People tend to think of the seven continents in terms of large land portions. While this understanding is certainly helpful, there is much more to continents!
Think about, for example, how all continents have islands that are separate from the main land mass. The continent of Australia has islands like New Zealand and Papua New Guinea; Europe has Iceland, Great Britain, Ireland, and Greenland (to name just a few); and Asia is home to Sri Lanka, Japan, and the massive archipelagos of the Philippines and Indonesia. Even Antarctica has islands!
Consider also that Europe and Asia are part of the same land mass but are deemed to be two separate continents. This separation is because the cultures on one side of the land mass are substantially different from the cultures on the other side.
To best understand the seven continents, rather than merely thinking about land, think in terms of geographical features along with shared histories and cultures. Iceland and Greenland are far from mainland Europe, but they were both settled by Nordic peoples from Scandinavia; therefore these areas still connect regarding a cultural ancestry with many Europeans. However, even though Greenland is governed by Denmark and was settled by Vikings, it is considered part of North America.
North America was originally inhabited by numerous tribes of Native Americans, some of which still exist and practice indigenous cultures and traditions. However, they were overwhelmed by European settlers who brought slaves from Africa. These settlers went on to build large farms that supported large cities – and for a long time, both the farms and cities were largely supported by slave labor. This cultural history makes the United States and Canada very similar to each other and very different from other parts of the world.
But what about Mexico? Isn’t Mexico part of North America? Yes, technically, as are many Central American countries, including Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. In terms of geographical features, Mexico and Central America, as well as the Caribbean islands, are part of North America. Culturally, though, parts of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America tend to be grouped with South America in a region known as Latin America.
Most of the people in these countries speak Spanish (although Brazil’s dominant language is notably Portuguese), and the dominant religion is Catholicism. So are Mexico and Central America part of North America? This answer really depends on whether you ask a geographer or an anthropologist!
There are seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. Each continent is extremely diverse – even Antarctica has various teams of scientists from all over the world, as well as different animals that live there. Think of them as mega-regions – they have some broad, general things in common, but when discussed in terms of individual people groups that live on each continent, there can be profound differences.
For example, the diversity between the Yupik peoples of Alaska and the inhabitants of New Orleans, even though they are on the same continent, are probably greater than the differences between the Yupik and the Ainu peoples of Japan. So keep in mind that studying continents requires thinking in broad, general terms that may not apply to everyone on the continent.
After Asia, Africa is the largest and most populous of the seven continents. It is perhaps the most diverse in terms of cultures, languages, and people groups, some of which are still untouched by Westernization and modernity. Paleoanthropologists believe that humans originated in Africa and that from there, they migrated throughout the rest of the world. Africa has historically been the home of many great civilizations, such as those of Ancient Egypt, Timbuktu, and Abyssinia.
Today, there are 55 sovereign states in Africa, though there are thousands of people groups, many of which speak their own languages, have their own traditions and cultures, and consider themselves to be nations.
Today, Africa is best understood as being divided into two regions. North Africa is north of the Sahara desert; its countries are predominantly Muslim, and most of the people speak Arabic. Sub-Saharan Africa lies south of the Sahara desert, and while it includes many Muslim populations, it also has significant communities of Christians and other religions.
Of all the seven continents, Africa suffered the worst effects of colonization. The slave trade led to many Africans being kidnapped and sent to North America to work on plantations. Countries like Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom governed countries in such a way that the people were forced into servitude. The colonial governments created countries whose borders were so arbitrary that people groups became separated from each other. The effects on traditional, indigenous culture were disastrous.
Many of the long-standing conflicts in Africa today, such as the wars in the Congo, are the legacy of colonialism. The governments of many African countries are notoriously corrupt, and sadly, genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Sudan, continue to occur.
However, one success story is that of South Africa. Following the end of Dutch colonial rule, a policy of apartheid ensured that black Africans had few rights and that whites who lived there enjoyed lifestyles of privilege and prestige. Thankfully, the fall of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela showed that African countries could heal from the ravages of colonialism. Today in South Africa, though, there are still significant disparities between whites and blacks, and many blacks remain in dire poverty.
Today, countries in Africa have some of the lowest human development indexes (HDIs) in the world. Nearly all of the 30 countries with the lowest HDIs, as reported by the United Nations, are in Africa; missing from the list is Somalia, in the horn of Africa, which is considered to be a failed state and is one of the most impoverished and dangerous places in the world. However, Africa is abundant in natural resources and hard-working people; what is holding the continent back is the corrupt governments and longstanding conflicts that came to dominate the scene following the withdrawal of colonial governments. Africa is not poor but rather poorly managed.
