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World map of the oceans and continents (image montage from satellite images)
Number of continents in different counting methods

A continent ( Latin terra continens "contiguous land") is a closed mainland mass. In many languages, the word for continent also comes from the Latin continens . In German there is also the term continental part .

The Encyclopædia Britannica defines the term continent as "one of the larger contiguous land masses , namely Asia , Africa , North America , South America , Antarctica , Europe and Australia (in order of size)". Today, different continents are usually divided up in geography and geology : Europe in particular is geographically part of the Eurasia continent, although (for historical and cultural reasons) it is often counted as a separate continent . In addition, Australia and Oceania as well as America are sometimes counted as contiguous continents

The continents make up a total of 29.3 percent of the earth's surface , approximately 148 million square kilometers. The rest is taken up by seas and islands .


The publication of the renowned National Geographic Society , the American magazine of the same name ("NatGeo") , describes continents as regions to be distinguished, areas of the earth and also specifies the number of parts, namely - seven . This number can also be taken from a publication of a teaching aid (an exercise sheet) by the traditional British Royal Geographical Society . The six larger ones ( Asia , Africa , North America , South America , Antarctica, and Europe ) are listed with both. The only difference concerns the designation of the smallest region of the earth. The US source refers to them, translated into German, as Australia and the British as Oceania . According to the reading of the current British school form, Australia is part of the continent of Oceania. This delicacy shows how versatile the problem of finding a definition for the term continent can be.

The publication of the National Geographical Society cites Japan as an example for the geographical definition - this island or group of islands belongs to the continent of Asia, although it does not consist of continental crust. According to this publication, the land areas of the continents as well as islands such as Japan, Greenland and the Caribbean island states are included. Only a small part of the earth's surface is not one of them. Geologically and tectonically independent of continents (in the sense of "independent") are active individuals or groups of islands such as Mauritia , Zealandia New Zealand / New Caledonia / South Pacific Islands, French Polynesia and Hawaii group, since they are microcontinent in themselves. Ultimately, all continents would be separated by the oceans. So much for the American definition of "National Geographic", according to which, in addition to the archipelagos already mentioned, Madagascar , the Mascarene Ridge ( Seychelles / Réunion island groups ) and the Kerguelen and Jan Mayen archipelagos are further small continents. That means a subdivision into the seven named continents, extended by seven micro-continents. The latter also reflects the increasing research into the tectonics of microplates. (See also → microplate )

Earth plates

Topographically and traditionally, a continent is understood to be a large contiguous land mass that iscompletely or at least almost completely delimitedby water or other natural boundaries. Large land masses that are only connected by a narrow isthmus (such as between Africa and Asia and between North and South America) are usually viewed as different continents. Here, however, there are different views as to whether they are completely independent continents or a major or supercontinent with subcontinents.

Geologically , a continent also includes the shelf area belonging to it, i.e. the continent shelf in the shallow sea. The lighter continental crust , which also includes the continental shelf, differsfrom the oceanic crust , which has an average density of around 3.0 g / cm³,with a lower density of 2.7 g / cm³ and a different chemical composition.

In addition to these two, there is also a historical-political dimension. Proof of this is the fact that Europe is considered a separate continent, although this does not correspond to any of the geographical or technical definitions mentioned. In the publication of the NatGeo-Society of the USA this is formulated as follows: “'Continent' has more than just a physical definition”.

As stable as the current distribution of land masses on earth may appear to us, it only represents a snapshot in geological terms. Due to plate tectonics, the continents are constantly in motion and have become a single large land mass ( supercontinent such as Pangea ) and then separated again into smaller continents ( continental drift ).

Number of continents

Based on the above three sources already four different models of the definition of the continents can be substantiated, because the Encyclopædia Britannica notes in a further sentence that Europe and Asia are partly considered as a whole as a major continent ( Eurasia ). Further models can be found in the following list. Depending on the model, four to seven continents are counted - excluding the microcontinents:

Common models of the continents today
Distribution of the continents
4 continents: ! Antarctica !! America !!! Eurafrasia ! Oceania
5 continents: ! Antarctica !! America !! Eurasia ! Africa ! Oceania
5 continents: !! America ! Europe ! Asia ! Africa ! Australia
6 continents: ! Antarctica !! America ! Europe ! Asia ! Africa ! Australia
6 continents: ! Antarctica ! North America ! South America !! Eurasia ! Africa ! Oceania
7 continents: ! Antarctica ! North America ! South America ! Europe ! Asia ! Africa ! Australia
historical model with
2 continents
!!! West festivals !!!! East Fortress
historical model with
3 continents
!!! West festivals !!! East Fortress

! South Fortress

A few sources believe (as described in the Royal Geographic Teaching Guide) that Oceania is the correct name for this Pacific continent instead of Australia .

In addition, the term double continent has been used for various geological land masses since the late 19th century - including Eurasia (Europe and Asia) and America (North and South America) - and is still used today in primarily geographical and historical publications.

