Thursday, June 26, 2003

Continental Drift

On Tuesday I asked a couple of trick questions.

How many continents are there? And what are their names?

Courtney gave the answers that anybody over the age of 18 likely learned in school.
1) North America
2) South America
3) Europe
4) Africa
5) Asia
6) Australia
7) Antarctica
Perhaps I am stuck in an old paradigm but I tend to think of this as the ‘right’ answer.

However, children today (at least according to my nieces social studies textbook) learn that there are only five continents.
1) Americas
2) Oceania
3) Eurasia
4) Africa
5) Antarctica
This list bugs me for a bunch of reasons.

Unsurprisingly, the first one that gets to me is the ‘Americas’. Perhaps this was correct prior to the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal. Even then, geographers were rational enough to know that one 50 mile wide strip of land is enough to unify the two very different continents of North and South America.

Oceania is the name that is now applied to Australia and the surrounding island nations. As a geographer friend once said… “Maybe Fiji was sad that they did not have a continent to claim as their own” and that is why the decision to rename the continent ‘Oceania’. That seems like as good an explanation as any. I learned that there are two distinct places… Australia (the name of both the country and the continent on which it is located) and Oceania (the islands of the south and central Pacific). Was that to rational? Did geographers feel the need to confuse us all?

I can almost understand the use of the term ‘Eurasia’. Europe is more of a subcontinent of Asia than a separate continent but… After millennia of considering them separate continents why change things now? Additionally, if we are going to link all continents that are connected (like the Americas) why not call it EurAfriAsia? After all, until the completion of the Suez Canal there was a clear land link between the continents.

Next time you are asked how many continents there are the best answer is ‘it depends’ because now you know it all depends on how you define a continent… there can be anywhere from four to seven!


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