Why There’s More Than One Answer To How Old Is America

Published February 26, 2024
Updated February 28, 2024

The United States may have been founded on July 4, 1776, but Indigenous people have lived in the territory for tens of thousands of years.

How Old Is America

North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock PhotoA Fourth of July celebration in Philadelphia. 1819.

How old is America? Those who wish to answer that question usually point to the Fourth of July, which is often referred to as “America’s birthday.” After all, it was on that day in 1776, that the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, severing the 13 American colonies’ ties to Great Britain and accusing King George III of imposing “absolute Tyranny” on the colonies. So if the United States was “born” on July 4, 1776, then America must be 247 years old as of February 2024.

But while July 4th is Independence Day, to say that it was the day of America’s founding is highly debatable. For starters, delegates did not actually begin signing the Declaration of Independence until August 2, 1776. Furthermore, Great Britain adamantly refused to recognize American independence until the end of the American Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783. And even picking one of those historic dates as America’s birthday would ignore many important events that preceded them.

Take, for example, the arrival of the first Indigenous Americans. Though not unified under a single government, they inhabited the land for tens of thousands of years before European settlers, and some argue that American society began with them, long before the arrival of Norse explorer Leif Erikson around 1000 C.E. or Italian navigator Christopher Columbus in 1492.

One could even argue that America is 200 million years old, if they’re referring to the age of the actual landmass, which became its own distinct continent after splitting from the supercontinent Pangea. In any case, the answer to the question “How old is America?” is not as simple as it seems.

How Old Is The United States Of America?

How Old Is The United States Of America

Wikimedia CommonsAn engraving of the Boston Tea Party, a famous political protest that paved the way for American independence.

Looking at America as a sovereign nation, the answer is mostly straightforward. It was on July 4, 1776, that the 13 colonies ratified the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed themselves free of British rule, meaning that as of February 2024, the United States of America is 247 years old. That said, delegates didn’t start signing the document until August 1776.

And of course, the British did not agree with America becoming an independent country at the time and fought to maintain control over the land. In fact, Great Britain would not recognize American independence until America officially won the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783.

Interestingly enough, the American Revolutionary War had technically begun a year prior to the issuing of the Declaration of Independence. The first battles took place between British troops and colonial militiamen in Lexington and Concord. These skirmishes came after years of British oppression in the colonies, with American patriotism ignited by events such as the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Intolerable Acts enacted by British Parliament in 1774 as a punishment for the Boston Tea Party.

Statue Of Liberty

nagelestock.com/Alamy Stock PhotoIndependence is still a core concept embraced in America today, as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The American Revolutionary War ultimately ended with a British defeat and representatives from both the U.S. and Great Britain convening in Paris on September 3, 1783, to declare an end to the war — and Britain recognizing the United States as a sovereign nation. This agreement also established boundaries between the U.S. and what would later be called Canada.

So why don’t Americans call September 3, 1783 the country’s birthday? Perhaps it’s a sense of pride, celebrating independence on the day it was declared by America rather than the day it was recognized by the “enemy” — after all, the country was born out of a defiance to British rule.

But that only marks the beginnings of the United States of America. The North American continent had long been inhabited before then, and some say that America’s true origins lie with its earliest inhabitants.

How Old Is America As A Human-Inhabited Land?

British settlers first began establishing colonies in North America in the late 1500s, with the first established colony cropping up in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 — just over 100 years after Christopher Columbus’ voyage to what he thought was Asia.

But even though the Italian navigator is often credited with discovering the “New World,” this is not true. He wasn’t even the first European to set foot in North America. That title belongs to Leif Erikson, a Norse explorer who likely reached North America around 1000 C.E.

But Leif Erikson was definitely not the first human to set foot on North American land. Instead, it was about 30,000 years ago that people first migrated to this land. Most of these people likely crossed over the now-sunken Bering Land Bridge that once connected Asia to North America in order to reach their new home. The descendants of these early inhabitants became genetically isolated from East Asians about 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, making them the first Indigenous Americans (or Native Americans).

Though some of these Indigenous groups settled in what is now Canada, other groups steadily made their way further south. For example, the Clovis people built a settlement near present-day Clovis, New Mexico about 11,000 years ago. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that the Clovis people were the direct ancestors of approximately 80 percent of modern-day Indigenous people in both North America and South America.

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Wikimedia CommonsA map that shows how the Bering Land Bridge decreased in size over time.

By the time of Erikson and Columbus, Indigenous Americans had been on the land for thousands of years, with well-established cultures and societies.

But when Europeans started establishing colonies in the Americas, they declared that most of the Natives there were “uncivilized” and that the land ought to belong to Europeans instead. European settlers fought numerous bloody battles with Indigenous people, killed many of the Natives, and pushed any survivors off of the land that they claimed as their own, paving the way for the establishment of the British colonies in America.

Keeping this history in mind, it’s little wonder why some point out that America as a human-inhabited land is now more than 30,000 years old, according to both oral history and the official archaeological record.

But what about the land itself? After all, the world’s continents have not always looked exactly the way they do now. They were once a single supercontinent known as Pangea, surrounded by a magnificent global ocean known as Panthalassa — until they split apart about 200 million years ago.

How Old Is America As A Continent?

Pangea may be the most well known supercontinent, but it’s not the only one that’s ever existed. There is evidence that the Earth has seen a number of supercontinents over the course of billions of years as the tectonic plates have shifted, bringing landmasses together and then splitting them apart.

The reason why we speak about Pangea so often, however, is that Pangea was Earth’s most recent supercontinent, and the one that eventually gave way to the seven continents we have today: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica.

The existence of Pangea was first proposed by the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener in 1912, as a part of his larger theory of continental drift, the movement of continents over time due to the motion of tectonic plates.

How Old Is America As A Continent

Wikimedia CommonsA map of Pangea created by Alfred Wegener, the meteorologist who first proposed the concept in 1912.

In the years since Wegener proposed this concept, it has indeed been validated by modern geologists. Other scientists have expanded on his work, agreeing that Pangea had been preceded by several other supercontinents, including Pannotia, Rodinia, Kenorland, and Ur. Experts have dubbed the specific ancient landmass that would eventually become North America “Laurentia.” It was only when Pangea split up about 200 million years ago that scientists say Laurentia officially became North America.

When you look at it this way, it is fair to say that America, in its most ancient form, has technically existed since the dawn of time.

Ultimately, if you’re trying to determine how old America is, it’s important to keep in mind which question you’re really asking. As of February 2024, the United States of America is officially 247 years old, but the human history of the nation’s land predates the country’s formation by tens of thousands of years. And that history shouldn’t be ignored.

After reading about how old America is, go inside the complicated question of who discovered America. Or, learn about who made the American flag — and why the story is more complicated than just Betsy Ross.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.