Something as large and extant as a continent should be easy to define, right? Wrong. Then again, we couldn’t even come up with a definition for ‘planet’ until 2006.)
A continent is a construct of convention; how you define it depends upon where you live and what subject you are talking about. Growing up in the Anglosphere, we are taught that there are seven continents, and that a continent is a continuous major mass of land that is larger than an island, has no parental land mass, and is surrounded by water. And then we are told immediately afterward that Europe and Asia are two separate continents. Anyone who’s ever glanced at a world map can figure out the inconsistency there right away; rather than being separated, the two lands share a land border that extends thousands of kilometres, mostly within Russia.
Precisely defining the border between Europe and Asia is about as productive as slicing bread with a cheese grater. Source: Aotearoa, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TransAsia_m2.png. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
Speaking of Russia, it only makes sense that there, schoolchildren are taught about six continents, with Europe and Asia grouped together as Eurasia (this goes for Japan as well; geologically speaking, this is the definition most geographers prefer). The traditional separation of Europe from Asia is culturally-based, of course, and dates back countless centuries (at least from the Eurocentric point of view); the distance between the endpoints are so vast that anything beyond the Middle East was completely foreign-bordering-on-mythical. The T-O maps of the Middle Ages helped to reinforce this cultural construct, back when Europeans ‘only’ three continents to worry about (Europe, Asia, and the even-more-unknown Africa).
A T-O map from 1472.T-O maps were a Christian construct intended to portray Jerusalem as the centre of the known world. Here, Asia, Europe, and Africa are represented as domains of the sons of the biblical Noah: Sem (Shem), Iafeth (Japheth) and Cham (Ham); the same figures from which we derive the terms ‘Semitic‘ and ‘Hamitic‘.
The idea of continents as cultural constructs rather than as physical forms is further reinforced in much of ‘continental Europe’ (what an awkward term that is) and Latin America, where many are taught that there are five continents, discounting the uninhabited Antarctica and including North and South America as simply ‘America’ (or, alternatively, including Antarctica but merging Europe and Asia into Eurasia). The five-ring symbol of the Oiympic Games were theoretically based upon the five-inhabited-continent model (although the International Olympic Committee has officially eschewed this definition since 1951; no ring is legally assigned to any continent). Telling a Canadian or a (United States of) American that they’re located on the same continent as Uruguay, however, would probably draw you a look of perturbation. North and South America do lie upon completely different continental plates, and separately rank as large in area as the other continents (excluding the mammoth Asia. Or Eurasia. Whichever you prefer). But using the strictest physical definition of continents, if Europe and Asia should be united as Eurasia, then the Americas should be united as one because of the presence of the Isthmus of Panama, right? In that sense, even Eurasia still is not its own continent, for it is joined to Africa via an even larger piece of land, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. This results in a four-continent arrangement, with the landmass of Afro-Eurasia forming the world’s largest continent (the ‘Old World’, if you will, containing 85% of the world’s population). In a few million years, this may become somewhat moot as the Mediterranean Sea closes up and Africa and Europe merge together.
Of course, Eurasia and Africa will still be lying on separate plates, much as North and South America do now. India, however, also lies upon its own plate, but we call it a ‘subcontinent’ of Asia since it is completely joined to it. So why isn’t this term generally afforded to the Arabian Peninsula, which also lies on its own plate, and is nearly as large as India? If we went by the number of continental plates in order to define what a continent is, we’d have eight: North America, South America, Eurasia, Arabia, Africa, Antarctica, India, and Australia (not withstanding the chunks of land that exist on mostly oceanic plates, such as Central America and the South Island of New Zealand). The eastern portion of Russia would be North American, and Indonesia, Iraq and Iceland would be transcontinental countries.
Flipping the definition on its end, if we were to go by a cultural definition, then most of those geological boundaries go completely out the window. For example, Morocco and South Africa may exist on the same physical continent, but Morocco would culturally have more in common with Middle Eastern or even Central Asian countries than South Africa. The culturally-based definition is where we see terms such as ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’, ‘Oceania’, and ‘Latin America’ pop up. It’s also the same logic that allows Cyprus into the European Union, places Trinidad and Tobago in North America, or groups East Timor inside of Asia due to its shared border and history with Indonesia even though East Timor nearly touches the continental shelf of Australia. Matt Rosenberg at About.com defined his own ‘regions of the world‘, and this arrangement (Asia, Middle East/North Africa, North America, Central America/Caribbean, South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia/Oceania) is close to what you’ll find in a lot of economic and demographic publications, although often you’ll see the countries of the former Soviet Union grouped separately, or South Asia separated from East Asia, etc.
It’s quite apparent that this is a question that probably won’t be definitively answered at any point. The continents we are taught about, no matter the number, are an amalgam of physical and cultural boundaries; myths and traditions passed down to us over time through our own myopic world views. Any definition of the word is relative to one’s experience and to the subject at hand. For many people, the continental concept they have been taught is too deeply ingrained to be changed in their mind.In the end, it’s rather futile to try.
Cessna, A. (2009).The 7 Continents. Universe Today, 15 November 2009.Available at http://www.universetoday.com/45078/the-7-continents/. Accessed 1 February 2011.
Christian, D. (2008). Afroeurasia in Geological Time. World History Connected 5(2). Available at http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/whc/5.2/christian.html. Accessed 1 February 2011.
Kästle, K. (2011). The Continents of the World. Nations Online. Available at http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/continents.htm. Accessed 1 February 2011.
Lewis, M.W. and K.E. Wigen (1997). The Myth of Continents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rosenberg, M. (n.d.). Seven Continents. About.com: Geography. Available at http://geography.about.com/od/learnabouttheearth/qt/qzcontinents.htm. Accessed 1 February 2011.
Rosenberg, M. (2010). Official Listing of Countries by World Region. About.com: Geography, 17 November 2010. Available at http://geography.about.com/od/lists/a/officiallist.htm. Accessed 1 February 2011.