Chronicles of America 

The Form of the Continent

If North and South America be counted as one major land mass, and Europe, Asia, and Africa as another, the two present the same general features. Yet their mountains, plains, and coastal indentations are so arranged that what is on the east in one is on the west in the other. Their similarity is somewhat like that of a man's two hands placed palms down on a table.

On a map of the world place a finger of one hand on the western end of Alaska and a finger of the other on the northeastern tip of Asia and follow the main bones of the two continents. See how the chief mountain systems, the Pacific "cordilleras," trend away from one another, southeastward and southwestward. In the centers of the continents they expand into vast plateaus. That of America in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States reaches a width of over a thousand miles, while that of Asia in Tibet and western China expands to far greater proportions.

From the plateaus the two cordilleras swing abruptly Atlantic-ward. The Eurasian cordillera extends through the Hindu Kush, Caucasus, and Asia Minor ranges to southern Europe and the Alps. Then it passes on into Spain and ends in the volcanoes of the Canary Islands. The American cordillera swings eastward in Mexico and continues as the isolated ranges of the West Indies until it ends in the volcanoes of Martinique. Central America appears at first sight to be a continuation of the great cordillera, but really it is something quite different--a mass of volcanic material poured out in the gap where the main chain of mountains breaks down for a space. In neither hemisphere, however, is the main southward sweep of the mountains really lost. In the Old World the cordillera revives in the mountains of Syria and southern Arabia and then runs southward along the whole length of eastern Africa. In America it likewise revives in the mighty Andes, which take their rise fifteen hundred miles east of the broken end of the northern cordillera in Mexico. In the Andes even more distinctly than in Africa the cordillera forms a mighty wall running north and south. It expands into the plateau of Peru and Bolivia, just as its African compeer expands into that of Abyssinia, but this is a mere incident. The main bone, so to speak, keeps on in each case till it disappears in the great southern ocean. Even there, however, it is not wholly lost, for it revives in the cold, lofty continent of Antarctica, where it coalesces once more with the other great tetrahedral ridges of Africa and Australia.

It is easy to see that these great cordilleras have turned most of the earth's chief rivers toward the Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. That is why these two oceans with an area of only forty-three million square miles receive the drainage from twenty million square miles of land, while the far larger Indian and Pacific Oceans with an area of ninety-one million square miles receive the rivers of only ten million square miles. The world's streams of civilization, like the rivers of water, have flowed from the great cordilleras toward the Atlantic. Half of the world's people, to be sure, are lodged in the relatively small areas known as China and India on the Pacific side of the Old World cordillera. Nevertheless the active streams of civilization have flowed mainly on the other side--the side where man apparently originated. From the earliest times the mountains have served to determine man's chief migrations. Their rugged fastnesses hinder human movements and thereby give rise to a strong tendency to move parallel to their bases. During the days of primitive man the trend of the mountains apparently directed his migrations northeastward to Bering Strait and then southeastward and southward from one end of America to the other. In the same way the migrations to Europe and Africa which ultimately reached America moved mainly parallel to the mountains.

From end to end of America the great mountains form a sharp dividing line. The aboriginal tribes on the Pacific slope are markedly different from those farther east across the mountains. Brinton sums the case up admirably:

"As a rule the tribes of the western coast are not connected with any east of the mountains. What is more singular, although they differ surprisingly among themselves in language, they have marked anthropologic similarities, physical and psychical. Virchow has emphasized the fact that the skulls from the northern point of Vancouver's Island reveal an unmistakable analogy to those from the southern coast of California; and this is to a degree true of many intermediate points. Not that the crania have the same indices. On the contrary, they present great and constant differences within the same tribe; but these differences are analogous one to the other, and on fixed lines.

"There are many other physical similarities which mark the Pacific Indians and contrast them with those east of the mountains. The eyes are less oblique, the nose flatter, the lips fuller, the chin more pointed, the face wider. There is more hair on the face and in the axilla, and the difference between the sexes is much more obvious.

"The mental character is also in contrast. The Pacific tribes are more quiet, submissive, and docile; they have less courage, and less of that untamable independence which is so constant a feature in the history of the Algonquins and Iroquois."

