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Education

Fascinating video demonstrates that none of us has any idea what a continent actually is

What is a continent? Nobody knows.

continents earth geography
WikiImages/Canva

Here's why everything we think we know about continents is wrong.

Naming the seven continents is one of the first things young kids learn in school. Despite the fact that we forget most of what we learn, I'd wager that most American adults can still rattle off North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia (or Oceania, depending on how old you are) and Antarctica like it's nothing. Easy peasy.

Since knowing the continents appears to be a vital foundational part of our education, one might assume that there is a clear definition of what a continent actually is. Spoiler alert: There's not.

In fact, there isn't a single definition of "continent" that actually makes sense with what we teach as the continents, which is both fascinating and a little disturbing.


This fact is explored in a video by CGP Grey, an American-Irish YouTuber who brought us such informative delights as "Hexagons Are the Bestagons" and "The Better Boarding Method Airlines Won't Use."

In "What Are Continents?" Grey explains how the common definition of a continent for those of us in the English-speaking West—a large land mass separated from other land masses by a body of water—doesn't hold up due to Europe and Asia being considered different continents. But even if you were to combine Europe and Asia into Eurasia, which some places in the world do, you run into the problem of North and South America technically being one land mass (at least prior to the Panama Canal going in). But if you were to combine both Americas into one big American continent, you'd technically have to add Africa to Eurasia because the human-made Suez Canal is the only thing separating those land masses.

As you can see, it quickly starts to get complicated when we try to apply any amount of consistency to how we define a continent. Grey explains how one could make a compelling case for there being just three continents or dozens of them, depending on what parameters are being used to define them.

Watch everything you think you know about continents get dismantled like Pangaea in less than four minutes:


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