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Central America: History, Overview

Instructor: Lucia Reyes
Central America has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for at least 20,000 years. Explore Central America and its diverse geographical features, discover its history of colonization, and learn the names of its countries. Updated: 02/06/2022

Introduction

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.

Geography

Map Central America

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.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Jungle in Guatemala
Jungle in Guatemala

Beaches in Belize
Beaches in Belize

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.

Map indicating Biodiversity Hotspots in Central America
Biodiversity Hotspot

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.

Quetzal bird
quetzal

Pre-Columbian History

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.

Colonial Period

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.

Map showing colonization of the Americas
Map showing colonization of 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.

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