The People and Culture of North America

North America is the planet’s third-largest continent, comprising 23 countries and dozens of dependencies and territories. It extends some 37,000 miles (59,000 km) from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific, and encompasses Greenland (the largest island in the world), all of Mexico and Central America, much of the Caribbean Sea, Canada, the United States, and parts of Alaska.

The continent is divided by two mountain ranges: the ancient, rocky Canadian (Laurentian) Shield to the east, and the younger and taller Cordilleras in the west. Its highest point is Mount McKinley in Alaska, at 20,310 feet (6,190 metres), and its lowest point is Death Valley in California, at 282 feet (86 metres). The narrow Isthmus of Panama separates North America from South America.

Most of the population of North America lives in urban areas, especially in the United States and Canada. These high-income nations are technologically advanced and comparatively peaceful, with low rates of crime and war. In contrast, other North American nations struggle with poverty and social discontent.

Complex native societies and federations inhabited the region before European arrival. But these communities were quickly overwhelmed by the diseases, weapons, and numbers of the newcomers. The resulting civil wars, like the American Civil War of 1861-1865, resulted in great destruction and the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

In the years afterward, a series of land agreements and compromises shaped modern-day borders. For example, the Republic of Texas grew to be an independent nation after 1836, while Quebec and the rest of Canada gained independence from Britain in 1763 and 1800 respectively. Conflicts continued, however, with the American Civil War and a series of Indian Wars.

These events shifted the balance of power between the major powers of Europe and the United States, vaulting both to greater prominence in world affairs. The end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization brought new economic opportunities to North America, as well.

While the cultural identities of the people of North America are diverse, most share a strong sense of community. This is particularly evident in the United States and English-speaking Canada, which have close ties of language and history. French-speaking Canada also has a distinct culture, and the Spanish-speaking country of Mexico may be regarded as part of Latin America, though it lies mainly within North America. Similarly, Greenland is culturally distinct from Anglo-America but shares strong physical ties with the other North American nations. However, most people who live in North America identify as citizens of the United States or Canada. Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in Greenlandic independence.

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