How many continents are there on Earth?
A seemingly banal, primary school-level question: How many continents are there on Earth? may not be so banal, after all. It turns out that the answer depends on criteria that we apply.
What do we call ‘a continent’, actually? A classic definition of a continent is, after the Cambridge Dictionary: ‘one of the seven large land masses on the earth’s surface, surrounded, or mainly surrounded, by sea (...)’1. Conventionally, when we take into account the historical, cultural and political aspects, we speak of 7 continents: Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Australia and Europe.
However, things get tricky if we consider another definition, this time provided by the Oxford Dictionary: ‘continent - any of the world's main continuous expanses of land’2. Although Oxford Dictionary, too, lists the customary 7 continents, the division may be different if we stick tightly to the idea of a continent actually being a continuous land mass (besides, the word continent stems from the Latin term terra continens, meaning “continuous land”).
From a geographical perspective, Europe and Asia (and, disputably, Africa) are not separated and therefore one large continent: Eurasia or even Afro-Eurasia. Another problematic area are the two Americas, which are also joined by the Central America. Moreover, some of the accepted division models exclude Antarctica from the list of continents because it is uninhibited.
That is why several models of distinguishing continent borders exist and some of them recognize:
4 continents: Afro-Eurasia, America, Antarctica, Australia
5 continents: Africa, America, Asia, Europe, Oceania (as in five-ringed Olympic Games symbol representing the continents)
6 continents: Africa, Eurasia, North America, South America, Antarctica, Australia
Did you know?
The smallest continent, Australia, has the area of 7,692,024 km2 while the largest island, Greenland – 2,166,086 km2.