Africa’s geography is dominated by the Sahara desert, which is the world’s largest desert and is growing due to the environmental crisis. The Nile River is possibly the longest river in the world (though some believe that the Amazon may actually be longer), and it provides water to the countries of Sudan and Egypt. Africa has vast savannahs and woodlands, but the continent is being deforested at twice the global average. Giant land animals, such as elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceroses, are endangered because of poaching. Given that much of the continent is impoverished and under corrupt governments, addressing the environmental crisis in Africa requires international action.
The African Union, which formed in 2001 and includes all 55 African countries, can be seen as a corollary to the European Union. It has strengthened relations among nations in Africa and hopes to work to decrease poverty and end human rights violations. One notable sign of success in Africa is that during the civil war in the Congo, neighboring African countries, rather than Western countries, have been intervening and attempting to promote peace and reconciliation. With assistance from international organizations, countries all across Africa will become even more empowered to lift themselves out of poverty and address the environmental crisis.
This continent is the largest of the seven, with 30% of the earth’s land mass and 60% of its population. It is connected to the main land mass of Europe, with the border defined somewhat by the Ural Mountains that run through Russia and the Bosphorus that cuts through Turkey. Two countries are split between Europe and Asia: Turkey and Russia. Additionally, Asia borders North Africa via the sections that Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia share with Egypt.
There are many large regions inside of Asia. The Middle East stretches from Turkey through Saudi Arabia and is dominated by Sunni Islam and the Arabic language, although a significant number of Christians, Jews, and followers of other religions and speakers of other languages live there, as well. Central Asia goes from Iran to the border of India. India is considered a region in and of itself, but it has similarities, as well as conflicts, with its neighboring countries that were carved out of it – Pakistan and Bangladesh. East Asia has large, influential, and powerful countries like Mongolia, China, South Korea, and Japan. Southeast Asia includes many coastal and island nations, such as Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
As with Europe, scholars who study Asia ask the question, “What is Asia?” The consensus is that the entity of Asia is the mirror through which Europeans understood their own identities during the colonial era, particularly from the 1700s through 1900s. In other words, Asia was the part of the world that was not European, and the idea of a European identity was based on the idea that Europeans were not Asian.
Much of Asia was heavily colonized by European powers, perhaps most prominently India’s colonization by the United Kingdom. The conflicts between Pakistan and India today, as well as many other conflicts in Asia, are the legacies of European colonization in Asia. That said, before colonization, Asia had some of the earliest civilizations and greatest empires in the world.
Asia has some of the most extreme geography on the planet. The Himalayas are the largest mountain range in the world, and the Gobi desert is one of the largest deserts in the world. Siberia, on the continent’s northern end, is frozen for much of the year, while the South Asian region is tropical and warm. Monsoons in India and nearby countries bring periodic floods, and temperature swings in some locations can be extremely volatile.
In addition to having varied geography, of all the continents, Asia is experiencing perhaps the most devastating effects of climate change. Some countries’ coastlines are eroding, and some islands may soon disappear altogether.
Asia has historically been very poor, primarily due to the effects of European colonization, but today, many of its countries – notably South Korea, Indonesia, China, and India – have rapidly-growing economies. They are now rivaling the economies of countries like Germany and the United States; soon, Europe’s “mirror” may overshadow it and become a much more dominant force in the world.
Of all the seven continents, Europe has the second-smallest landmass (after Australia), but its people and culture have done more to shape the entire world than those from any other continent. It has about 50 sovereign states, though two of them (Russia and Turkey) are located in both Europe and Asia; Armenia, though a party to many European agreements, is actually in Asia. The smallest country is Luxembourg, measuring at just 11 miles across, whereas Russia is the largest, which crosses 11 time zones!
Europe is covered in peninsulas – such as the Iberian Peninsula, Scandinavia, and Italy – and mountain ranges – notably the Alps and Apennines. The frigid tundra of Scandinavia contrasts with the warm Mediterranean coastline to the south, but the interior of Europe is mostly cool and temperate. Its largest city is Moscow, which has over 16 million people, and its longest river, the Volga, runs through Russia near the Asian border.
What is Europe? This question is actually much more difficult to answer than might first seem. You could say that the civilizations of Europe began with the rise of the Greek and then Roman Empires. As these empires spread north and west from the Mediterranean, they influenced peoples throughout the entire continent. The Christianization of the Roman Empire, which began with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 313AD, led to a culture built heavily on what is known as “Christendom.” When the Roman Empire fell in 476, the seat of power became the church. The rise of Christian Europe, or Christendom, basically means that most cultural institutions, such as universities and even kings and parliaments, originally began either as extensions of the church or under the authority of the church.
The rise of modern Europe – what some scholars and historians refer to as “post-Christian” Europe – began with World War I and World War II. Much of Eastern Europe, which has a substantial Muslim presence, was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed following World War I. The rise of communism after World War II spread into Eastern Europe, mainly through the growth of the USSR. Communism fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the European Union was created in 1993 as a means of promoting political and economic integration, especially among countries that had formerly been communist.
