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Geography in the News: Eurasia’s Boundaries

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

THE GEOGRAPHICAL DIVISIONS OF EUROPE AND ASIA

Europe and Asia, while often considered two separate continents, both lie on the same landmass or tectonic plate, the Eurasian supercontinent. The historic and geographic story of the Eurasian boundary is intriguing.

 1133_EurasiaNGS

Most students of history, political science, economics and geography through the 20th century learned that Europe and Asia were two separate continents.The reasoning, however, was based more on cultural variables than on physical facts. In recent years, students began learning that Europe and Asia are not separate continents at all.

A continent is defined conventionally as one of several large, continuous and discrete landmasses on Earth, residing on a separate tectonic plate, usually separated from others by water. Traditionally, most geographers and historians identified seven continents. Listed from largest size to smallest were Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe and Australia.

Other than the conflicts surrounding Europe and Asia, the other continents are more clearly, but not perfectly, separated from one another. In reality, North America and South America are joined by the Isthmus of Panama. Likewise, Asia and Africa connect to one another at the Isthmus of Suez. The manmade canals cutting through each of these isthmuses, however, technically divide them.

In the case of Europe and Asia, arbitrary historical boundaries trumped these conventional continenetal criteria. The reasons are buried in antiquity.

By the 6th century B.C., Greek geographers had divided the Old World into three parts: Asia, Europe and Africa. At that point, the division between Asia and Europe was along the Rioni River in the Caucasus Mountains of present-day Georgia. By the Hellenistic Period of Greek history (323-330 B.C.), the division had moved to follow the Don River west of the Urals in present-day Ukraine.

Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, a German geographer, was the first to depart from the classical dividing line along the Don River in 1725, moving it farther east to follow the Volga River north and then north along the Ural Mountains. By the 19th century, the boundary between Europe and Asia was still very much in question with all three conventions used by geographers and historians of the times.

In conventional terms, since no water separates Europe and Asia and they physically exist on the same landmass or tectonic plate, their division into two continents clearly is a historical anomaly. This division’s roots likely were perpetuated by cultural biases of Europeans toward the Mongol people mostly located to the east of the Ural Mountains.

The modern convention of the Europe-Asia boundary (from south to north) follows the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles-Sea of Marmora-Bosporus, the Black Sea, along the watershed of the Greater Caucasus, the northwestern portion of the Caspian Sea and along the Ural River and Ural Mountains. Controversy, however, still exists over the formal boundary, which remains nebulous since it has no geographical, political or economic significance.

The modern definition of the Eurasian boundary places Georgia and Azerbaijan mostly in Asia, however, each has small sections that lie north of the Greater Caucasus watershed in Europe. Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, is split by the Bosporus Strait and was considered a transcontinental city, lying on both sides of the line. By that definition then, Turkey was a transcontinental country, as are Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Today, the past confusion in defining continents leads most geographers to identify only six continents by combining Europe and Asia into Eurasia. In fact, the division of Eurasia into two continents based on the definition of continents is now dated.

Separating Europe and Asia was a product of efforts mainly by European academicians seeking to distinguish their region of the world. Although it may be difficult for readers more than 40 years of age to accept, the continuation of Europe and Asia as two continents in any context other than the study of pre-20th century history arguably is passé.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

                                                                                     
Source: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/faq/geography.html#continents

Geography in the NewsTM  (GITN) is independently owned and operated.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Stan W
    Houston
    June 26, 12:54 pm

    Inane statements and the decline of thoughtful writing in National Geographic are the only things those over 40 have a hard time accepting. We’re not too daft to grasp plate tectonics.

  2. Neal Lineback
    May 1, 10:39 am

    Thanks for your comments about Strshlenberg. Yes, Strahlenberg was a learned and accomplished geographer and cartographer. But he was born, raised and trained (largely self-) in Germany (as a German), joining the Swedish military as a military officer. I did a quick search of some of his history and found that the Wikipedia article does a good job explaining his basic historical credentials: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Johan_von_Strahlenberg

    And, yes, one can come up with all sorts of rationales for having two continents on Eurasia, but physically the definition of “continent” always relies on there being two separate landmasses. We are not likely to change anyone’s opinion with this article, but the intent was to explain the reasons why historically the landmass has been divided into two parts and Strahlenberg’s work helped galvanize the concept–for right or wrong.

  3. George
    Yonkers, NY
    May 1, 9:28 am

    I am currently reading Strahlenberg’s book. That is how I ended up here. He treats the subject in some detail. His arguments for why the Urals should divide Europe & Asia are interesting. Among other things, he noted the differences in flora & fauna, the difference in the drainage of the rivers, and the difference in altitude between both sides of the mountain chain. I think the issue is complex & not simply one of conceptual difference, or cultural difference. I think a strong argument can still be made they are two separate continents. I suggest anyone really interested in the issue read up on Strahlenberg’s viewpoints. And to clarify: Mr. Strahlenberg was a Swedish military officer captured by the Russians during the Great Northern War. He was held several years in captivity in SIberia, and produced a monumental treatise covering the region then known as Tartary. He covers a wide range of subjects including language, history, culture, geography, geology, wildlife, botany & politics.
    I believe you do err by labeling him a “German geographer.”

  4. Joseph Gatt
    Malta
    September 29, 2015, 3:27 am

    The following statement is probably incorrect: “Listed from largest size to smallest were Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe and Australia.” Australia is larger than Europe !

  5. Chancellor Roberts
    Astana, Kazakh Eli
    May 5, 2014, 5:13 am

    There doesn’t seem to be any logical basis for dividing Europe and Asia into two continents. It’s clearly a cultural/political thing. So, let’s just stop calling them two and stop treating them as two.