Kids' Hangout

Geographic Curiosities

Q: What are the continents of the world?

A: This is not supposed to be a political question, but it is. Americans, Australians and Europeans have different versions of the continents. There is no authority (like the United Nations) whose job it is to decide this.

Generally, continents are big, continuous land masses. The Europeans consider America to be one continent, but the Americans prefer to count North America and South America separately.

As for Europe, there's no scientific basis to separate it from Asia—geologically the two are one slab of land, Eurasia. But like the North and South Americans, the Europeans wanted a continent all their own, so they decided that the Ural Mountains would be a suitable dividing line.

So it turns out that continents are divisions of convenience, not just big, continuous land masses.

During the 20th Century we had to organize the world into groups for one purpose or another, like the United Nations, the Olympics, Interpol, and global databases. There are nearly 200 countries in the world. How do we organize them into a handful of groups? And what do we call those groups? Continents, of course.

That means all countries—including the Pacific islands of New Zealand, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia—must be assigned to a continent. So we had to envisage an artificial continent to encompass the Pacific island nations. That continent is called Oceania.

But again, it's political. Some argue that Oceania is a region, not a continent (by the same rules, Europe and Asia are also regions, not continents). The Australians like to think of "the continent of Australia." But New Zealanders resent that term, and feel that they and the Aussies belong to Oceania. Other names sometimes used for this part of the world are Australasia and the "ASEAN continent."

So there's no easy answer to the question. Just remember that "continent" can mean different things to different people.

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