Where does North America begin?

As a European, I’m familiar with the common misconceptions about countries south of the USA. There are for example always the same discussions about Mexico not being North America. Such a judgement might be coming from ignorance, but it is nevertheless interesting that this is a common interpretation. We won’t solve this discussion today, but I want to give an overview of the facts and the arguments in this debate. To find out, where North America begins we will have a look at the situation from cultural, geographical, linguistical and litospherical point of view.

Common Misconceptions – The position of Mexico

It is true that many people don’t think that Mexico is part of North America. Such people think, that it is instead a part of Central or South America. It is also true, that Mexico is “officially” or scholarly widely considered to be a part of North America, on the other side. There are many arguments for the one side and the other. Many of them are pointless, because they use data from a totally different field. You can’t argue against tectonic plates with language usage, for example. There are however some arguments, which are completely flawed. Have a look at this picture, I extracted from a discussion on /r/mexico on reddit.com:

Argumentum ad aequatorem

In the picture you can see what I want to refer to as argumentum ad aequatorem (following the style of some genetic fallacies). It basically states that Mexico has to be North America, since it lies north of the equator. Using the same assertions no less than 12 (!) other countries can claim to be a part of North America. From North to South: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Vuvuzela Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and Guyane/French Guyana. However, every country in this list following Panama unarguably belongs to South America.

The argumentum ad aequatorem doesn’t help us here. If it achieves anything, then it’s spreading even more confusion. Let us instead have a look at the geography of the continents.

A geographical Border between North and South America

Geographically this matter is very interesting and object to some interpretation. Borders between continents and therefore the exact outline of the continents themselves are conventions. A continent is a large, continuous landmass and if you have two of them with a small sized connection between them, you separate them in two and call the connection the border. After some consideration you can also take the approach to say, that it is still one continent, but you divide the masses in two subcontinents. This is what has been done with America.

Between North and South America this border is the Isthmus of Panama, where the country Panama is and where the Panama Canal has been built. It’s a landconnection between the (sub)continents, but still small enough to be a suitable border.

The Isthmus of Panama

This interpretation tells us that everything north of Panama is part of North America and everything south of it is correspondingly South America. It seems like a good convention and is in fact used like this. Just have a look at maps with coloured continents; most of them present it in this manner.

The term convention contains in itself the fact that it is changeable, however. Like a language, it’s formed over time by its practical usage. Let us have a look at the practice of the usage of the term North America and also Central America and Latin America.

Geographical Practice – Call a spade a spade

While we had a look at the continent conventions before, there are cultural and geographical regions, which carry the same names. This circumstance can be confusing as one refers to a region geographically and the other culturally. The practice presents itself most compelling over time. How are the terms used then?

Fowler’s Modern English Usage explains North America like this:
“the term ‘North America’ is mostly used to mean the United States and Canada together. Countries to the south of the United States are described as being in Central America (Mexico, Nicaragua, etc.) or South America (Brazil, Argentina, etc.)”
This is the version of many English speaking speaking people from the USA and Canada. The people of Mexico however do see themselves as North Americans as well. And they are not alone.

The CIA World Factbook lists Bermuda, Canada, Clipperton Island, Greenland, Mexico, Saint Pierre and Miquelon as well as the United States under North America. Mexico is North America in many conventions.

But what about the other 6.5 countries, that we identified as lying on the continent of North America? Why are they not listed? Because we are already naming geographical regions. And the term that contains these countries – and indeed sometimes also Mexico – is Central America. We are talking about conventions remember. You can either call Central America a subcontinent, as in being a landbridge between North and South america. Or you can call it a subregion of the continent of North America. In any way, you call it Central America.

No matter however if you call it a subcontinent or a subregion, it has to start and end somewhere. And depending on where you place the borders, some countries belong to it and some not. Have a look at this map it took from Google Maps (or have a look there directly):

Mexico and Central America

Up in the north you can see the (political) border between the USA and Mexico. In the south Panama, the border to the South American continent. When trying to separate continents, in this case we have to look for relatively narrow sections of the landmass. One of it is Panama in the South. But which narrow section could help us in the north to separate landmasses?

There are two potential candidates to define the shape of Central America. One is a bit west and parallel to the border of Guatemala towards Honduras and El Salvador. However, you might notice the mountain range covering that spot. This candidate is definitely out. You can’t separate landmasses by cutting through mountains, which are clearly connecting them.

We can find the other candidate by following that mountain range to the Northwest. There is a place, where this mountain range ends, some flat land and another mountain range to the west. This spot is relatively narrow on the north-south axis and looks promising. It has a name: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec. If we would want to define a Central American subcontinent or a subregion, this would be the place to cut. The Yucatan peninsula would therefore be Central American.

However, there is a problem: The peninsula belongs to Mexico and the cut would divide the country by slicing directly through the eastern parts of the states of Veracruz and Oaxacaa. The good message for some people is, that the Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo could form an independent Central American republic – like the “New Federal Republic of Yucatan” or something similar. Not that unlikely! They tried that in the past.

