A map of North AmericaNorth America includes Canada, the United States of America (USA), Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean islands. Greenland is also often considered part of North America. In the sparsely populated north, the Arctic ice gives way to the barren tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. A chain of mountains runs like a backbone all the way down the western side of the continent. In the United States and Mexico it divides into several ranges separated by desert plateaux. The forested Appalachian Mountains dominate the eastern USA. In the fertile lowlands of the Mississippi river basin and the eastern coast, there are vast fields where crops such as maize and wheat grow. Farther south are the hot, dry deserts of southwestern USA and Mexico, then the hot, steamy rainforests of the Caribbean coast.
More than 529 million people live in North America, around 8% of the world's population. Across the continent there are areas of farmland, forest, desert and wilderness that are sparsely populated. There are also areas where cities have spread out so extensively, their suburbs have merged together to produce a megalopolis of tens of millions of people. This is the case in parts of northeastern USA and California.
North Americans can trace their ancestors to all parts of the world. The indigenous peoples of America (known as Native Americans in the USA or aboriginal peoples in Canada) had the continent to themselves for at least 10,000 years.
Settlers from Europe first arrived in the 1500s. The number of immigrants was a stready trickle at first, often including groups of Europeans who wanted to follow their religion and way of life away from their home countries. The trickle became a flood in the 19th century, as millions—including Irish, Italian and Jewish people—sought a better and more prosperous life in the USA, the "land of opportunity".
People waiting for a bus in HondurasIn the later 20th century, there has been a large influx of Mexicans and other Hispanic people into the USA from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Many black Americans and Caribbean islanders are descendants of African slaves brought to work on cotton and sugar cane plantations from the 17th to 19th centuries. In Mexico and Central America, the majority of the population have both Spanish (the former colonial rulers) and Native American ancestors, and are known as mestizos.
The most widely spoken languages in North America are English (in the USA, most of Canada and some Caribbean islands), Spanish (in Mexico, Central America, Florida, southwestern states of the USA and some Caribbean islands) and French (in eastern Canada and some Caribbean islands). The regions where these languages are spoken tell the story of the conquests made by those three European powers between the 16th and 18th centuries.
North America is also home to several native language families, such as the Eskimo-Aleut languages of the Arctic, the Iroquoian languages of Great Lakes Native Americans, and the Mayan languages of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Today, languages from all over Asia, Africa and Australasia are also represented in North America. The third most spoken language in the USA, after English and Spanish, is Chinese.
Winter in the remote village of Kulusuk, Greenland
Consultant: Lloyd Jenkins
Facts about North America
- Area 24,250,000 sq km (9,363,000 sq miles)
- Population 529,000,000
- Highest point Mt McKinley (Alaska, USA) 6194 m (20,321 ft)
- Lowest point Death Valley (California, USA) 86 m (282 ft) below sea level
- Longest river Mississippi-Missouri (USA) 5970 km (3710 miles)
- Largest lake Superior (Canada and USA) 82,100 sq km (31,700 sq miles)
- Largest country Canada 9,958,319 sq km (3,844,900 sq miles)
- Largest population United States of America 317,564,000
- Largest city Mexico City (Mexico) 21,200,000 people