When you think of Central America, do you imagine sandy white beaches, thick jungles, and mighty volcanoes? Or do you recall the powerful pre-Columbian civilizations of the Maya? Perhaps you think of Central American history as being plagued with colonialism and struggles for independence… Well, Central America is all this and more.
Central America is part of the North American continent, sandwiched between Mexico to the north and the South American continent. Countries in Central America include Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Southern Mexico is linked in many ways to the region, but Mexico is not considered a part of Central America.
Central America totals an area of 524,000 square kilometers. It is shaped as an isthmus. An isthmus is a strip of land connecting two larger areas of land and bordered by water on two sides. To the west of Central America lies the Pacific Ocean and to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, which feed into the Atlantic Ocean.
The geography of Central America is very diverse. Much of Central America sits on the Caribbean Plate, resulting in occasional volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. It is filled with high peaked mountain ranges, low fertile valleys, dense rain forests and crystal blue waters shimmering off white sandy beaches.
Much of Central America is considered a Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot, which means 70% of the vegetation in the region has been lost to human activity. There are, however, over 1,500 different species of plants in this region alone.
Costa Rica alone has over 600 species of animals, not including insects. Particularly unique animals native to Central America include the quetzal bird, the sloth, the toucan and the jaguar.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Central America was home to various native groups. According to most theories, approximately 20,000 years ago, nomadic tribes crossed into the Americas via the Bering Strait. Over thousands of years, tribes made their way south, scattering throughout the Americas.
Early Central American civilizations included the Olmec and the Maya. Pre-Columbian civilizations bore many similarities. The central crop in the region was maize, or corn, and was considered sacred. Also, these civilizations practiced human sacrifice as a means to appease their gods.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean islands in 1492, the course of Central American history took a rapid turn. Although Columbus died thinking he had found islands off India's shore, explorers that followed realized it was actually a whole New World. The competition over this new land and its resources sent Europe into frenzy. Although the Dutch, English and French all established colonies in the Americas, Spain dominated Central America.
The first Spanish settlement in Central America was established in Panama in 1509. In 1519 Pedro Arias de Avila began conquering northward from Panama. That same year, Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico and set his sights on the Aztec empire, which fell to the Spanish in 1521. Throughout the 1520s, the Spanish toppled various Maya city-states.
The Spanish conquest had devastating effects on the indigenous population of Central America. Within the first decade of colonization, an estimated 90% of natives were killed by European-brought diseases such as small pox. Spaniards enslaved natives and divided the land and political power among themselves. The Catholic Church replaced polytheistic religions with Christianity, often using brutality as a means to forcibly convert.
Fighting for Independence
By 1540, most of Central America was colonized by the Spanish under the name Captaincy General of Guatemala. On September 16th, 1810, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, attaining it in 1821. On September 15th, 1821, the Captaincy General was dissolved and Spanish rule was overthrown. September 15th is considered Independence Day by Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
The five countries of the former Captaincy General eventually formed the Federal Republic of Central America in 1821. It is sometimes referred to as the United States of Central America. Between 1838-1841, multiple civil wars broke the republic apart. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua became sovereign nations.
Panama, in the meanwhile, was part of a colony that extended into South America. It didn't become a sovereign nation until November 1903. Belize, which had been fought over by the British and Spanish, eventually became a British colony. It gained independence in 1981.
Central America Today
Today, the more than 40 million people living throughout Central America still face periods of instability. Political upheavals, drug wars, poverty and violence plague many areas in the region. In 1991, an organization called the Central American Integration System was created to assist in the economic and political reformation of the region. The organization hopes to help Central America reach goals of attaining peace, economic prosperity and democratic-based governments.
When you are finished, you should be able to:
- Discuss the main geographical features of Central America
- List the countries found in Central America
- Describe what are believed to have been the first humans to arrive in Central America
- Summarize the impact of colonialism on the region
- Recall when the Central American countries gained their independence
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