And at this point politics come into play. It’s impossible to mix political and geographical concepts. Just because this spot would make a good border doesn’t mean, that you can easily split Mexico. It shows us something different however. Both politically and geographically the far bigger part of Mexico rests on the continent of North America. We would therefore politically and geographically (here with the exception of the states on the Yucatan peninsula) call Mexico a North American country.

Practice shows us, that not everyone does that, because the concepts do get mixed and the borders aren’t clear. And as if that weren’t already be complicated enough, we can separate the continents culturally as well. Which is what we will do next:

Cultural regions – “Somos Latinoamericanos!”, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”, “What are you both talking about?”, “Perdão?!”

The Americas are rich with languages and cultural areas. And I’m not even talking about the indigenous cultures and languages, but the languages originally from the “old world”. We hear Spanish, French, English, Portuguese mainly and mixtures of English and Dutch or German, too. That’s quite some variety.

Apart from established geographical and political concepts such as North, Central and South America, we can furthermore distinguish several cultural areas.

– Anglo-America
– Anglo-Canada
– Franco-Canada
– Latin-America
– The Caribbean

Anglo-America consists of mainly English speaking countries: Obviously the USA, but also Canada, many others and also… Belize. That’s right, Belize is often considered being Anglo-American and not excusively Latin-American or Caribbean. The same goes for Guyana in South America. Latest here, we completely lose the ability to draw clear borderlines between areas. The notion “South of the USA is where Latin-America is” doesn’t work in practice; it is far too imprecise. And it would therefore be wrong to draw any conclusion about a person or a nation based on that.

The Caribbean – The islands that complicate everything

The Caribbean area does make the division of continents harder, and also culturally poses a problem. Not only have they been object to colonization, due to strategical consideration; still today we find territories of France, the USA, Britain and the Netherlands there. That’s nothing bad, of course. It just makes our task harder.

Culturally we can’t generalize them and stick them to any of the forementioned areas. Geographically they are not a part of a continent, as there are no landmasses big enough. Still, some identity would be nice. That’s another hint that shows, that description and practice diverge. But litospherical they can add something.

Plate tectonics – Panta rei…

Everything is in motion, also on the earth. Ever since the realization of Pangaea and plate tectonics, we know how true that is. We also know how life could distribute the way it did. Let’s now have a look literally under the surface and check the tectonic plates below the Americas. Maybe they can help us find out where North America begins and answer other questions.

You might want to check out the SVG-Version of the original, from which I took this section here:

Tectonic plates below the Americas

Aha! Finally some clear borders. What do we see? The Caribbean indeed helps us here, because the Caribbean Plate is just in the middle of the North American Plate and the South American Plate. The lines are pretty strong here, but we can notice, that the southern border is exactly at the Isthmus of Panama, where South America begins. The nortern border of the Caribbean plate goes through our first candidate for the Central American border, that we talked about before: the south-eastern border of Guatemala (thereby explaining the mountain range, that was so totally not helpful before. Interesting though: the Caribbean plate also separates the Caribbean itself in half).

Can we draw any conclusions with this? We can at least be sure, that there is a natural border at the Isthmus of Panama, both over and under the surface. It makes the distinction of South America easier. But that isn’t our problem. As for North America, if we want to use the tectonical borders, we end up with Guatemala and Belize being North American, even though they are normally considered Central American geographically. The part in between could well be called Central America.

Conclusion – “So? Is Mexico North American or not? That’s all I want to know!”

Apart from the very interesting idea of the New Federal Republic of Yucatan, what did we learn today? Is there some kind of message behind this complex? Well, not in and of itself. Scientifically speaking, we can only describe what is happening practically. The practice is how the people behave. We saw however, that the base for the arguments in these debates about identity, geography and culture are often rather weak. And sometimes just not even existant. Everyone on the continents is an American, not only the citizens of the USA, even though practice could suppose otherwise.

By accepting this, we could learn, that the states in which we live now are the result of historical development. And North America doesn’t begin at a special fence. The terms are just descriptive metaphors; conventions. They don’t matter at all, apart from the help they give in communicating about something. We shouldn’t let them dictate our identity.

And Mexico is indeed North American… mostly.

This entry was posted in Culture, Geography, Mexico, Misconception. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Where does North America begin?

  1. Pingback: Where and what is Mesoamerica? | The Complete MesoAmerica… and more

  2. Anonymous says:


  3. Anonymous says:

    thank you for interesting post

  4. Terry Bremer says:

    Well written, informative and appreciated

  5. America is one continent. North and South America are subcontinental region of America. Hence North and South AMERICA. And Europe and Asia are two separate continents. The United State is not America, it is a country in America, located in NORTH America. These U.S. Centric maps are devised to create a false narrative to then campaign that the U.S. is America, and that’s its people are the only Americans. Well North American is an American from the North of a place called America, the continent of America. And South American is an American from the South of a place called America, the continent of America. Central America is the region of the continent of America that sits in the central region between North and South America. Self explanatory.

    America/Americans is the continent/people of the New World, christened America in 1507 by Martin Waldseemuller.

    • JStuart says:

      So you believe that Europe-Asia-Africa is one continent? Where would you divide them?
      Also, your comment doesn’t tell me WHERE along that one American continent you actually divide North, South, and Central. So apparently not self-explanatory.

