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Why are Europe and Asia considered separate continents? What’s a continent, anyway?


Dear Straight Dope:

Reading through the Straight Dope Mailbag, I came across the following written by your understudy SDStaff VegForLife:

Well, JP, Mr. Webster conveniently answers your question with this definition for "island": "a tract of land surrounded by water and smaller than a continent." Since Africa, Europe and Asia are all continents, they're automatically disqualified. Greenland, on the other hand, isn't considered a continent, so voila. I don't have my atlas in front of me, but I'd venture to guess that Greenland is even smaller than The Middle East, so even if you're a follower of the new upstart cartographers who consider the Middle East to be a continent (as well as communism an ideal economic situation) Greenland still wouldn't qualify.

Veg comes close to tackling the question "What is a continent?" but backs off at the last minute, presumably because it's a question better left to the Master.

So, what is a continent? Is Australia an island or a continent? And why are Europe and Asia considered by many to be separate continents? (I suspect a 19th-century Christendom-versus-heathens Weltanschauung is responsible, but leave it to you to supply the Straight Dope.)

Simon Bone

SDStaff VegForLife and SDStaff Ian reply:

I’m glad you’re asking about continents, Simon, and not continence, since the answer to questions about continence is usually, “Depends; why don’t you ask June Allyson?” Continents, on the other hand, are fairly concrete, and we can turn once again to Mr. Webster, where we find that a continent is “one of the usually seven great divisions of land on the globe.” The seven referred to are North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica, and the “usually” is thrown in for those that prefer to think of Europe and Asia as “Eurasia,” dropping the number to six. If you’d like to join the upstart cartographers, you can throw in “The Middle East” and bring the number back up to seven, or include them all for a grand total of eight. Just don’t expect most people to consider you a wealth of geographic knowledge.

The question of why some consider Europe and Asia to be separate continents and some consider them to be one is a little more complex. I’m sure I could bullshit my way through it, but I think I’ll turn it over to someone who has a much better chance of actually knowing the correct answer, or, at the very least, can almost undoubtedly do a better job of bullshitting than I can. Ian?

SDSTAFF Ian replies:

“East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” That’s the reason in a nutshell. Hardly a 19th century construct; the idea that Eurasia should be divided dates back to the ancients.

First of all, geography in years past was never the exact science we know today. The western boundary of “The East”, that is, the dividing line between east and west, until as late as the 19th century, was often considered to be the Nile River (although other boundaries, such as Russia’s Don River, had their adherents), lumping Egyptian culture and history in with what they were coming to define as “Asian” traits. It was ultimately these traits that really formed the notion of the separation between Europe and Asia (and eventually Africa was considered separate from Europe), with the three known continents defined not by geographical boundaries, but as the domains of the white, black, and yellow people.

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. Aristotle wrote:

“Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organisation, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery.”

The notion continued into the Roman era, and the Christian era. By the middle ages, Africa was often being included as a continent separate from Europe or Asia, and writers of that time considered inhabitants of the various continents the descendants of Noah’s sons; Asia was occupied by Semites, Africa by Hamites, and Europe by Japhethites. Augustine wrote:

“… altogether there are Asia, Europe, and Africa: which they do not make by an equal division. For the part which is called Asia extends from the south through the east to the north; Europe, from the north to the west; and Africa thence from the west to the south. Whence two parts are seen to occupy half the world, Europe and Africa, whereas the other half, Asia alone. But the reason the former are made into two parts is that between them some of the Ocean’s waters wash in, making our [Mediterranean] sea. -Therefore if you divide the world into two parts, east and west, Asia will be in one and Europe and Africa in the other.”

Of course, the West’s concept of the East has always been based solely on the people they encountered, Syrians, Turks, Persians, and later Indians and Huns. China, what we Americans now think of as the most definitively “Asian” people, hardly entered into the picture at all, until the current millennium. At the extreme Orient, descriptions of China took on fabulous qualities. Go west, across the sea, and you discover Atlantis. Go east, and you discover China. It was hardly surprising that these folks considered Asia a different continent; to them, it was practically a different world.

SDStaff VegForLife and SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

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