the Pleistocene, thereby permitting an early colonization of a diversity of environments. In some areas of the New World, most notably the Andean region, the Amazon basin, Mesoamerica, the SW United States, and the Mississippi Basin and Eastern Woodlands, Archaic Native Americans evolved into sedentary agricultural societies, generally beginning about 2000 B.C., although recent radiocarbon dating of Caral, in Peru's Supe valley, indicates that a city of several thousand arose there c.2600 B.C.
See J. D. Jennings, Prehistory of North America (3d ed. 1989); S. J. Fiedel, Prehistory of the Americas (2d ed. 1992); C. C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2005).
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.