What is a Continent?

Today we can see all of the Earth's continents from space in real time from a computer, smartphone, or tablet, yet defining what a continent is remains trickier still.
Today we can see all of the Earth's continents from space in real time from a computer, smartphone, or tablet, yet defining what a continent is remains trickier still.

Definition of Continent

According to the Cambridge dictionary, a continent is defined as “one of the seven large land masses on the earth's surface, surrounded, or mainly surrounded, by sea, and usually consisting of various countries”.

The Traditional View

Most of us began our Geography lessons learning that there are seven continents in the world. Namely, these have traditionally been listed as Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, North America, South America, and Antarctica. However, some of us have also grown up learning that there are six continents, where Europe and Asia are unified together as a single continent, namely Eurasia. Less often, peoples' classifications have North and South America merged together as the continent of the Americas. The interesting question of whether there are seven or six continents on our planet further intensifies when we carefully consider our traditional definition of continents.

Where is the Sea?

The uncertainty regarding continents lies in the misleading definition of the term. The definition claims that continents are ‘large, land masses’ separated by the ‘sea’. However, there appears to be no ‘sea’ separating the ‘large landmasses’ of Asia and Europe. Why then do the ‘seven continent’ theorists consider them as separate continents? Some argue that it is the prodigious cultural differences between the inhabitants of these two regions that has led to the demarkation of Asia and Europe as separate continents, even though the sea has no role to play in this distinction. If cultural differences were indeed the basis to define continents, then is it not also quite appropriate to consider the Middle East and India, with their largely distinct cultural repertoires, as separate continents as well? Then we would end up having nine continents instead of seven, with possibilities for further increases of this figure based on cultural differences in different regions of the world. Those who propagate the six continent theory, however, appear to take the strict definition of continents more seriously, and merge Europe and Asia into the continent of Eurasia.

The case of North America and South America being designated as two separate continents, however, is also a unique one itself. If President Roosevelt did not commission the completion of the Panama canal to facilitate the passage of goods quickly and cheaply between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, dividing North and South America by an artificially created water passage, there was no water body dividing these two land masses. Perhaps this is the reason why schools in Latin America teach their children about the existence of a world of six continents, where North and South America are designated collectively as the ‘Americas’. The same can be said about Africa and the Suez Canal. If the Suez Canal did not exist, and the 'sea demarcation theory' was strictly adhered to, we would have had 4 continents, with Africa, Europe and Asia huddled together as Afro-Eurasia, and the remaining three continents being the Americas, Australia and Antarctica.

Large landmasses? What is meant by large?

Until now, Australia and Antarctica have appeared to perfectly fit into the definition of continents, as they are both discrete land masses separated by the sea. However,if you look at the definition more closely, the word ‘large’ in it will continue to create further troubles still. There is no standard of measuring what ‘large’ represents in the definition of continents. Here we are left to wonder why Antarctica, an archipelago of small islands with the largest one being smaller than the size of Australia, would be considered as its own continent while Greenland, the world’s largest island with a surface area of 2,166,086 square kilometers (a comparatively ‘large’ land mass surrounded by water), is simply a part of North America? Similarly, many other large islands, like the Baffin Islands or Madagascar, could also claim to earn their respectable positions as separate continents depending on what is or isn't considered 'large'. Hence, we find that if we take the definition of continents seriously, we end up arbitrarily demarcating continents, creating a highly inconvenient situation for professional geographers and amateur students and lovers of geography alike.

The Geologist’s Definition

The geologists have a completely distinct way to define continents. According to them, continents are demarcated by the presence of continental crusts, seen in the layer of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks forming the floating land masses and the shallow seabeds near the shores (known as continental shelves). If we try to divide continents on the basis of the geologist’s definition, we would again end up with a large number of overlapping continental plates, each being a continent. Hence, the division of continents on this basis would also be quite unhelpful.

Special Cases

There are a number of countries and islands which are quite tough to fit under the umbrella of a particular continent. For example, Hawaii, which lies in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, by definition, does not qualify to be part of any of the known continents, but is politically a part of North America. Turkey is another country that has a very strategic position. Part of it lies in Europe and a part in Asia, with the Bosphorus Strait serving as the dividing line between the two regions. Russia is also divided into European Russia, which politically and geographically belongs to Europe, while the rest of Russia is part of Asia. The Ural Mountains serve as the dividing line between the two segments of Russia. Even though Australia is designated as a separate continent, what about the fate of the other smaller islands in the surrounding region like New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Polynesia, and others? They do not seem to belong to any of the continents. To put these scattered land masses under the umbrella of a continent, many geographers consider uniting these islands together with Australia and designating them as Oceania.

So, How Many Continents Actually Exist?

Continents are created by man-made demarcations in order to make geographical studies more convenient. However, the definition of continents is both historically unstable and highly unexamined. There is no proper definition on the required size and degree of physical separation within and between the continents. This has led to varying interpretations regarding the definition of continents. In conclusion, in the absence of a well-defined definition, we will continue to stray away from the original division of continents into seven or six separate entities, and conveniently continue to create as many continents as we like to meet our needs.


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