Sorry Europe, Australia and Antarctica, there are only Four Continents

December 27, 2014 at 1:56 pm  •  Posted in Geography by  •  2 Comments

I’m preparing to teach a new class this spring, Geography of the World Economy. I’m really looking forward to it.

In preparing my syllabus I find myself wanting to be able to share a coherent hierarchy and regional partition of Earth’s surface with my students who, as business majors and future competitors in an increasingly globalized economy, will likely need to be able to refer to various parts of the world to communicate plans and ideas. Unfortunately, I don’t think a coherent system exists. So, as part of my course preparation I will try to contribute some thoughts along the same lines as my regional geography of the US.

The first challenge I want to take on is the definition of a continent. The word “continent” and its use in reference to large land masses comes from the Latin, terra continens, meaning continuous land. The definition is not based upon some sort of size threshold whereby extremely large islands, i.e., a land mass completely surrounded by water, can be considered continents.  As such, Antarctica and Australia are enormous islands, not continents. Sorry, mates….and, uh, penguins. It’s just geography, nothing personal.

So we’re left with two enormous, continuous and connected land masses. In the Western Hemisphere we have North America and South America connected by the very narrow Isthmus of Panama. And, in the Eastern Hemisphere, we have Europe and Asia connected to Africa at the very small Sinai Peninsula.

So, just five continents, right? No.

As is often the case, a Euro-centric view of things enabled the establishment of Europe as a separate continent and this precedent has been maintained for historical reasons. But, if you look at a satellite image of the Eastern Hemisphere you may notice that the Ural Mountains, generally considered to be the border between Europe and Asia is not terribly narrow, not at all similar to Panama or Sinai. So, while Europe is certainly a major world region, it is not a continent, nor is Asia for that matter (unless Europe is thought to be a subset of Asia). Instead, we must ignore the illusion of the Isthmus of the Urals and recognize Europe and Asia combine to form the world’s largest continent, Eurasia.

That makes four distinct and continuous land masses. My apologies to your social studies teachers who have been mistakenly dividing the world into six or seven continents. My apologies to Europe, Australia and Antarctica but you’ve been downgraded. Europe is a region. Australia and Antarctica are islands.

There are only four continents: Africa, Eurasia, North America and South America. 

Next up, world regions.

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