What are the continents?

Conventionally, there are generally said to be 7 continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. In this set-up, all the land on Earth is assigned to a continent, and the boundaries of the continents are often rather arbitrary, or based on a tangled mess of cultural and historical variables that tend to be applied inconsistently. For example, Iceland is generally classed as Europe on the basis that it is culturally and historically Scandinavian, while the culturally Slavic majority of the population of Novosibirsk are held to reside far to the East of the Europe-Asia border.

Continents by colour.png
CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The conventional, 7-continent view of the world. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

I am proposing a new system, with 6 continents. These continents are defined purely geographically, without trying to work in any cultural notions, and, crucially, the do not include all the land on Earth. This system accounts for the fact that remote, volcanic islands and island groups, such as Iceland or Hawaii, do not necessarily need to be assigned to particular continents.


new continents

The continents, according to my system. Original image source: Canuckguy (talk) and many others (see File history) – Adapted from Brianski‘s File:BlankMap-World3.svg by Canuckguy and originally based on CIA’s political world map, Public Domain, Link

The continents of the new system are as follows:

Africa

Africa is very straightforward. It is pretty much unaltered from the conventional definition. Its only land border passes through Egypt, following the shortest distance from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, fairly close to the Suez Canal.

Antarctica

The same, pretty much. Just the main landmass of Antarctica and its offshore islands. I guess there’s not much cultural baggage here.

Australia

This continent consists of the landmasses of Australia and New Guinea, and their surrounding small islands. in Indonesia, the islands east of the Wallace Line are part of Australia, while those to the east are part of Eurasia, reflecting the extents of the 2 landmasses before sea levels rose a very long time ago and created the archipelago we see today.

Traditionally, these areas are considered to be part of ‘Oceania’, along with New Zealand and the rest of the South Pacific, but Oceania is not a real continent, as will be explained in the section on Remote Volcanic Islands.

Eurasia

Europe and Asia are the same continent. There, I said it.

Conventionally, the border between Europe and Asia is considered to follow the watershed of the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Ural River in Kazakhstan (or, if you really don’t give a fuck, just the border between Russia and Kazakhstan), and the Caucasus Watershed between the Caspian and Black Seas, usually close to (but not exactly following) Russia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia.

This, however, has little geographical, or even cultural or historical, significance. The Ural Mountains are a relatively small (albeit long) mountain range, and the Ural River is not an especially significant river. Normally, these kinds of geographical features would not be seen as the boundaries of continents.

Geologically speaking, there is no meeting of 2 great landmasses, no major fault line, along the Ural Mountains. There’s no bottleneck of land here, like there is between North and South America. If someone with no prior knowledge of the history of Europe and Asia were to look at a map of the world, they would say Eurasia was obviously a single continent.

The only reason they are considered separate is that the Greeks (who were not using the same idea of ‘continents’ that we use nowadays) divided them (along the Don River, far to the west of the Urals). It sort of stuck, especially since it was convenient for the pretty, symmetric, ‘T & O’ worldview of the Middle Ages, with Jerusalem at the centre. And now nobody wants to let it go.

North America

Basically as traditional. The border with South America follows the line at from the Caribbean to Pacific the point where the land stops tapering inwards North-South and starts bulging out into South America.

South America

See above

Remote Volcanic Islands

Many islands can be classified as belonging to a particular continent because they broke away from that continent’s mainland (eg. Madagascar) or they were separated from it by rising sea levels (eg. New Guinea). Others, however, just emerged out of the sea as a result of volcanic activity. Examples include Iceland, or New Zealand, or Hawaii, or the Canary Islands. Some of these, such as Japan, or the Aleutians, are clearly parts of a volcanic chain that continues onto a continental mainland, so can be classified as that continent. Others, such as the Canary Islands, are simply close enough to one continent’s mainland that they can be effectively viewed as that continent’s offshore islands. However, there are some, such as Iceland, or Hawaii, that are too remote to fit these categories. They cannot reasonably be said to belong to a particular continent.

And this is fine. Not everything needs to be classified like that. People like to think about things as if they’re in neat categories, but the world doesn’t actually have to stick to that. Continents aren’t necessarily everything. We’ve put nearly all the land in the world into continents, and isn’t that enough?

This is also why I’ve ditched Oceania as a concept. It originates in the idea that everywhere has to be a continent, so they’ve made up a ‘continent’ that can include all the remote volcanic islands and atolls of the Pacific,too far from any large landmass and stuck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean’s tectonic plate. For administrative purposes, sure, it often makes a lot of sense to group them together, but don’t call it a continent when it isn’t.