Perhaps the best way to answer the question, “What is Europe?” is to look at the European Union. Most countries in the EU use a currency known as the Euro and have democratic governments; additionally, the EU itself is governed as a democracy. EU countries are expected to follow laws that are passed by the EU, as the goal of the organization is to promote unity and ensure that the devastation of World War I and World War II does not happen again.
However, looking at Europe in terms of the EU is also problematic, as the United Kingdom, which is a geographical part of Europe, voted in 2016 to leave the EU. Additionally, Turkey is a country that is on two continents – Europe and Asia – but has been attempting to join the EU. Russia is by far the largest country not only in Europe, but in the world; it also stretches from Europe into Asia, but is not a part of the EU. Norway is part of continental Europe, and Iceland is an island halfway across the Atlantic, and neither one of them is a member of the EU.
So what is Europe? Is it a land mass? Is it a collection of cultures? Is it a political body? As mentioned before, the answer to that question actually depends on who you ask. What can be said is that it is no longer a collection of states or kings that have their roots in Christendom or the church but rather whose values are rooted in democracy and human rights.
In terms of land mass, North America is the third-largest of the seven continents. It also has just three countries including Canada, the United States of America, and Mexico. It extends from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, which stretch to the maritime border with Russia, down to the tiny Isthmus of Panama, and all the way to Greenland off the eastern coast of Canada.
North America has the most volcanoes of all seven continents, both in the mountainous regions of Central America and in the Pacific Northwest, which is part of the ring of fire. Even Yellowstone National Park is considered to be a supervolcano – if it erupted, the devastation would envelop much of the continent. There are both large deserts and temperate rainforests, so called because these rainforests are in colder climates rather than in tropical ones.
No cultural force has impacted North America more profoundly than immigration. That isn’t true only because of the political debates about allowing immigrants into the United States but also because immigrants conquered the indigenous peoples of the United States as well as Canada and took over their lands to build their settlements.
Before Christopher Columbus’ landmark voyage in 1492 (which came 500 years after Leif Erikson discovered North America), the continent was populated by Native American tribes, such as the Iroquois, Algonquin, Cherokee, and Taino. Most of the settlers who shaped the new cultures of the continent were from Western Europe, especially the United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
The slave trade had a huge impact on the development of North America’s cultures. Many settlers and their descendants relied on slaves to do back-breaking labor on large plantations, which fueled industries such as cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco. These industries allowed the economy to grow so that the United States and Canada could trade with Europe. The cultures that the slaves brought from Africa never entirely went away – hallmarks of American culture, such as jazz and barbecue, trace their origins to traditions that slaves brought in from West Africa.
Today, North American culture is considered to be a “melting pot” of all of the different immigrant groups that have shaped the continent. For example, somebody in Canada whose ancestors were mostly Irish may have adopted cultural characteristics of people from places as far away as West Africa and East Asia and have very few similarities with Irish people in Ireland.
Immigration continues to shape and influence the development of culture in North America; today, the sight of women wearing hijabs (head scarfs), men wearing turbans, and other religious clothing that does not have its origins in the West is becoming more common.
Canada and the United States owe their entire existence to immigration. However, immigration has not benefitted everyone, namely, indigenous peoples. Entire tribes were wiped out due to the expansion of settlers in North America. Recent decades have seen some victories for the rights of indigenous peoples, but they are still fighting for things like land and resources, which are being destroyed in the present environmental crisis.
North America’s geography is as varied as its cultures. The Rocky Mountains cut the continent in half from top to bottom, moving in a seam from Canada all the way down into Colorado. The Canadian Shield is a massive plateau characterized by numerous lakes and rocky terrain. Northern parts of Canada and much of Alaska have glaciers, whose movement has deposited sediment that makes the farmlands particularly fertile.
The largest river in North America is the Mississippi River, and the highest mountain peak is Denali in Alaska. The plant and animal biodiversity of North America is threatened by the environmental crisis, particularly the expansion of oil drilling and the use of fracking to extract hard-to-reach oil. These pressing concerns are also endangering the safety of lakes, rivers, and aquifers (underground lakes), which people, plants, and animals rely on for water.
South America And Latin America
South America’s landscape is dominated by the Andes Mountains on the west, which form the world’s longest mountain range. The Amazon rainforest is not only the largest, but also the most diverse rainforest in the world. It dominates the middle of the continent and is fed by the Amazon River, which has long been considered the second-longest river in the world but may actually be the longest. The rainforest is surrounded by highlands, and the dry coastal plains cover much of the west. Contrasting with the Amazon rainforest is the Atacama desert in Chile, the driest desert in the world. It is so dry that there are very few bacteria and fungi there.
