Currently, the consensus for the number of continents is seven: Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, North America, South America, and Antarctica. Nevertheless, the number of continents is quite a controversial topic, you might have heard during classes at school or from those around you about disagreements related to continents. Let’s see how the topic can become so complicated by asking some basic questions:
- “North America” and “South America” are accepted as two different continents, but what is the basis of this admission? How does the existence of the Panama Canal affect this accepted statement?
- Is Turkey an Asian country or a European country? According to the answer to this question, you may have seen the examples on continent borders being drawn differently.
- Are we going to count New Zealand in the continent of “Australia”, or are we going to create a new continent named Oceania?
- If Australia is a continent, does Greenland count as a continent or an island?
What Does a Continent Mean? How is it Defined?
The generally accepted definition of a continent is a large landmass, having continuity, and separated (with water, if possible) from other landmasses. The weird thing is that most continents do not fit this definition. Even the number of continents that do not fit this definition is controversial.
In the most general manner, we can say that four “continents” do not fit this definition of a continent: North America, South America, Asia and Europe. They are not separated from each other with water. Though, beware: the definition indicates that being separated by water makes it easy to identify, but this is not compulsory.
We said that the continents that do not fit the above definition are also controversial, because North America and South America are actually separated from each other, only by the inauguration of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914. However, in the case of Asia and Europe, it is clear that there is no water mass that separate the two.
Similarly, the “big landmass” part of the definition is also controversial. For instance, Greenland has a surface area of roughly one-third of Australia; but while the former is considered an island while the latter is a continent (or part of a larger continent named Oceania?).
Apart from Asia and Europe, even if it may be confusing at first sight, it is not that hard to understand why some continents are regarded as “separate continents”: For instance, North America and South America are two separate continents because compared to the surface area of the two pieces of land, the landmass that connects them (Panama canal or isthmus) is very, very small. Thus, they are practically counted as separate. Similarly, Asia and Africa are technically connected to one another with the one thing that separates them is the Suez isthmus that is only 125 km wide located in the Red Sea this is a very minuscule landlines that separate these continents. Therefore, it is easy to ignore this connection and call them two separate continents and there is currently no serious dispute on the separation of these continents.
One of the main controversies of today is around the claim that Asia and Europe are separate continents. This is an old problem that has its roots from a Eurocentric view. Historically, Europeans wanted to separate themselves from other continents for reasons that have no clear geographical basis. This non-normative approach to geographical borders can be highlighted by examples, for instance, China and India have a combined land mass much larger than the entirety of Europe. They each have unqiue history and both have distinct cultures from each other and the world, but they are not counted as separate continents.
Alternatives to Seven Continents
Obviously, we cannot make up a definition here and therefore, we must follow the scientific convention. For now, the seven-continent model is here to stay. If Europe and Asia are counted as one continent (called “Eurasia”), the number of continents would go down to six. Likewise, if we count Europe and Asia as separate continents, and if we count North and South America as one continent (America) the number goes down to six again. If we counted Eurasia and America as one continent each, the number is going to go down to five continents.
As you can see, there is no end to this type of clumping and your reasons will be questioned either way, maybe except for the case of Eurasia. For instance, since Africa and Asia technically connected to each other, and we can connect them by saying the continent Afro-Eurasia then we can even further reduce the number of continents to four.
You don’t even need to stop there: For instance, the Bering Strait was covered with ice just 1 million years ago, connecting Asia and America. Furthermore, Australia and Asia were connected to each other via Indonesia similarly. In this case, the number of the continents (as we can say Afro-Americo-Australia-Eurasia) theoretically can be down to two, but this is practically meaningless. Since what we say is already invalid today, no one dwells on these scenarios too much.
Therefore, we can say that there are seven continents on Earth, due to widespread consensus. One can find 13 prominent articles discussing the number of continents in the literature. All, except six of them, accept the seven-continent model. Two accept the six-continent model that counts Eurasia as one continent, only one accepts the six-continent model that counts America as one continent, three of them accepts the five-continent model that classifies Eurasia and America as one continent each, and only one of them accepts the four-continent model that counts Afro-Asia as one continent. It can be said that the scientific community favors the seven-continent model, and this is not an incorrect idea to be teaching students. For now.