What defines a continent?

I was reading through the Straight Dope archives earlier, and came upon this article explaining what differentiates an island from a continent. This brought to mind a different question, What determines a continent? Australia is all one land mass, and one continent. Africa, Asia and Europe are also one land mass, but considered three separate continents (the same situation occurs in the Americas - one land mass, two continents). How was it decided that these two landmasses were in fact, made up of different continents, instead of just one big one?


What defines a continent? ‘People’ with a certain viewpoint is the most straightforward answer. It is pretty obvious that Europe and Asia are just one big land mass but some people like to differentiate the two many based on the cultural differences. Still, it is perfectly valid to refer to Eurasia as one continent and some people do. Africa looks more like a continent and, although it is connected to Europe and Asia, it is easy to separate it geographically as well as culturally. People who live in North and South America almost always separate them into separate continents but not everyone does. The land connection is fairly small between Panama and Colombia but it is there so some people just call it the Americas.

It is actually only Australia and Antarctica that are cleanly separated from the rest. North America and Asia are only separated by the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia and it is technically possible to walk across ice or swim between Asian land and North American land there. It is perilous but it has been done. Greenland looks like it could be a continent when looking at a map and comparing it’s size to Antarctica. The apparent size similarity is just an artifact of the way 2-D maps are projected however. Australian is much bigger than Greenland. You could start a campaign to make Greenland a continent too but few would listen. It would be the smallest one by far and not many people live there.

one would be their autonomous characteristic as a surface feature on earth. north and south america, africa, and eurasia existed as “ancient” continents during pre-cambrian times. they may have slammed together at one time to form pangea, separated into two supercontinents (laurassia and gondwanna) but now they are farther separated through plate tectonic action and retain their uniqueness.

Reminds me of a thread I started asking why some series of mountains are called ‘mountains’, i.e., The Rocky Mountains, and others are called ‘ranges’, i.e., The Alaska Range. Seems there’s no definitive answer other than arbitrary choice.

well, most mountains occurr as ranges in a roughly aligned pattern (except for volcanoes and erosion remnants.)

Of course, if you’re using plate tectonics as your standard, then India (or rather, the region of land dominated by India) has just as much of a claim as Europe.

i think india is considered an accreted micro-continent (pretty big for one though.)

Geographically, maybe. I don’t see how this applies to culture, though.

This is actually a good example of what the thread is talking about. India is actually on the same (funny-shaped) plate as Australia, but the human geography means it would make no sense whatsoever to use this tectonic boundary as a geographic one.

I am not sure I am following you here. Look at globe. Europe, Asia, and Africa are all connected yet people think of certain countries being part of one or another. If I gave you an unlabeled globe, you and most anyone else would have a hard time redrawing the continent boundaries of Europe, Asia, and Africa as they are popularly defined by memory or through reasoning it out geographically. What are Jordan or Saudi Arabia other than countries that had to be placed somewhere rather arbitrarily? Turkey has had a hard time joining the European Union more because of culture than a geographical definition. There is no clean dividing line between Europe and Asia other than ones that are just made up. Russia is in both.

turkey? it was called a sick man of europe centuries ago. the EU is an entirely different matter.

You’re original statement was that it is easy to separate Africa culturally from Europe or Asia. That makes no sense, since North African culture is related to Middle Eastern culture and sub-Saharan African culture is distinct from either of these. There’s no cultural dividing line that you can draw that falls along the geographical boundaries of Europe and Asia vs. Africa.

Unless you meant something else by your original statement. Given this second statement, I’m having trouble telling what you meant by the previous one.

Continents are arbitrary historical designations of land masses by European geographers from their point of view. Asia (minor) was originally Anatolia (Asian Turkey) and then grew by increments eastward, at a time when it was not at first realised how large the land we now call Asia was.

Asia is a meaningless term from almost any point of view: cultural, ethic, linguistic, geographic, or tectonic. The traditional boundary between Europe and Asia is pretty much a historical accident, especially in Russia (the Urals and the Caucasus), or rather a convenient line on a map. Think of say, Japan and Turkey; they are about as different as any two places can be.

We could perhaps legitimately have 6 geographical continents (landmasses) which would be Eurasia, Australia, Africa, North and South America, and Antarctica. We’d then need an entirely separate group to represent cultural/linguistic/ethic “continents” with any meaningful commonalities, which might look something like: sub-Saharan Africa, Mediterranean shores, Northern Europe, Central/Eastern Europe, the Steppes, North/East Asia, Indo-china, Australia, the Arctic/tundras, Oceania, the Middle East, and greater India.

i’ll be satisfied if it stays as the known/old world, the near-,middle-,far-east, africa, and the new world.