May 24th 2017
Today I realised that there is no real reason why Europe and Asia should be classed as two separate continents. After a bit more digging, I found out that apparently it’s mainly in English speaking countries where children are taught that there are 7 continents: Europe, Asia, Africa, Antartica, North America, South America, and Oceania*.
In many Latin American countries kids are taught that there are only six countries, with the Americas being grouped as one. And in some Eastern countries kids are taught that there are only five continents: Eurasia, Africa, Antartica, The Americas, Oceania*.
To take it one step further, the Americas are only separated by the Isthmus of Panama – they’re technically attached – and Africa and Asia are separated by the Isthmus of Suez, the only body of water between Africa and Asia is the Suez canal which is a manmade shipping lane.
If we’re calling a continent by its actual definition:
Continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water.
Then I’d argue that there are only four continents, the Americas, Afroeurasia, Antartica and Oceania*. Europe, Asia and Africa are effectively one discrete, continuous continental landmass. You could ride a bicycle from the south-western most tip of Portugal to Cape Dezhnev in far east Russia without crossing a large expanse of water.
Similarly, you can ride a bike from Copenhagen to Cape Town and the only body of water you’d have to cross is the manmade Suez canal. And, at 200 metres wide, I could easily clear it with a golf ball and a six iron.
Continents used to be defined more by continental plates, and land masses. But they’ve since become more beneficial for geopolitical reasons. That’s why there’s no real answer whether there’s six or seven or four or five (or you might argue… three). We’ve always just assumed there were seven because that’s what we’ve been taught.
When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. The United Kingdom is part of Europe, but is not attached to the European continent, which by definition makes us not part of Europe. The same with Japan and Asia, and Madagascar and Africa, and so on.
You’d have a case for saying that the UK is part of Oceania, which is essentially just Australia plus the collection of Oceanic islands. And because all of the world’s oceans form one world ocean, then technically the UK is an Oceanic island, and so should be part of Oceania.
There’s debate over whether Australia is the world’s largest island, or whether it should be Greenland, because Australia is technically a continental landmass, but by that logic, you could say Afroeurasia is the world’s largest island.
It’s all very messy, and there’s no real answer. I’m not sure where I wanted this to go, but I think we can all agree that we’d all get along much better if we were all part of one continent like we used to be, before the breakup of the Pangea 200 million years ago.
Until tomorrow, that would solve all our problems.