In English-speaking societies, as well as in most of China, India, and Western Europe, we are often taught that there are seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia (Oceania), and Antarctica. This was one of the first things I learned in school, and I used to think that this was a done discussion, a non-issue.
However, as I travel more and more, I have come to realize that many people around the world hold different viewpoints, with different reasons behind them, as to how many continents there are, and which is and which isn’t. For example, most Latin American countries teach a six continent viewpoint, taking the seven but combining North and South America as simply the continent of America.
Others have a six continent view, but leave North and South America separate while combining Europe and Asia into the giant landmass/continent known as Eurasia. Another very reasonable question people have is, “why is Australia a continent, when Greenland isn’t?” Greenland is smaller than Australia, but not so much smaller (thanks, Augustine, for correcting me!).
So, let’s have a look.
How many continents are there? What defines a continent?
Many people who were taught under the seven continent school of thought think that the basic definition of a continent is a large, continuous landmass, separated by a body of water, such as an ocean. This is fine, until you take Europe and Asia into consideration, and realize that they flow into each other, with no obvious maritime boundaries. Looking at a world map at Eurasia, it would be difficult to pinpoint where Europe ends and Asia begins, and logically so.
Why are Europe and Asia considered as two continents?
The general consensus as to why Europe and Asia have been considered two separate continents in the past is that it was through Eurocentrism from centuries ago. European powers had dominated the world through colonialism and imperialism in such in a way that there are some residual issues, such as this, still. However, nowadays, it is common to argue for a separate Europe and Asia as continents by their physical, cultural, and historical diversity and differences, though then this would make the case for many more continents (Middle East, India, etc.).
But if the “large land masses separated by bodies of water” definition is not accurate, then what is the right one? Geologists base their definition of continents on tectonic plates, the large slabs of rock that float above the magma below and hold up the oceans and land that we know.
However, using this scientific definition is unhelpful when you realize that the North American plate includes half of Russia, and the Pacific plate is simply all ocean, save for hundreds of the tinies islands.
How do we group islands not connected to a continent?
Islands, especially large chains, pose another problem. If we are to divide all the land in the world into one of the five or six or seven or eight continents, then places like the Caribbean and Indonesia must be affiliated to one more than another.
For example, the southern Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is generally considered to be part of North America, as with the other islands in the West Indies. But, scientifically speaking, it rests on the South American continental shelf, meaning that geologists would group this nation with South America, but the other nations of the Caribbean to its north as being separate.
Oh, and there’s also continents you can’t see, such as the proposal to legally define Zealandia as a continent. Supporters say that Zealandia meets the geological definition of a continent, even though it is underwater completely off the coast of Australia.
Geologists also have trouble classifying Madagascar as either a continent or simply an island, for similar reasons.
So, how many continents are there?
So, because it has been instilled in English-speaking education, along with some very influential countries, such as China, India, and most of Western Europe, it is widely considered that there are seven continents.
As I mentioned earlier though, most of South America will still teach a six continent viewpoint, combining North and South America as simply the continent of America. Technically, they are connected via Panama, though the construction of the Panama Canal effectively disconnected them.
However, if this is the case, then you could also make the argument that Africa is really connected to the Middle East, and thus Asia/Eurasia, excluding the construction of the Suez Canal; this would create the ginormous continent of Afro-Eurasia.
When it comes down to it, there is no firm definition of what makes a continent. A “large” landmass is too arbitrary to define. The scientific definition of geology tells us that eastern Russia is part of North America. Basically, it is up to you to decide. I still will answer with “seven,” though I am now more aware that more than one answer may be correct.