D. G. Brinton, The American Race, pp. 103-4.

Although mountains may guide migrations, the plains are the regions where people dwell in greatest numbers. The plains in the two great land masses of the Old World and the New have the same inverse or right- and left-handed symmetry as the mountains. In the north the vast stretches from the Mackenzie River to the Gulf of Mexico correspond to the plains of Siberia and Russia from the Lena to the Black Sea. Both regions have a vast sweep of monotonous tundras at the north and both become fertile granaries in the center. Before the white man introduced the horse, the ox, and iron ploughs, there prevailed an extraordinary similarity in the habits of the plains Indians from Texas to Alberta. All alike depended on the buffalo; all hunted him in much the same way; all used his skins for tents and robes, his bones for tools, and his horns for utensils. All alike made him the center of their elaborate rituals and dances. Because the plains of North America were easy to traverse, the relatively high culture of the ancient people of the South spread into the Mississippi Valley. Hence the Natchez tribe of Mississippi had a highly developed form of sun-worship and a well-defined caste system with three grades of nobility in addition to the common people. Even farther north, almost to the Ohio River, traces of the sun-worship of Mexico had penetrated along the easy pathway of the plains.

South of the great granaries of North America and Eurasia the plains are broken, but occur again in the Orinoco region of South America and the Sahara of Africa. Thence they stretch almost unbroken toward the southern end of the continents. In view of the fertility of the plains it is strange that the centers of civilization have so rarely been formed in these vast level expanses.

The most striking of the inverse resemblances between America and the Old World are found along the Atlantic border. In the north of Europe the White Sea corresponds to Hudson Bay in America. Farther toward the Atlantic Ocean Scandinavia with its mountains, glaciers, and fiords is similar to Labrador, although more favored because warmer. Next the islands of Great Britain occupy a position similar to that of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. But here again the eastern climate is much more favorable than the western. Although practically all of Newfoundland is south of England, the American island has only six inhabitants per square mile, while the European country has six hundred. To the east of the British Isles the North Sea, the Baltic, and Lakes Ladoga and Onega correspond in striking fashion to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the river of the same name, and the Great Lakes from Ontario to Superior. Next the indented shores of western France and the peninsula of Spain resemble our own indented coast and the peninsula of Florida. Here at last the American regions are as favored as the European. Farther south the Mediterranean and Black seas penetrate far into the interior just as does the Gulf of Mexico, and each continent is nearly cut in two where the canals of Suez and Panama respectively have been trenched. Finally in the southern continents a long swing eastward in America balances a similar swing westward in Africa. Thus Cape Saint Roque and Cape Verde are separated by scarcely 16 degrees of longitude, although the extreme points of the Gulf of Mexico and the Black Sea are 140 degrees apart. Finally to the south of the equator the continents swing away from one another once more, preserving everywhere the same curious inverse relationship.

Even more striking than the inverse resemblance of the New World to the Old is the direct similarity of North and South America. In physical form the two continents are astonishingly alike. Not only does each have the typical triangular form which would naturally arise from tetrahedral shrinking of the globe, but there are four other cardinal points of resemblance. First, in the northeast each possesses an area of extremely ancient rocks, the Laurentian highlands of Quebec and Labrador in North America and the highlands of Guiana in South America. Second, in the southeast lie highlands of old but not the most ancient rocks stretching from northeast to southwest in the Appalachian region of North America, and in the Brazilian mountains of the southern continent. Third, along the western side of each continent recent crustal movements supplemented by volcanic action on a magnificent scale have given rise to a complex series of younger mountains, the two great cordilleras. Finally, the spaces between the three mountain masses are occupied by a series of vast confluent plains which in each case extend from the northern ocean to the southern and bend around the southeastern highlands. These plains are the newest part of America, for many of them have emerged from the sea only in recent geological times. Taken as a whole the resemblance between the two continents is striking.

If these four physiographic provinces of North and South America lay in similar latitudes in the respective continents we might expect each pair to have a closely similar effect on life. In fauna, flora, and even in human history they would present broad and important resemblances. As a matter of fact, however, they are as different as can well be imagined. Where North America, is bathed by icy waters full of seals and floating ice South America is bathed by warm seas full of flying-fish and coral reefs. The northern continent is broadest in the cool latitudes that are most favorable for human activity. The southern expands most widely in latitudes whose debilitating monotony of heat and moisture is the worst of handicaps to human progress. The great rivers of the northern continent correspond very closely to those of the southern. The Mackenzie, however, is bound in the rigid bands of winter for eight months each year, while the Orinoco, the corresponding South American river, lies sweltering under a tropical sun which burns its grassy plains to bitter dust even as the sharp cold reduced the Mackenzie region to barren tundra. The St. Lawrence flows through fertile grain fields and the homes of an active people of the temperate zone, but the Amazon winds its slow way amid the malarious languor of vast tropical forests in which the trees shut out the sky and the few natives are apathetic with the eternal inertia of the hot, damp tropics.

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