How many continents are there? It’s a surprisingly difficult question

Come on kids, between us we can crack this. Image: Getty.

Once upon a time, “How many continents are there” was one of those questions with straightforward answers, like “How many colours are in a rainbow” or “what is the weather like in summer”. There are seven. Of course there are seven: all those picture books I had as a kid said there were seven.

Except, it turns out that, as with so many of the things we tell our children, this number owed as much to social convention as it does to objective reality. And social conventions can differ: depending on where you are in the world, there can be anywhere between four and seven continents, and you sometimes don’t have to travel very far to get a different answer.

So, to coin a phrase: what on Earth is going on?

Rules and regulations

First define your continent. The Wikipedia page on the matter contains this helpful explanation:

By convention, “continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water”.

Which sounds simple enough. Except the very next sentence is this:

Many of the seven most commonly recognized continents identified by convention are not discrete landmasses separated completely by water.

Which feels like an unexpected piece of dry humour from an open-sourced encyclopaedia.

But it has a point: it’s the work of all of four seconds to think of vast numbers of ways in which the seven things you almost certainly think of as continents don’t fit this rule. Off the top of my head:

  • Islands like Great Britain are considered part of continents despite not being part of continuous masses of land;

  • North and South America are not discrete masses of land, they’re connected by an isthmus;

  • Neither are Africa and Asia;

  • Europe and Asia aren’t even vaguely separated, they’re quite obviously the same bloody thing;

  • If Europe gets to be a continent because it’s separated from Asia by some mountains and some inland seas, then why is India only a sub-continent?

  • If Australia is a continent why is Greenland only an island? Okay, it’s smaller, but where’s the line? What are the rules here?

And so on and so on.

Spinning plates

There is another way of dividing the Earth up into roughly continent sized bits, which has a rather more scientific basis to it: plate tectonics, the geological theory which explains mountain ranges, volcanoes, and so on by showing how bits of the Earth’s surface have been sliding about and banging into each other for the last few billion years.

In this theory, it’s quite obvious why the Americas are two continents, why Australia is one but Greenland isn’t, and why Africa is a different thing to Asia despite being attached to it. It also highlights a very good reason for considering Britain to be part of Europe: they’re part of the same continental shelf, even if part of that shelf is submerged under water. Despite Brexit, Britain will always be in Europe.

The plates. Click to expand. Image: USGS/Wikimedia Commons.

In many other ways, though, the map of the tectonic plates doesn’t look anything like the map of the continents. For one thing there are a bunch of oceanic ones, which on maps of the world are mostly just water with a few islands in them.

For another, the Middle East and India are their own plates, so aren’t part of Asia; neither is the Russian Far East, which is actually part of the North American plate. Europe, meanwhile, very clearly is part of Asia, except for Iceland, which is half Asian, half North American.

There are good reasons why plate tectonics isn’t going to get us very far in explaining why we mostly think we have seven continents. One is that it’s a surprisingly recent theory: it wasn’t widely recognised by the scientific community until the 1960s, so there are plenty of people around now whose school text books will have laughed at the idea.

Another is that the plate boundaries are often invisible or, at least at the human scale, nonsensical: any system which splits Iceland into two separate continents is not going to be a useful categorisation.

Geography is written by the victors

The real reason we count Europe as a continent and include Britain in it, treat India as a part of Asia, and so forth is (this is where we came in) social convention: we do it because we do.

More than that, we do it because the rules on this stuff were largely formulated by the Europeans who spent much of the last five hundred years or so conquering the world. That’s why Europe is a seen as a single, diverse continent but the Indian subcontinent, with its own patchwork of languages, cultures and religions, isn’t: because the former was the imperial power that conquered the latter.

A related point is that, if you ignore plate tectonics, the entire world doesn’t divide neatly up into continents at all. The reason a huge bunch of Pacific islands get bundled together with Australia as a slightly miscellaneous category called “Oceania” is as much because people wanted to make everything fit in somewhere, as it is because of any real connection between the two.

So those lengthy explanations aside, how many continents actually are there?

Counting continents

There seem to be six different systems, helpfully portrayed in this gif:

A gif of the various models. Click to expand. Image: AlexCovarrubia/Wikimedia Commons.

The seven continent system is the one you’re probably familiar with. That’s the one that’s standard in the English-speaking world, China, south Asia, and parts of western Europe. The British Empire can probably be blamed, at least in part, for its dominance.

There’s also an ultra-stripped down four continent model which divides the world into four major landmasses: Eurasia-Africa, America, Antarctica, Australia. This, best I can tell, isn’t taught anywhere; but it is the logical end point of the definition that involves big bits of land divided by water, so it’s worth including it anywhere.

In between there are four other models:

  • A six-continent system in which Europe and Asia are one continent. This, the internet tells me, is the standard in Russia and Eastern Europe (which makes sense, given that the slavic world straddles the Urals), and also Japan (although, citation needed).