      I’ve never seen “[t]hese U.S. Centric maps” that show the US of America as all of America. But I agree that the USA is one part of the North American continent, with other countries south (typically but not all are in Latin America) and north of the continental USA. And that South America is the southern subcontinental region, with a variety of countries, some, but not all, in Latin America.

      My problem is the islands in the Caribbean – which are NA, which are SA, etc? From the tectonic plates map, maybe Central America & the southern part of the Caribbean should be considered another continent/sub-continent, called Central America?

  6. CLAU says:

    I want you guys to have some fun… (and this is another world that anyone would define in a different way too.) This image corresponds to a plae in Monroe County, Key West, in Florida…. does not make you think a little? ha ha Link; http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/north-america-begins-here-key-west-monroe-high-res-stock-photography/186466079

  7. Br. Seraphim. says:

    A *very* interesting post, for which I thank you. I’ve been wondering about Central America, too, though for the sake of arranging memory of countries. I looked at the SVG version of the tectonic plates map, and zooming out saw the world divided so; it seems that if we consider defining continents as tectonic plates, we’d have nearly a dozen – and some of them completely underwater!, and it would an awkward division, compared to any other division we commonly use.
    As for cultural, political, ethnic, etc. divisions, seems they should not apply, since political divisions change a lot faster than do continents or land masses; and cultures and ethnic groups tend to migrate and move about over the centuries and millenia, while continents are slower and more ponderous things. The continents do move, so they say, and can split up or join together, though it takes eons. So, I wouldn’t identify continents with tectonic plates, despite them being related.
    Very glad you considered many ways of approaching the topic, keeping objective!, and brought into view the role of convention and usage. All told, for my part, I would certainly include (at least most of) Mexico as part of the North American (sub?-)continent, accept the well-founded limit for South America, but would consider Central America to be not so surely defined, perhaps because N and S America are ever-so-slowly drifting apart, leaving their border scattered; I’m inclined to include Central America as part of North America, and all of them parts of America.
    And join Europe and Asia into a single Eurasian continent, despite history, culture, etc.
    Seems that “continent” would belong more to geography, than to anything else.
    But yes, one who wishes to communicate, must have regard to conventional usage!
    Thank you again: an excellent article!

    • John says:

      Seraphim, I definitely like the way you put it – because the continents move so slowly, use a geographic nomenlature. It fixes one problem I’ve always had – how can Europe and Asia be different continents? They are one land mass.
      The trouble is, as tcmam says, it’s still hard to determine the exact line dividing any continent. He says divide North & South America at Panama. OK, but where in Panama. SINCE the canal was built, we could do it there. [Where the ‘east end’ of the canal is west of the ‘west end’ of the canal, the ‘east end’ is north of the ‘west end’ (‘east end’ = Atlantic/Caribbean side; ‘west end’ being the Pacific side. So the northernmost point in South America would be north of the southernmost point of North America. Clear on a map, confusing to explain.]
      But back before we began digging the canal – where would the border have been?
      So tcmam’s discussion brings us back to – EXACTLY where is the border? The Isthmus of Panama covers days of walking – at what point am I in NA, when does my next step put me in SA?
      With the Tropic of Cancer, in Mexico, I can do that (& have). That’s because at least along the major highways, there is a big white ball with a groove. When you step from one side to the other of that groove you’ve crossed the T of C. Or use your cell phone to see how far off the ball is. That’s because it’s not based on a point of land (not even the ball), but on how far north latitude you are, so that gps unit can tell you exactly (same with the equator – if I were walking through the jungle I wouldn’t know when I crossed it – but a gps could tell me). In other words, even marked on the ground, I could use a gps unit to tell me more accurately*, and no need for marks on the ground.
      That’s not true of the continents. Somebody could put a stake in the ground saying “this is the border between N & S America.” But no gps unit could confirm that. It could only tell me that I am at X point, and somebody else could claim – no, the border is 1 foot N – or 32 miles S, or whatever.

      One more comment – directly to tcmam. You said that Fowler’s claims that Mexicans consider themselves norte americanos. I could argue with Fowler on that point. I grew up in Mexico and Central America. Most Mexicans insisted on calling people from the USA norteamericanos – and insisted they (Mexicans) were not norteamericanos. Educated Mexicans would quickly concede that Mexico was part of the continent of North America. They would also say that people from the United States (of America) [United States – literally Estados Unidos – so people from the Estados Unidos would be estadounidenses] were Estadounidenses. But that they themselves were neither Estadounidenses, nor norteamericanos. That they were mejicanos. Ironic since they were from the USM – the United States of Mexico [Estados Unidos de Mexico] – so why didn’t they consider themselves to be estadounidenses, also? Why didn’t they consider themselves norteamericanos?

      Any actual Mexicans [not people of Mexican background but now living in the USA] want to explain that conundrum?

      *Today you can use that gps so accurately because of hams in Arlington, TX, who figured out how to use what then was civilian grade gps more accurately than the then current military grade gps – it caused some trouble for some of them back then. But we all benefit from their troubles.

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