Since Mexico and Central America are culturally more similar to South America, the entire region is here grouped as Latin America. Though the term “Latin America” generally refers to Spanish-speaking countries, the region is incredibly diverse, and many languages besides Spanish are spoken there. In Brazil, the dominant language is Portuguese, and countries like Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela have their own dialects of Spanish. There are many indigenous people groups that live throughout Latin America, such as descendants of the Maya, Aztecs, and Inca, and they still speak the indigenous languages of their ancestors.
Some islands in the Caribbean, such as the Greater and Lesser Antilles, are considered part of South America, while others, such as Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, are considered to be part of North America. In terms of culture, the peoples that inhabit these islands probably have more in common with those of Latin America.
Latin America was originally the home of thriving civilizations of indigenous peoples, such as the Olmecs, Aztecs, Maya, and Incas. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors (“conquerors” – most notably Hernando Cortes in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru), Portuguese explorers, and other foreign powers arrived and began colonizing the indigenous peoples. Their civilizations quickly collapsed, and their cultures are no longer dominant.
Today’s cultures throughout Latin America are probably best described as a fusion of indigenous traditions and foreign influences. For example, you can travel to somewhere like Ecuador or Chile and find traditional practices, such as basket-weaving and making pottery, but the patterns and designs may be very much influenced by Spanish or British culture. Many holidays and feast days have their origins in indigenous traditions – Día de los Muertos, one of the most famous holidays in Latin America, has its roots in the Aztec and Mayan cultures.
While the vast majority of people in Latin America speak a European language – especially Spanish or Portuguese – as their native languages and have many European-based traditions, there are many groups of indigenous peoples. For example, the Nahua in Mexico are the descendants of the Aztecs, and many people throughout Ecuador, Peru, and Chile are descendants of the Incas. The high mountains that cross these lands have allowed traditional ways of life to remain more intact, as building large cities and connecting the mountain villages is very difficult. There are still some tribes of indigenous peoples that have not yet been contacted, particularly in the Amazon Rainforest.
The geography of Latin America has helped indigenous traditions remain alive, but many of its natural features, especially the Amazon Rainforest, are in great danger. The deforestation of the rainforest can be seen in satellite images from outer space, which is particularly dangerous considering that the rainforest holds one-third of the world’s biodiversity. The indigenous peoples that inhabit the rainforest are continually pressuring the Brazilian government – where most of the rainforest is located – to protect the land. They have met with some success, but deforestation continues and, in some areas, it is increasing. Some indigenous peoples are now connecting with NGOs and other outside organization to protect what is left of the rainforest and try to begin repairing the damage.
There is a country called Australia, and it is the largest country in the continent of Australia. To distinguish between the country and the continent, some have suggested calling the continent Meganesia (“great continent”) or “Australinea.” Out of the seven continents, Australia is the smallest. It includes the countries of Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea, as well as some portions of the Indonesian archipelago (known as West Papua).
Australia is a continent of extremes, culturally and geographically. The Great Barrier Reef contrasts with the famous Outback and the uncontacted people groups of West Papua and Papua New Guinea lie in contrast with the heavily-Westernized culture of the country of Australia.
The country of Australia was initially inhabited by indigenous people groups that are collectively referred to as “aborigines.” The United Kingdom colonized Australia, mainly as a penal colony, meaning that it served as a giant prison because the jails in London were full. Sadly, many of the original aborigine groups are now entirely extinct, and their languages and traditions are lost forever. Today, Australia has its own parliament and constitution, but the head of its government is the British monarch, who currently is Queen Elizabeth II.
Modern Australia has some of the most diverse, multicultural cities in the world, such as Sydney and Melbourne, because of the strong European influence on an indigenous, oceanic population. As many as 250 languages are expressed in Sydney, and 60% of the population is not native English speakers. Against a backdrop of such diversity and Western influence, the aboriginal peoples of Australia must fight for their rights. They are banned from the sacred site of Ayers Rock, which, ironically, is routinely visited by tourists.
In contrast to the modernization of the country of Australia, Papua New Guinea and West Papua have some of the most remote people groups. There are approximately 44 uncontacted people groups in West Papua. While most of the residents of the country of Australia live in major cities, less than 1/5 of the population of Papua New Guinea lives in urban areas. They mostly have traditional, rural lifestyles.
New Zealand is a highly developed country that has much in common with the country of Australia, in that it is heavily Westernized and urbanized but also has a significant minority of indigenous peoples. New Zealand is sometimes considered to be part of a region known as Oceania rather than belonging to Australia. However, many geographers and historians tend to include Oceania as part of Australia.
Much of the Australian continent is tropical, and the Papuan islands have regular monsoon seasons. While the islands are largely rainforests, much of the country of Australia is a desert commonly known as the Outback. Australia has been significantly affected by climate change. Summers that already have soaring temperatures have, in recent years, become so hot and dry that wildfires threatened to destroy large swathes of land. The Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s ecological treasures, is perilously close to dying because of changes in the water.