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But these generalizations may have to be modified, with the rapid strides anthropology is making in the field of detailed and local investigation, and it will hereafter be advisable to consider the characteristics of every linguistic stock (and even of its subdivisions) by themselves, allowing for changes wrought in the physical condition by diversity of environment after long residence.
The distribution of the American population at the time of Columbus is, of course, not known from personal observation, but it may be approximately reconstructed from information gathered after America began to be visited by Europeans.
While the abundance of natural resources invited man to remain, geographic features compelled him, and thus arose Indian communities that excelled in culture Indians in every other part of the continent.
South of Panama, nature was too exuberant, and the territory too small to favour similar progress; hence the Indians, while still quite proficient in certain arts, could not compare with their northern neighbors.
Central America forms an isthmus running from northwest to southeast and narrowing to a strip of thirty miles in width at Panama ; this isthmus extends from 15° to 8° north latitude, where it connects with the western coast of South America.
South America begins in latitude 12° north, terminating in latitude 55° south.
The highest development attained in South America before its discovery was along the backbone of the Andes from 15° north to near the Tropic of Capricorn, or 23° south.
The population was not nearly so numerous as had long been thought, even where it was most dense, but there are no materials even for an approximate estimate.
The great northern and western plains were not settled, although there are traces of pre-Columbian permanent abodes, or at least of some settlements made during a slow shifting along the streams; tribes preying on the buffalo roamed with that quadruped over the steppes.
The northwest, on the Pacific, was more densely inhabited by tribes, who subsisted by fishing (salmon), limited agriculture, and hunting.
Hence North America approximately extends over 3,800 English miles from north to south, South America 4,500, and Central America constitutes a diagonal running between the two larger masses, from northwest to southeast and is approximately a thousand miles in length.
As the object of this article is to compile the data which will help the reader appreciate the Christian settlement and civilization of America, we omit here the geography, geology, and other topics usually treated in general encyclopedias, and confine ourselves to the ethnography and colonization of the Americas.