As a child at school we learn many things about life and the world. Apart from the more difficult things to prove (hence the existence of atheism and Santa Claus (oops, sorry)) we absorb and accept a lot of what we are told. It is only later in life when we see people hold a view different to ours that we start to wonder if what we’ve been told is correct. As an example I’ve found my accepted understanding as to how many continents there are to be challenged more than once. So before you read on please answer this question: “How many continents are there in the world?”
I went through the UK schooling system which is accepted as being a relatively high standard education system. Maybe not the best in the world but certainly effective enough in developing notable entrepreneurs, business and political leaders.
I recall at both junior and secondary school being taught a consistent theory in geography. Admittedly geography was never my strongest area of study and I was happy at the time not to study it any further once outside of a pre-determined programme. (I like to learn geography now because it is at the areas of interest to me, as opposed to someone else’s prescribed text.)
I recall how in secondary school we had the unique personality geography teacher Miss Champion, who spoke with a lisp. Each day we’d try to contain our immature humour as we were told to “Shut Up And Shhhit Down”. Oh how we laughed.
I also remember my proudest moment in geography class as I was the only child able to explain why it became cold overnight in the desert (think of clouds, or lack thereof).
Yet there was one underlying theme of all my geographical learnings which has caused controversy more than any other. That is to how many continents are there in the world?
I grew up understanding, without any challenge to the theory that there are 7 continents in the world.
What are the 7 continents?
I learnt that the 7 continents are: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia (or Australasia as some term it), Europe, then North America and South America.
What is a continent?
So if this is what I’ve learnt how can we actually define a continent? Well, a continent is effectively a way of determining large stretches of land. Many of these stretches of land are separated from each other, mainly by water. So in many respects it should be fairly easy to distinguish. However with Europe and Asia being attached maybe it is not quite that simple? Also the watery divide between North and South America is hardly significant.
As part of this explanation, the idea of land mass is why Antarctica is a continent whilst the Arctic is not. The Arctic is a frozen area with water underneath.
I guess it is little wonder that my understanding of there being 7 continents is shared by numerous others. Such as Jonny Blair who is also a travel blogger. He proudly reports that he has visited all 7 continents. An enviable achievement and I’m only 1 behind you Jonny!
In fact it was this aspiration of mine which led to one of the first indicators that a way of thinking differed from mine.
On a trip home from my long term placement in the Middle East, I was sat at the family dinner table. Discussion came around to my extensive travel opportunities and where I hoped to go. The South Pole came up as an aspiration. Numerous reasons were given for my choice, it being the seventh and final continent became a prominent one.
Almost immediately, my privately educated brother (I wasn’t privately educated, I went through the State system) pulled me up on this point to mention there were only 5 continents, not 7. And so began a lively discussion to which no agreed conclusion was drawn.
Is Australia a continent?
A few months later I had a similar discussion with 2 South African colleagues. One agreed with the knowledge that I’d been taught. The other remained adamant that Australia / Australasia was not a continent. Once challenged to which continent the countries of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and so on belonged to he was almost at a loss. In his mind they were either part of Asia or more likely not part of a continent at all. Hence the term Oceania is used to apply to a set of islands (French Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand etc) who are not deemed close enough to a larger land mass to qualify as part of that continent.
I was thrown even more when his argument led him to say that the United Kingdom was not part of Europe, in fact it wasn’t on any continent either. I reminded him of the fact that I come from the UK yet his argument wasn’t swayed.
So what of it, how many continents are there?
As I’ve explained, I am of the school of 7 continents. However I’ve discovered that some people have been taught a different theory.
Differing theories on what are the continents of the world
There are 5 continents
This theory, from what I understand includes the following:-
- Americas (includes North, Central and Southern)
There are 6 continents
This is a relative new theory which you may have come across in recent times. This argues that since Europe and Asia are clearly joined land masses then they should be classified as a single continent. As a result the 6 continents are:-
- North America
- South America
- Europe-Asia (or Eurasia)
I’ve also heard an argument that if tectonic plates are used we could have 9 continents.
I had a more recent discussion on this issue with some locals in Chile. For me, the most memorable thing about this conversation was not specific to identifying what are all the continents. It was more that he explained how he was often unhappy with the almost exclusive term “American” being used by those from the US. He quite rightly pointed out that he was living in the Americas, South America in fact. Since he comes from South America he has as much right to say he is an American as anyone else in that continent/s.
I think he made a fair point.
I wonder if I could use that argument the next time I see a Canadian taking offence when someone mistakes them for being an “American”?
Overall I guess I’m not that much wiser. I would have thought that in the 21st century geographers could agree on some basic things, such as to the number of continents.
I was personally taught that there are 7 continents and little will change me from that view.
How many continents of the world do you know?
So what do you believe? How many continents are there in the world? Or at least what were you taught? Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts with me.