When people talk about America they often mean the United States, but the name really includes a much larger area than that. It is perhaps better to speak of the Americas- North, Central and South America, together with the Canadian islands and those of the West Indies.
The main American land mass, nearly 14,500 kilometres long, is the greatest north-to-south stretch of continuous land in the world, but its area is not so large as that of Asia. The northern shores border the Arctic Ocean; the Pacific is to the west and the Atlantic to the east, while in the far south the land extends into the Antarctic Ocean. If islands are included, North America is rather larger than South America.
In some ways, North and South America are alike. The shape of each is roughly like a triangle, with its sharpest point towards the south, and each is about 5,000 kilometres across at its widest point. The two are joined by Central America and by the isthmus of Panama, which is about 50 kilometres across at its narrowest. Both North and South America have huge ranges of snow-capped mountains in the west, highlands in the east and great plains in between. On the eastern side of the continent, including Central America, and in the West Indian islands, are many active and extinct volcanoes.
In other ways, North and South America differ from each other. Most of South America lies within the tropics and hardly any of it is very cold, but in the Arctic and central parts of North America the winters are bitterly cold. Most of South America has its summer and winter at opposite times from North America. The southern half has no vast belt of conifer trees such as that which runs right across Canada. On the other hand, North America has no forest that can be compared with that of the Amazon in South America.
Although the Vikings reached the northeastern coast of North America in about A.D. 1000, Christopher Columbus has usually been given the credit for discovering America nearly 500 years later, because at that time the Norsemen's voyages were unknown to Columbus and indeed to Europeans generally. Some years after Columbus' discovery, and while it was still fairly secret, an Italian named Amerigo Vespucci published the story of how he had explored certain lands in South America, and so a map-maker called these lands America in his honour. The name soon came to mean the whole of what is sometimes referred to as the New World.
The Europeans thought at first that they had sailed further round the world and come to the Indian part of Asia, and that is why they called the natives Indians, a name which has stuck. The tribes in the West Indies have now almost died out. South America had many tribes; some of them were very primitive, and a few still are, but the Inca Indians of Peru were highly civilized. The Spaniards conquered most of these lands in the 16th century (the chief exception was Brazil, which was settled by the Portuguese), and imposed their language on them. They did the same in Central America, Mexico and some of the West Indian islands. The Spaniards are a Latin race, for their main languages have developed from Latin, and so the whole of America south of the United States is sometimes called Latin America. Spain is no longer in control of any of these lands, however, and the population is now very mixed because of marriages between white people, black people and Indians.
Around the Caribbean Sea and in the southeast of the United States there are many millions of blacks who are descended from slaves brought over from Africa in earlier days. North America used to have only a few Eskimoes in the north, a small number of Red Indian tribes further southward, and the Aztec Indians in Mexico, but today most of the people are descended from Europeans and speak English. The people of the United States make up nearly half the population of the Americas as a whole, but Canada, which is larger than the United States, has a comparatively small population.