When Europeans first encountered North America, they viewed it as a vast wilderness waiting to be settled and developed economically. The indigenous agriculture in what is now the United States and Canada seemed strange and rudimentary to them, and herds of domesticated grazing animals did not yet make much dent in the continent’s forests or grasslands.
But in fact, the landscape of North America had been shaped by humans for thousands of years. The first peoples to settle the region, the various tribes of Native Americans, occupied these American lands for tens of thousands of years and used their environment to survive and thrive.
They adapted the land, creating agriculture and building complex cities such as Tenochtitlan and Texcoco in central Mexico, among others. They exploited the abundant resources of the continent, using tools made from stone, wood and bone to harvest crops and hunt game in the rugged mountains and vast prairies. They also tapped into the rich underground deposits of natural resources such as coal, oil and natural gas.
The continent’s varied climate also influenced the way these indigenous societies interacted with their surroundings. In the northern areas, snow covered the ice caps and created cold climates that enabled indigenous peoples to sustain themselves by fishing, hunting, and trapping. The tropical regions of the southern part of the continent, in contrast, were warmer and more hospitable to human life.
These diverse environments shaped the cultures that inhabited North America in a mutually beneficial relationship, with each society embracing and adapting to its environment in order to survive and prosper. The human landscape of North America mirrors that of the physical one: a diverse, constantly changing, and often hostile environment, but one that was home to many people who worked hard to overcome its challenges and create a rich life.
Today, the continent of North America comprises 23 countries and territories, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and Guyana. The region’s population of more than 500 million people is the largest in the world and is predominantly Caucasian.
In the 19th century, a series of important territorial compromises and agreements spelled out the borders of modern Canada and the United States. These included the Republic of Texas, formed in 1836, and the Treaty of Paris that ended the First World War in 1919, which established international boundaries for the nations that remained after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.