Are Continents Real, or a Human Invention?

Nearly every day we are exposed to news and conversations that contain direct or indirect references to continents. Terms such as “African-Americans”, “European history”, and “Asian cuisine” are all based on a mental model in which the land surface of the Earth is divided into distinct continents. This separation of the planet into a small number of large zones is an essential part of how we organize our knowledge of the world. But is this taxonomy a hard fact, or an arbitrary invention of the human mind? To what extent is this model real and undeniable, and to what extent is it a debatable issue?

In the U.S., the traditional list of continents includes exactly seven: Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australia, and Antarctica. This is what I was taught as a kid in school, and the information was presented to me and my fellow students as a fact. As I got older, I was eventually taught that Europe and Asia are technically part of a single continent called Eurasia, resulting in a total of only six continents. However, I had no idea that still other models existed. Therefore, as an adult, I was surprised to meet people — usually educated in other parts of the world — who were taught somewhat different models. I met people who were taught that North America and South America form a single continent called America. I met people who were taught that Australia is part of a continent called Oceania, which includes New Zealand and other Pacific islands.

We all know that the famous, familiar logo of the Olympic Games includes five interconnected rings. These rings are supposed to represent the “five inhabited continents” — thereby excluding Antarctica. But what are the five that are included? Based on a model of the continents that is popular in France and many other countries, America is considered a single continent, but Europe and Asia are two distinct continents. (The other two rings represent Africa and Australia.)

So which model is “correct”? In school we were taught that the list of continents is based on the reality of physical geography. So is there a clear physical definition that we can apply to resolve this question?

A commonly taught definition — and the one that I was taught — is that a continent is “a large, contiguous landmass surrounded by water”. I always considered this to be a maddeningly vague and imprecise definition. Just how large is the cutoff for “large”? Why are Australia and Antarctica considered to be “large”, while Greenland is not? Even worse, the concept of “surrounded by water” appears to be blatantly untrue. North America and South America have a land connection. Eurasia and Africa have a land connection. If you strictly apply the criterion of “surrounded by water”, then the world appears to have exactly two “super-continents” (Eurasia-Africa and America) and two “mini-continents” (Australia and Antarctica) — a total of four continents. However, if you say that “95% surrounded by water” is adequate to meet the criterion, then you can split the two American continents, and you can separate Africa from Eurasia — resulting in a six-continent model.

Wikipedia, in its article entitled “Continent”, puts the matter succinctly:

“A continent is one of several very large landmasses on Earth. Generally identified by convention rather than any strict criteria, up to seven regions are commonly regarded as continents.”

In other words, while the concept of “continents” is based on a reality — that the surface of Earth includes several very large masses of land — the list of continents is a human creation that is rather malleable.

As a side note, the typical definition for “island” is “a piece of land surrounded by water”. This is nearly identical to the definition of “continent”, which suggests that America ought to be considered an island — and the super-continent of Eurasia-Africa should be considered the world’s largest island. On the other hand, a reasonable alternative is to categorize all landmasses into two distinct groups — continents or islands — based on size. To say that Australia is both the world’s smallest continent and the world’s largest island is just plain silly. If Australia can be considered an island, then Antarctica should also be considered an island — and Antarctica is the larger of the two.

One more side note: Some definitions of “continent” consider not just the land above sea level, but also the continental shelves, which are areas of shallow water surrounding the continents. This makes sense for several reasons. But if you carry this concept to its logical conclusion, then North America and Eurasia form a single continent! Only a small stretch of shallow water separates Alaska from Siberia, which is why the two were connected during the Ice Age, when ocean levels were lower than today. (The popular term “land bridge” is misleading, because this “bridge” was hundreds of miles wide — a complete connection of the two continents. And that connection is still there in the continental shelf.)

Even though our models for dividing the world into continents are somewhat arbitrary (and therefore debatable), it is extremely helpful to have some sort of mental model that divides the world into relatively well-defined zones. Such a mental framework allows us to categorize information that we encounter, attaching it to permanent mental structures. As we encounter each bit of information, we put it into the appropriate bucket, building up our set of knowledge and impressions about “Europe”, “Asia”, “Africa”, and so on. If we had no mental categories — no buckets waiting to collect information — then we would remember far less information. Therefore our mental framework of continents greatly facilitates our ability to learn. On the downside, the bucketing also produces stereotypes, because we want to attach every impression and every bit of knowledge to the entire bucket into which we file the information.

Even though our model of “continents” is based on the concept of “major landmasses”, we have pressed the model into service for all sorts of related purposes. The size, shape, and location of each landmass merely serve as the starting point. Into these same buckets we toss information and impressions about climate, terrain, countries, cities, music, food, art, language, ethnicity, agriculture, business, health, wealth, and so on. All aspects of physical and cultural geography are included in our mental exercise of generalizing the attributes of each continent. As a result, you could pair the name of any inhabited continent with any of the concepts listed above, and it would trigger some sort of impression in the minds of most people. Consider phrases such as “African music”, “Asian food”, “European art”, “Australian agriculture”, “North American wealth”, and “South American languages”. Mix and match the words to your heart’s content, because each combination is likely to retrieve some sort of impression from the depths of your mind.

