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Many dream of being able to say one day that they have set foot on all continents, namely on all seven: North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and Antarctica. But why only seven and not all twelve? Or on all four?

2005 CountriesWhat is a continent anyway? According to the common definition, continents are closed mainland masses that are separated by oceans. They cover around 30% of the earth's surface. The first problem arises here: Why are Asia and Europe two different continents if they are not separated by an ocean? This distinction has historical reasons. The Urals have been seen as a natural border between Europe and Asia since modern times. However, this in turn has mainly political and cultural reasons. In our view of ourselves and the world, European and Asian cultures were (and are) so different that the division into two continents is hardly questioned.

But if we accept the cultural argument, why doesn't it also apply to India and the Middle East? The cultures differ at least to the same extent, just think of the religions: here mainly Hinduism, there Islam. With this calculation, we would already have nine continents: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Middle East, India, Australia and Antarctica. So the cultural argument is not really usable, because it would divide the world into more and more confusing and ultimately arbitrary continents, which makes the whole thing even more confusing.

So why not throw the cultural perspective overboard and see Europe and Asia as one continent: Eurasia? But then what about North and South America, which are actually connected by the isthmus in Panama. Or at least they were until Teddy Roosevelt decided to build the Panama Canal in 1906. In theory, however, you can still walk from Alaska to the Cape of Fire, because a small bridge leads across the canal at its narrowest point. In any case, North and South America are not naturally separate. From this perspective, there are five continents: America, Eurasia, Africa, Oceania and Antarctica. So that must be right, after all, even the five rings of the Olympiad symbolize exactly these five continents. And Columbus discovered America in 1492, not North America or South America, right? But if the Panama Canal no longer counts, doesn't the same also apply to the Suez Canal, which has only separated Africa from Europe within Egypt since 1869?

See detailed information and countries of Oceania on Countryaah.com.

So if continents are actually closed land masses separated from each other by oceans, there are only four continents: America, Afro-Eurasia, Australia and Antarctica. Or…? Well. Not quite. When is a land area actually a land mass? Is Australia really a land mass or just the largest island? And why is Greenland actually an island and not a continent? And first the Antarctic: Without ice, the continent turns out to be a kind of huge archipelago, the largest island of which is smaller than Australia. So what about other large islands like Borneo, Madagascar or Sumatra? So there should be dozens of continents. Or…?

No not true. Geology, which defines a continent as a tectonic plate lying on the earth's crust, offers an answer. In geology there are the Antarctic plate, the Australian plate, the Eurasian plate, the South American plate, the African plate... and the Arabic plate, the Indian plate, the Caribbean plate, the Pacific plate, the Nazca plate, the Scotia plate and the North American plate that lies below half of Japan and part of Russia. Okay, okay, stop. So a dozen continents after all? Not that either, because there are also the coconut plate, the Philippine plate and a number of other smaller plates.

The problem is: there is no consistent, universally valid definition of the word “continent” for everyday use. By the way, around 542 million years ago, in the Paleozoic Era, all continents were interconnected for around 290 million years. During this time, according to most definitions, there was exactly one continent. This one supercontinent is called Pangea, and it may be back in around 250 million years. In ancient times, it was long believed that there were three continents: Herodotus only differentiated between Europe, Asia and Africa.

So how many continents are there today? Ultimately, just as many as you want to travel.


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