How many continents are there? It probably seems like a simple question, and you probably have an answer to it, but are you sure you’re right?
What is a Continent?
A continent is a land mass. Other than that, it has more specific and less specific qualifications based on the definition being used.
A Geologically Defined Continent
Geologically a continent is a land mass that has some specific criteria. It has:
- A crust thicker than those of the surrounding oceanic crusts
- Many different rock formations
- Land that is elevated from the ocean floor
- A possible variety of dry land and continental shelves
- Clearly defined boundaries
Based on this definition, and looking at it strictly from a geological perspective, it is not necessarily wrong to consider five continents: The Americas (North America and South America), Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and Eurasia (Europe and Asia).
However, this likely stands in contrast to what you were taught in school. In the United States, students are pretty much universally taught that there are seven continents: North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Europe, and Asia. On Sporcle, we acknowledge these same seven continents (though Sporcle uses the wider geographical term ‘Oceania’ for the continent of Australia).
To further confuse things, in parts of Europe, they teach that there are six continents (with North and South America grouped as one single continent).
A Politically Defined Continent
Ultimately, the discrepancy over how many continents there are comes down to semantics. While a geologist might assert there are five, it is hard to ignore the fact that politically and historically, there are significant differences between Europe and Asia. And the same can be said for North and South America.
Most political categorizations of continents use the geological definition, but take into account the greater political and historical perspective. With this definition, neighboring islands that are politically and culturally affiliated with a larger land mass become defined as part of the continent.
This explains why Iceland is often considered part of Europe. Despite half of the country being on the North American tectonic plate, and its proximity to Greenland (North America), Iceland shares more cultural, historical, and political aspects with Europe (especially the Nordic/Scandinavian countries).
Using political and historical considerations also explains why some cultures put North and South America together as one, and others don’t. The same is true for Europe and Asia.
Other Ways to Define a Continent
We’ve seen that continents are ultimately identified by convention rather than any strict set of criteria. If we want to further muddle this whole continental conundrum, we can look at other ways to decide what exactly makes up a continent.
Some 300 million years ago, the entire Earth was one large land mass called Pangea. Over millions of years, tectonic shifting separated the land mass into the continents we have today. By this definition, you could say that there is only one jumbo continent that has since been divided.
On the other hand, some argue for the recognition of other continents, with Zealandia being one of them. The proposed continent of Zealandia is a little more than half the size of Australia, with the majority of the continent submerged in the Pacific Ocean. In fact, it’s only point above sea level is New Zealand’s two main islands. Some scientists claim that this is the eighth continent (or sixth or seventh, depending on their working definition) because it meets many of the same criteria as the other continents.
So, How Many Continents Are There?
If you’re a geologist, there are five or six; if you go to school in Europe, there are six; but if you go to school in America, there are seven; if you’re into prehistory, there is one; and if you’re counting new continents, there could be eight. So take your pick! Ultimately, the answer to how many continents there are is entirely dependent upon your working definition.
When it doubt, we suggest just going with these:
- Asia – The largest continent covering more than 44.5 million square kilometers.
- Africa – The second largest continent covering some 30.2 million square kilometers.
- North America – The third largest continent covering 24.7 million square kilometers.
- South America – The fourth largest continent spanning over 17.8 million square kilometers.
- Antarctica – The fifth largest continent at 14 million square kilometers.
- Europe – The sixth largest continent covering almost 10.2 million square kilometers.
- Oceania/Australia – The smallest continent spread out across some 8.5 million square kilometers.
Like this post? Be sure to check out our many other Geography articles.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.