We have also applied the continent model — a model based on landmasses — to the people of the world. Compare your mental impressions of “Africans”, “Asians”, and “Europeans”. At the very least, you picture people with different appearances, and you may attach other associations as well. You are probably well aware that these mental images are not universally true, but you might feel that each of your mental images is fairly accurate, applying to the vast majority of people in the corresponding continents. However, these mental stereotypes are seldom as accurate as we assume.

In the U.S. we have developed a modern tradition of defining several major ethnicities in terms of the continent of origin — particularly African Americans, Asian Americans, and sometimes European Americans. We have developed mental stereotypes for each group, particularly with regards to physical appearance. However, there are numerous cases where this system breaks down, leading to contradictions. For example, we don’t like to refer to immigrants from the northern tier of African countries — Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco — as “African Americans”, because they look quite different than our mental image of African Americans. Likewise, few people would ever refer to immigrants from Israel or Lebanon as “Asian Americans.” I’ve even been told by some people that immigrants from India are not Asian Americans. In this viewpoint, the only real Asian Americans are people whose ancestors came from East Asia. The other 2/3 of Asia does not qualify. By the same token, the only real “African Americans” are people who ancestors came from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The source of this confusion is easy to identify. People from various parts of the world can have fairly distinct appearances — but these variations do not match up well with the boundaries of what we call continents. On the other hand, these different physical attributes do correlate somewhat with various cultural factors, such as language, religion, music, art, agriculture, and so on. If we were to divide the world into distinct cultural regions, then it would be a better fit than “continents” for naming the origins of the people of the world. Admittedly, the boundaries of such regions would be fuzzy, and the optimum number of regions for our taxonomy would be debatable. But such a mental model might indeed be quite helpful. So what regions should this model contain?

Two of the world’s major cultural regions are apparent from the above discussion: Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia. Europe is another major cultural region. (Europe was never a real continent on the basis of physical geography.) The Middle East, stretching from Morocco into parts of Afghanistan, is another cultural region. South Asia — consisting of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some adjoining areas — is also a good candidate for designation as a distinct region. In short, the interconnected continents of Eurasia and Africa can be divided into five fairly distinct cultural regions. Each region actually contains many cultures — but the dominant cultures within a single region tend to have a lot in common.

The Americas provide another interesting case. Again, our existing mental models result in some contradictions. In the U.S. we like to say that there are two continents in the Americas — North and South America. But when you ask people where to draw the line between the two continents, many people seem confused. Some want to draw the line at the U.S./Mexico border, putting Mexico into South America. Hardly anyone bothers to include the countries of Central America in their mental model of North America. For example, most people would prefer to group Panama and Costa Rica with South America rather than North America. And yet by our standard geographic definition, all of Central America is indeed part of North America.

The main issue here is that we are again conflating continents with cultural regions. Everything from Mexico southward is clearly part of a cultural region that we call “Latin America”. Therefore, from a cultural standpoint, it makes perfect sense to divide the Americas into two major regions — Latin America and “Anglo-America”, the latter consisting of the U.S. and Canada.

The upshot is that the two super-continents can be logically divided into seven distinct cultural regions — which is a more reasonable approach than using the physical continents to categorize the people of the world. To recap, these seven regions are:

  1. Europe
  2. Middle East
  3. Sub-Saharan Africa
  4. South Asia
  5. East Asia
  6. Anglo-America
  7. Latin America

This model is not the only possible scheme for dividing the world into major cultural regions. In fact, the details of this model are even more debatable than the models for the continents of the world. Still, this is a very reasonable scheme, and potentially quite useful. Note that this model is based on at least three assumed criteria:

1) Each defined region should occupy a contiguous area of land.

2) Each region should be home to hundreds of millions of people, or more.

3) A flat (non-hierarchical) model such as this one works best when the whole is divided into approximately seven parts, plus or minus two.

Partially because of these criteria, Australia and the island nations of the world are not included in this model. Alternative models might relax or eliminate some of these criteria. For example, if you remove the requirement of a contiguous area of land, then you might decide to lump Anglo-America into the same region as Europe — and Australia too.

In summary, the concept of “continents” is based on a genuine physical fact — that the world contains several large landmasses — but the actual list of continents is a human creation and subject to debate. That said, any of the popular models can work as a mental framework for learning and organizing information about physical geography. On the other hand, none of these models are ideal for learning and organizing information about cultural geography. Instead, a model based on the major cultural regions of the world is more appropriate, such as the 7-region model presented above. (Many other valid models are also possible.) Such a model will facilitate a better understanding of the world, along with an ability to absorb more details more quickly. That said, any model will also lead to a certain amount of stereotyping, due to the human tendency to assume that every fact and impression applies to the entire bucket that we assign it to.

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