  • A different six-continent system treats Europe and Asia as separate, but combines North and South America. That one seems to be favoured in France, much of southern Europe and various places colonised by those countries.

  • There’s also a five continent system which combines the Americas but ignores Antarctica because, to the first approximation, nobody lives there. This is the one favoured by the UN and the International Olympic Committee (count the rings).

  • Lastly, there’s a variant five-continent system consisting of Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. I can find no reference whatsoever to anyone using this one, but it’s in the gif and also this National Geographic page, so I’m including it for the sake of completism.

So, there you go. The best we can say is that the world has “some continents”. Assuming you accept the notion that continents exist at all.

I’m still really angry at those picture books which promised me snow in winter and heat in summer, incidentally.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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What is Europe? We’ve been arguing about it for 400 years

Well, it's here somewhere. Image: Google.

It is tempting to regard the history of Europe as a tale of gradually closer union, an evolution now imperilled by the forces of nationalistic populism that have brought Brexit and the growth of far-right political parties across the continent. In reality, the story is not such a neat one – and the meaning of Europe has always been up for debate. The Conversation

Take the 16th century as an example. Back then, Europe as an idea and a marker of identity was becoming more prominent; so much so that, by 1623, English philosopher Francis Bacon could refer to “we Europeans” and the continent was depicted as a queen.

Europe As A Queen, 1570. Image: Wikimedia commons.

The cultural movement of the Renaissance sparked an enthusiasm for all things classical – including the word “Europe”, which may have derived from the Greek name for the goddess Europa. At the same time, the voyages of discovery following Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas in 1492 led to a greater knowledge about the world at large. With this came a corresponding deepening of the sense of “us” versus “them”, of what supposedly made Europe and Europeans different.

This identification with people from across the continent had also been spurred by the westward advance of the Ottoman Empire following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Reformation and subsequent breakup of the church weakened the idea of Christianity as a unifying badge of identity, and so Europe was able to articulate this growing collective sentiment.

A little used word

Yet some of the major thinkers of the period rarely used the word “Europe”. The term appeared only ten times in the works of writer William Shakespeare, where it was used not with any specific geographical meaning but for rhetorical exaggeration. In the play Henry V the Constable of France assures the Duke of Orleans that his horse “is the best horse of Europe”. And in Henry VI, Part 1 the Duke of Bedford promises that his soldiers’ “bloody deeds shall make all Europe quake”.

It is telling that three of Shakespeare’s ten utterances belong to that master of comic overstatement, Falstaff. In Henry VI, Part II he says: “An I had but a belly of any indifference, I were simply the most active fellow in Europe.” These are not the stirrings of a sense of cultural unity, of Europe as a great civilisation. The word “Europe” as Shakespeare used it is empty of meaning beyond that of a vast expanse.

The French writer Michel de Montaigne. Image: Wikimedia commons.

The term popped up even less in the writing of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne – just once in the 107 chapters that make up his Essays. Montaigne used the word as a geographical marker: recalling the myth of Atlantis, he wrote of the kings of that island extending their “dominion as far into Europe as Tuscany”. Curiously, this sole instance of the term Europe appeared in an essay about the New World, On Cannibals, in which Montaigne wrote about the customs of the Tupinambà people of Brazil. Although he contrasted them with what he calls “us”, he did not use the word Europe in these comparisons.

A contested concept

But his contemporaries do. André Thevet, a Franciscan friar who had also journeyed to South America, wrote enthusiastically of the Spanish conquest of the New World: “You will find there towns, castles, cities, villages, houses, bishoprics, states, and all other ways of living that you think it was another Europe”. Thevet championed the superiority of what he called “our Europe”.

Montaigne was much more sceptical: “We may call these people barbarous in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them.” Where Thevet regarded Europe as a cultural model to be exported, Montaigne condemned empire building in the New World. Montaigne articulated a sense of affinity with the Spanish and Portuguese by referring to “we”, “us” and “ourselves”, but – though like Thevet he could have done – he did not name this community Europe.

Some people continued to prefer the label “Christendom” to articulate a collective identity. But others were not wedded to such overarching notions of belonging. Jean de Léry, a Calvinist pastor who had travelled to Brazil, did not use the word “Christendom” and used “Europe” sparingly in a geographical, not a cultural, sense. Léry had suffered at the hands of Catholics during the French Wars of Religion and felt no affinity with them. His allegiances were much smaller – to Calvinism and to France.

Just like today, in the 16th century the meaning of Europe was not straightforward. It was contested between those who used the word as something more than a geographical area and those who did not – between those who saw the continent as a cultural idea of unity and those whose sense of community and belonging was much smaller.

Niall Oddy is a PhD candidate at Durham University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.