In 2017, New Zealand geologists proposed defining an eighth continent Zealandia , since New Zealand , New Caledonia and the part of the sea in between formed a 4.9 million km² continental plate. So far, however, this proposal has not met with general approval.

History of counting methods

The attempt to determine the number of continents on the globe runs through the entire calendar . The ways of counting and viewing vary greatly. Herodotus originally divided the world into three continents: Europe, Asia and Libya (now Africa). Its tripartite division was regarded as binding for all of antiquity .

The five Olympic rings symbolize the five continents involved in the Olympic Games .

With the discovery of America and the colonization of modern times , there is disagreement about how to count the continents. The main disputes are the division into North America and South America and the division into Europe and Asia.

  • From a historical perspective, America is considered to be a continent that was conquered by Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries. From a geological point of view, there are two continents, North America and South America, which only received a land connection through the creation of the Isthmus of Panama .
  • For historical reasons, a distinction is made between Europe and Asia. Hekataios of Miletus drew in the 6th century BC In his description of the earth the border from the Aegean Sea over the Marmara Sea and the Black Sea to the Don . In modern times it has become common practice in Europe to view the Urals as Europe's eastern border with Asia. However, Europe and Asia are also viewed collectively as Eurasia . Eurasia forms a contiguous land mass, which rests mostly on the same continental plate , only in the south of Eurasia several separate smaller plates exist.

The Olympic rings , designed as a symbol in 1913, symbolize the five continents (participating in the Olympic Games) (Africa, America, Asia, Australia and Europe).

There are also other different classifications. Two noteworthy geological tectonic models are derived from Alfred Wegener's concept, first published in 1912 , that at the end of the Paleozoic all continents were united in one supercontinent Pangea and slowly diverged due to active volcanism from one another in the so-called continental drift (later: plate tectonics ) moved.

Further geological models of the continents
8 continents: Antarctic
North American
South American
7 continents: Antarctica North America South America Eurasia Africa India Australia

The historical-political category includes attempts to separate Central America or the Middle East as separate continents, as well as the consolidation of the islands of the Pacific Ocean into one continent, Oceania .

Continents and seas are the largest geographical units (landscapes) on earth. The continents are separated by oceans, with the shelf (= continental shelf) counting as part of the continent. ( New Guinea clearly belongs to Oceania , (rest of) Indonesia to Asia). The continents created in this way are natural and human geographic units. In Europe and partly in America, for example, the human geographic factors are already openly consulted when defining the boundaries of the continents, but they are (just like the animal and plant world, which are also part of physical geography), always co-determining when a continent is defined because it is a unit of the "surface of the earth". So there are the seven continents, whereby the oceanic islands are assigned to the nearest continents, e.g. B. the Pacific islands to Oceania. Oceanic islands are not actually a mainland mass, but always of a volcanic nature, i.e. volcanoes or volcanoes eroded to sea ​​level , which eventually become atolls . Strictly speaking - according to the definition: "separated by oceans" - there are two other continents (whereby fauna and flora are independent and fit by definition): Madagascar and New Zealand .

Comparison of the continents: area and population

Area and absolute population in comparison
Distribution of the world population across the continents

The seven continents each take up less than a tenth of the earth's surface. The area of ​​the largest (Asia) and the smallest continent (Australia / Oceania) differ by a factor of five.

Settlement depends on the climate and the existing livelihoods. For historical reasons, too, the world population is very unevenly distributed. The Antarctic is only temporarily inhabited by a few researchers and visitors. Less than one percent of the world's population lives in Australia and Oceania. Europe, America and Africa each live a little more than an eighth of the world's population. However, almost two thirds live in Asia, and these are mainly in China and India .

No. continent Size [million km²] % of the land area % of the earth's surface Inhabitants [million] % the world population Inhabitants per km²
1 Asia 44.4 29.68 8.7 4010 60.5 90.3
2 Africa 30.3 20.25 5.9 944 14.2 31.2
3 North America 24.9 16.64 4.9 523 7.9 21st
4th South America 17.8 11.90 3.5 381 5.8 21.4
5 Antarctica 13.2 8.82 2.6 0.0001 0 0
6th Europe 10.5 7.02 2.1 733 11.1 69.9
7th Australia / Oceania 8.5 5.68 1.7 34 0.5 4th
total 149.6 100 29.3 6,625 100 44.3


Personifications of the four continents known during the Baroque era, America, Europe, Africa and Asia at the foot of the pulpit of the pilgrimage church of Klosterlechfeld

The names of the continents are all feminine in the original Latin form and all end in -a .

