Why are Europe and Asia considered two distinct land masses when it's obvious they are one?
January 19, 2005 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Why is it still taught that the Earth has seven continents, when it's obvious it has only six, or to be more precise, why are Europe and Asia considered two distinct land masses when it's obvious they are one?
posted by Scoo to Education (37 answers total)
The first link from your link provides a pretty good reasoning why; if the definition of 'continent' is not by landmass, but by "distinct geological boundary", then why not Europe and Asia? I would put it to you that t he himalaya's are somewhat distinct :)

Actually, what interested me (again, from the "continent" link on wikipedia" is that Australia is _not_ considered a continent in and of itself. As an aussie, I distinctly recall being taught that Australia is considered both the smallest continent AND the largest island in the world. Also, any system which would discount Antarctica as a continent (too cold be cool enough for continent status, perhaps?) seems complete hokum to me.
posted by coriolisdave at 5:31 PM on January 19, 2005

Or for that matter, the false division between North and South America, which does not even fall along the Panama Canal.
posted by AlexReynolds at 5:32 PM on January 19, 2005

Oh - and that Africa isn't seperate either!
posted by coriolisdave at 5:41 PM on January 19, 2005

we were always given the "smallest continent, largest island" line, too; but at the same time were taught about something called "australasia", which didn't make matters any clearer to a bunch of seven-year-olds. even back in those days, though, I never understood what point there was to defining continents in the first place. is there some (social?)science somewhere that benefits from or has any use for what seems to be a series of arbitrary boundaries?
posted by bunglin jones at 5:42 PM on January 19, 2005

I was amused, when I went to high school for a year in Brazil to discover that there are only 5 continents. North and South America are only one, you see. And Antartica is not a continent at all.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:46 PM on January 19, 2005

I thought it was about the tectonic plates underneath?
posted by amberglow at 5:47 PM on January 19, 2005

Perhaps the continents might as well be whatever Hasbro says they are.
posted by AlexReynolds at 5:49 PM on January 19, 2005

coriolisdave, from that link it looks like Oceania is basically "Australia plus the random smaller stuff near it".
posted by hattifattener at 5:57 PM on January 19, 2005

Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Eastasia is our ally.
posted by Fat Guy at 6:01 PM on January 19, 2005

thanks, amberglow, i think. the tectonic plate thing does seem to make some sense.
i remember being on a boat on the bosphorus a few years ago and my friend was saying: "that side is asia, and that side is europe! isn't it great?" and all i could think was: "so... butter and olive oil versus ghee and sesame oil" (... but, like I said, that was some time ago)
posted by bunglin jones at 6:06 PM on January 19, 2005

Interesting question and interesting answers. I always assumed that it had something to do with the Euro-centric world view held by most cartographers and scientists who defined this sort of thing.

coriolisdave: I thought the mountain range separating Europe and Asia was the Ural, and I thought the highest peak in the Ural range was only 6000 ft or so. By that definition, US west of the Rockies should be a different continent than the US East of the Rockies, shouldn't it?
posted by muddgirl at 6:10 PM on January 19, 2005

Don't the Urals separate Europe and Asia?
posted by SoftRain at 6:11 PM on January 19, 2005

Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Eastasia is our ally.
posted by Fat Guy at 6:01 PM PST on January 19

No offense fat guy, but we know what book it comes from.

We know.
posted by orange clock at 6:15 PM on January 19, 2005

'cause there were arbitrary elements to dividing the world up into 7 contintents, just like there would be arbitrary elements to 6 or 5 or 8, etc.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 6:18 PM on January 19, 2005

Neither mountain ranges nor tectonic plates really explain the Europe/Asia division. In either case India would be its own continent, as would the eastern and western halves of South America.

6 continents makes most sense to me, grouping things by major landmass, but I can see the argument for connecting Africa to Eurasia as well...
posted by hattifattener at 6:24 PM on January 19, 2005

It's quite possible the Ural's 'seperate' Europe and Asia - my geography is pretty minimal :) My point is still valid, though, if you take the definition offered by the wikipedia for continents. It just means I was talking about the seperation of Europe from the 'sub-continent'.

It seems that there's no standard definition, though, so I'm going to stick with the land-mass view, although it might take some while to get used to the idea of "Euasica". That's one mother of a landmass. America (to my mind) composes both North and South. And Australia is a continent in and of itself, and we don't need no steeeenking kiwi's to supplement us! ;)
posted by coriolisdave at 6:24 PM on January 19, 2005

but... but... WHY? when is it especially useful to think of the world as being a composed of a bunch of continents (other than in primary school/pub quizzes/playing boardgames)? I'm SURE there are times when this is the case, but i just don't know what they are
posted by bunglin jones at 6:39 PM on January 19, 2005

Because white people made the decisions on this, and they wanted their own continent.

Of course, they then wanted everyone else's continents, too.
posted by sellout at 6:50 PM on January 19, 2005

Perhaps our current system is in-continent.
posted by jonmc at 6:55 PM on January 19, 2005

It's handy to have a way to refer to parts of the world. You need there to be few enough parts that it's easy to remember where all of them are, but many enough parts that mentioning that some place is in/near a given part actually tells you something.

To put it another way, Africa has a name. So do a lot of other things of similar size (North and South America, Australia, etc.). The concept of "continent" was formed to describe the class of large places that are distinct enough to have names.
posted by hattifattener at 6:56 PM on January 19, 2005

my best guess is that it was historical ... it would be interesting to investigate when this division took place ... i think the romans, for example, considered asia to be quite a different place, but some of africa was part of their empire and not that different
posted by pyramid termite at 7:26 PM on January 19, 2005

Response by poster: Whoops, my bad! It turns out that it's just a big archipelago!
posted by Scoo at 7:33 PM on January 19, 2005

No offense fat guy, but we know what book it comes from.

