Why we need more continents

In any group of geography nerds, one of the biggest peeves will be “Europe’s not a continent”. From this perspective, Europe is just a peninsula of Asia, and the listing of Europe in the seven traditional continents (Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America) is just a result of Eurocentric bias.

This isn’t an unreasonable view – “continent” doesn’t really have a set definition, but a common one is “large area of land surrounded by water”. By this definition, Australia and Antarctica definitely fit and North and South America nearly do, as does Africa. Asia and Europe are then the weirdos, since they share a long, indefinite land border somewhere in the Urals. So you redefine this as one big continent, Eurasia, and then everything just about works.

But there’s another problem. By population, the continents are uneven. There are about 1.2 billion Africans, 750 million Europeans, 600 million North Americans, 400 million South Americans and 40 million Oceanians. That adds up to just about 3 billion people. The other 4.2 billion people on this planet all live in Asia. More people live in Asia than live in all the other continents combined. Adding Europe to the mix gives Eurasia a total population of 5 billion, or around 70% of the world’s population. What’s the point of dividing the world into continents if you’re going to have one continent with almost everyone?

In fact, what’s the point of dividing the world into continents at all?

The obvious advantage (and disadvantage) of continents is that they let you generalise. You can talk about the wildlife of Africa or the indigenous people of North America or the climate of Europe, for instance. Of course, for that to work, these regions need to be relatively homogeneous. Generalising the religion of Africa for example is difficult, since half the continent is Islamic, half is Christian, and there’s a sizeable minority practising traditional religions.

Asia is definitely not homogenous. In fact, depending on the variety of English you speak, “Asian” might refer to one of two completely different regions and cultures: in British English, “Asian” without further context usually means “from the Indian subcontinent” (and why is India just a “subcontinent” anyway?), while in American English it means “from East Asia”. Talking about “Asian religion” or “Asian wildlife” is therefore meaningless.

This annoying situation came about because to the ancient Greeks, Asia just referred to the lands beyond the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, between the Black and Red Seas (Africa was its south coast and Europe was its north coast; see for instance the T-O map). This made sense at the time – Asia and Africa seemed to be bounded by impassable deserts (“torrid climes“), and Europe by seas and ice. It seemed nice and balanced. But beyond those deserts were whole thriving civilisations that the Greeks were only very dimly aware of: Alexander the Great reached the Indus River, but didn’t venture far into India, and contact between Europeans and the Chinese was exceptionally rare.

So let’s try to create new continents from scratch. Our definition is not “land surrounded by water” but, drawing from the original Latin continens (“containing, enclosing, unbroken”), “land that forms a (somewhat) homogenous unit”.

As a simple example, I’m going to use four geographical characteristics – two from physical geography (climate and wildlife ‘ecozones’) and two from human geography (language and religion). These are only roughly sketched, and in some cases I’ve ignored small or desolate regions (for instance, I ignored the exclave of Indo-European-speaking Afrikaners in South Africa, and I was a bit lax about the remoter regions of Siberia). This is just a quick demonstration of a more general point.

Now, what happens when we overlay these maps?

All the borders together.

In quite a few places, the borders coincide – none more so than across Africa. The Sahara desert, impassable for centuries and even now essentially barren, divides Africa into two parts: the dry, Arabic/Berber-speaking, Muslim north and the tropical, Niger-Congo/Bantu-speaking Christian south. The sweep of the Himalayas divides India from China, while the Mediterranean and the Black Sea remain strong borders, just as they were to the Ancient Greeks.

Between Europe and China lies an interesting stretch of land, traditionally called “Central Asia”. Mostly Muslim and Turkic speaking, it seems to fit our defintion even though it doesn’t seem to have a traditional name. I’ve named it Turkica here.

Also noticeable are places where the borders don’t coincide. South East Asia, that densely-populated peninsula between India and China (hence its former name of Indochina), has traits of all its neighbours. In terms of wildlife, it closely resembles India; in terms of climate, Oceania. Buddhism, Islam, and Chinese-inspired folk religion coexist, and there are several language families. It almost certainly deserves to be its own continent, but where do we draw the line? Similarly, where do the islands of Asia end and the islands of Oceania begin? In religious and natural terms, there’s a clear divide between east and west, but in linguistic or climatic terms it’s a lot less clear cut (not helped by the fact New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on Earth).

Similarly, between Arabia and India is a large area that is predominantly Muslim but Indo-European speaking, taking in Iran and Pakistan. Working out where it belongs is complicated. In the stats below, I put them in Afro-Arabia, since in ecological terms that’s a better fit, but really, these don’t fully belong to either. Maybe they’re a transition zone, or maybe they make up a continent of their own.

One final point: Madagascar is surprisingly isolated from Africa – they speak a language related to Malay and have unique plants and animals (they also are different religiously, but that’s because Madagascar resisted conversion and remained the only majority-traditional religion country in the region). It might seem a bit small to be a continent, but it has 25 million people and an array of unique wildlife. That’s enough to give Australia the continent crown, so why not Madagascar?

One possible arrangement of continents. Borders are necessarily fuzzy.

Here’s very roughly (the borders are far from clear) how the population divides between these continents.

Afro-Arabia 800,000,000
Subsahara 1,000,000,000
Europe 750,000,000
China (inc Korea, Japan) 1,550,000,000
India 1,500,000,000
Indochina 500,000,000
Madagascar 25,000,000
Oceania (inc Philippines) 150,000,000
Australia 25,000,000
Turkica 200,000,000

Now we have the “world island” of Afro-Eurasia (and Oceania/Australia) divided into 10 continents. Including North and South America, that’s 12 inhabited continents, with an average population of 600,000,000. The largest continents, China or India, each contain 20% of the world’s population, and the smallest, Australia and Madagascar, about 0.3%.

There is no longer a single continent like Asia which totally outsizes all the others. China is about 2.5x larger than the average inhabited continent in the new system, and is similar in size to India; Asia is 3.4x larger than the average inhabited continent in the old system and is also about 3.4 times the size of the next largest continent, Africa. In the new system, 5 continents of the 12 larger than average, 7 are smaller. In the old system, all continents except Asia are smaller than average (Africa is almost exactly average).

This system is by no means perfect. This was just a quick experiment with a few datasets. There will always be some bias in how these data sets are chosen (for instance, it may be odd that Europe is one of the few continents, along with Oceania/Australia, not to change much), and where the lines are drawn. There will still be variations within these “continents” that mean that they aren’t as homogenous as they appear – minority religions, microclimates, language isolates, and so on. But I think it’s safe to say, this way of drawing continents is better.

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