  • Africa ( latin Africa ) was in ancient times only as the name of today's Tunisia , which by the Romans after the tribe of Afri to Carthage was named that way.
  • America (Latin America ) was named after Amerigo Vespucci at the suggestion of Martin Waldseemüller , who sailed the east coast of South America shortly after Christopher Columbus . At that time it could not be overlooked that, strictly speaking, we are dealing with two different land masses, which are only connected by a relatively narrow land bridge .
  • Antarctica (Latin Antarctica ) was named after its location opposite the Arctic and goes back to the Greek ἀνταρκτικός ( Antarktikos , "opposite the Arctic"). The term ἀρκτις (arctic) is derived from the Greek word for bear ἀρκτός (arktos) and means something like "land under the great bear ".
  • Asia (Latin Asia ) comes from the Assyrian word Assu = "sunrise" or "east". Asia also appears in Greek mythology . There she is one of the Oceanids and the mother of Prometheus , Atlas and Epimetheus . The Romans called Asia a province in the west of today's Turkey.
  • Australia (Latin Australia ) comes from the Latin Terra Australis = "southern country".
  • Europe may have got its name from the Greek Erebos = "dark", which means that it stands for the West in a figurative sense . However, this derivation is controversial. The name Europa also appears in a Greek legend . Here the Virgin Europe is kidnapped from her home in Phenicia by Zeus in the form of a bull to Crete (see Cradle of Europe ).


  • The Turkey , Russia and Kazakhstan are both on the European and on the Asian continent.
  • Istanbul is considered to be the only city in the world that is located on two continents - in Europe and Asia, on this side and on the other side of the Bosporus . However, in Russia, as in Kazakhstan, there are some cities on both banks of the Ural River ; this applies to Oral , Magnitogorsk and Orenburg , among others .
  • Spain and France have parts of the country outside Europe; in Spain these u. a. in and off Africa, while France includes areas in South America and on oceanic, African, North American and Antarctic islands.
  • Despite its political affiliation to Portugal, the Madeira archipelago is located in Africa. The westernmost islands of the Azores , which belong to Portugal , Corvo and Flores , also belong to the American continental plate.
  • The Kingdom of the Netherlands has parts in Europe and in North America ( Caribbean ).
  • The island of Greenland, part of the European Kingdom of Denmark, is located on the North American continent.
  • Overseas territories belonging to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland extend over several continents, as does the United States .
  • The African country to Egypt is part of Sinai is considered one of Asia.
  • The border between Asia on the one hand and Australia and Oceania on the other runs through Indonesia .
  • In geological terms, Iceland lies exactly on the border between North America and Eurasia (but geographically it is commonly counted as part of Europe).
  • Cyprus is geographically part of Asia, but politically part of Europe.
  • The countries on the Arabian plate are included in Asia, although geologically this continental plate belongs to Africa.

During the last Ice Age, America (North and South America) and Eurasia (Europe and Asia) were linked by Beringia , and Africa was connected to the other continents via the Sinai Peninsula. At that time there was a continuous land mass, and land creatures like humans could have wandered through five continents with dry feet: Africa, Europe, Asia as well as North and South America.

More terms

There is also the terms super continent , supercontinent and supercontinent .

See also

Web links

Commons : Continents  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Continents  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d Encyclopædia Britannica , 2006: " continent , one of the larger continuous masses of land, namely, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia, listed in order of size". Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
  2. a b Encyclopedic Entry: "continent" in: "NatGeo Education"; Publication of National Geographic NatGeo-Society
  3. Lesson 1 starter activity: Ranking the seven continents , publication by the Royal Geographical Society RoyalGeo-Society (PDF; 36 kB)
  4. ^ Encyclopedic Entry: "Microcontinents" in: "NatGeo Education"; Publication of National Geographic NatGeo-Society
  5. a b c "The Columbia Encyclopedia", 2001. New York: Columbia University Press.
  6. a b c Océano Uno , Diccionario Enciclopédico y Atlas Mundial, “Continente”, page 392, 1730. ISBN 84-494-0188-7
  7. a b Los Cinco Continentes (The Five Continents), Planeta-De Agostini Editions, 1997. ISBN 84-395-6054-0
  8. Van Loon's Geography : The Story of the World We Live In, 1932, Simon and Schuster
  9. ^ The New Oxford Dictionary of English . 2001. New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Encarta Continent ( Memento from October 28, 2009 in the Internet Archive ). MSN Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006 .
  11. Continent . McArthur, Tom, ed. 1992. The Oxford Companion to the English Language . New York: Oxford University Press; p. 260.
  12. Jürgen Osterhammel: The Metamorphosis of the World: A History of the 19th Century , CH Beck, 2011, p. 166
  13. ^ Journal for Scientific Geography , JIKettler 1885, p. 1
  14. Ines-Jacqueline Werkner, Ulrike Kronfeld-Gohorani: The ambivalent peace: Peace research facing new challenges , Springer-Verlag, 2010, p. 106
  15. Solutions to the Terra workbook Geography, Klett, 2007, PDF file, p. 19
  16. Zealandia: Earth's Hidden Continent at, accessed July 31, 2017
  17. Researchers call for the eighth continent in, accessed on July 31, 2017
  18. The Olympic symbols (PDF; 852 kB; 10 pages), accessed on February 12, 2019.