We know.

None taken. You know what book it comes from, others may not. Sorry if my post was not exactly an answer, I just saw Oceania and Eurasia in the same thread , and could not resist.
posted by Fat Guy at 8:30 PM on January 19, 2005

Tne Europe/Asia separation was created because Europe used to be The Continent.

I remember somebody trying to convince me Anartica isn't a continent because it's actual land mass (ignoring all the ice) is negligible.

FWIW, geologists don't speak of continents any more. At least the few geologists I know refer to parts of the word by the various names of the major tectonic plates. It's kind of cute.
posted by nixerman at 9:16 PM on January 19, 2005

Here's the Straight Dope's take: "The notion goes back (in European history) at least to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Herodotus, that there were different peoples occupying the different shores of the Mediterranean; sail south and hit Egypt or Libya, sail east and meet Turks and Syrians, sail west and say hi to Italy and France. Only rarely going south into the African continent, the BCE Europeans concluded that the most fundamental difference between the people they encountered was from the east and west, ascribing all kinds of fantastic behaviors and philosophies to the Asians about whom they knew next to nothing, and concluded that if there was any rational way of splitting the world into the largest possible pieces, it was an east-west divide."
posted by Guy Smiley at 9:23 PM on January 19, 2005

The way I learned it, way back in grade school, was landmasses separated either by istmus or mountain devided continents, as well as water. Hence, North and South America, Africa/Asia, then the old Ural mountain thing. Even back then, "Eurasia" was discussed as a possibly better continent. It bothers me that the Urals are the ONLY classic case of dividing on mountains (not counting the "subcontinent" of India).

I'm quite comfortable with including istmuses on the list if for no other reason than that's how I learned it. The divide between Europe and Asia becomes quite unclear when you get to Turkey and the middle east.

Does it matter? No, not really.
posted by Goofyy at 10:26 PM on January 19, 2005

The ultimate authority, the game of Risk, says there are six.
posted by TimeFactor at 10:46 PM on January 19, 2005

Why do we have 4 "oceans" when they clearly describe one body of water.
posted by knave at 11:22 PM on January 19, 2005

Though we are both well-versed in science, my best-friend and I contend that there are only 5 continents:

The Americas
posted by Captaintripps at 1:36 AM on January 20, 2005

Hmmm, well, Europe is not really a continent, just the western part of the Eurasian land-mass. Bringing things like continental drift into the equation just complicates matters (if this were the case, India should be a seperate continent). I'd say: Eurasia, Australia, Antarctica, Africa, North America, South America.
posted by BigCalm at 1:48 AM on January 20, 2005

Where do you "north america / south america" types place the divide between the two?

Me, I was taught north/central/south america.
posted by signal at 3:58 AM on January 20, 2005

FWIW, I'd go with whatever continent each country states it's in. Guatemala, Salvador, etc., declare that they're in Central America. Who are we to argue with them?
posted by signal at 8:07 AM on January 20, 2005

signal, in my understanding, "Central America" isn't considered a continent, just a region (I realize you were probably not stating as such, but clarifying just in case =)), much in the same vein as 'Sub-Saharan Africa' or 'Western Europe'.

I've always considered Central America to be part of the North American continent, and that South America was, you know, the big area south of Panama. Like, Panama is the thinnest part of the whole thing, so if you broke the Americas in half that's where they would snap. Something like that :P

Antarctica is most definitely a continent. I mean, it's a gigantic, whopping chunk of land. Just because it happens to be on the south end of the planet and covered in ice with no real inhabitants doesn't mean it's somehow exempt from geographical standards. I can't understand any rationale for considering it as 'not a continent'.

I think Europe & Asia should be considered a single, Eurasian continent. Once again, it's one very large, distinct landmass. Perhaps if the Baltic and Black Seas were larger / extended farther inland towards each other, you might have a slightly better argument...but they don't.

Australia is only a problem because there's no formal definition of how large a landmass has to be to be considered a continent vs a ginormous island. In my opinion it's a continent, as it's far larger than the next smallest landmass (well, possibly discounting Greenland, which would be the next spot where one has to make the tough call).

So, let's see. If I thumb my nose at Greenland and call it a whopping big island, that leaves me personally with a grand total of 6 continents.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 8:10 AM on January 20, 2005

Make sure you're not using a Mercator projection map -- it exagerates Greenland's size.
posted by goethean at 9:36 AM on January 20, 2005

An interesting side-note to "is Greenland a continent?", from wikipedia...

"If the Greenland ice cap were to completely melt away, Greenland would most likely be an archipelago instead of an island-continent (like Australia)."
posted by GeekAnimator at 10:14 AM on January 20, 2005

"If the Greenland ice cap were to completely melt away, Greenland would most likely be an archipelago instead of an island-continent (like Australia)."

That really surprises me. I worked on a project in college that was measuring the ice-thickness of Greenland with Ground Penetrating Radar. Water reflects radar very differently then rock (as in a lot more), and I never saw anything like that in any of the data we processed.

I'd really like to see where that portion of the entry comes from, be cause it is so different from everything I thought I knew about Greenland.
posted by cosmonaught at 12:30 PM on January 20, 2005

I was always taught that the Earth had five continents: America (North, Central, and South), Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania (Australia and the surrounding area).

I've always lived in Mexico, but I didn't know we were almost alone in the five continent belief.
posted by Penks at 4:21 PM on January 20, 2005

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