myth of Continents

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The Myth of Continents, or
How our Grade-School Teachers Distorted the Truth

How many continents are there? It seems like a simple enough question, and most of us who grew up in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century come prepared with a pat answer to which we give little thought: “There are seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. Next question, please.” The official flag of the Olympic games, however, displays a famous symbol of interlocking rings, each ring intended to represent one of the five continents of the world, the two Americas treated as one and Antarctica simply forgotten. Rather than some sort of geographic maverick, this lineup of five continents, not seven, is a standard one taught throughout much of Europe. So what is the answer to our question? Is it five, or is it seven? Well, the most thoughtful answer might actually be none of the above, or better yet, “it depends.” There are few terms in geography that are more loaded with implied meanings and biased world views than continent. As a common-sense concept, the idea is simple enough: pick up a globe and one can readily observe a half-dozen distinctive (if barely connected) land masses. The exact number is debatable, depending on one’s size threshold for when an “island” becomes a “continent”. Is Australia large enough to be a continent? How about Greenland? Madagascar? Personally, I’m inclined to answer these questions Yes, No, and No, giving me a list of six: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. To my eyes at least, this half-dozen represents the world’s primary distinctive land masses, as opposed to islands.

While this list is debatable, one thing clearly isn’t: Europe is not a continent—at least as long as we continue to see “continent” as more or less a synonym for land mass. Without question, Europe is a distinctive world region, both in social-cultural terms and...
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