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Geography in the News: Eurasia’s Boundaries

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


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.


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.







  1. Bruce
    July 26, 3:04 am

    The reason I started reading this was,that ever since learning the continents in primary school,60 years ago,I have always been confused as to why Europe and Asia were classed as separate. Seems logical they are indeed one.Surely the rules of geography cant be changed to suit differing opinion.

  2. carol sutton md
    florida usa North America
    July 5, 10:53 am

    Ok let’s get this straight: France and Germany, England, Ireland, India, China, and all surrounding countries are in Eurasia? No more Europe or Asia? Right? Is there a map out there that shows this? Are the writers going to correct our geography books?

  3. Neil
    June 29, 7:25 am

    after reading this i have to think and wonder why is India considered asia. its separated by the largest mountain and it sits on its own tectonic plate

  4. John Frost
    Brooklyn, N.Y.
    June 9, 12:07 am

    I bet these same idiots who want to combine Europe and Asia want to strip Pluto of planethood.

  5. Stuff
    Severt st 2090, greenland
    May 2, 2:48 am

    I like this stuff

  6. Dick
    February 20, 10:19 am

    And why is that greEnland is nOt consider as anOther coNtinent.. ?

  7. Frank Rayner
    Sydney Australia
    February 16, 11:39 pm

    The largely underwater continent of Zealandia (around New Zealand and encompassing various South Pacific islands to the east of Australia) adds to layman confusion of what is a continent.

  8. Glenn
    Wheeling WV America
    August 27, 2016, 4:14 am

    Europe and Asia should be called constituent continents that together form the constitutive continent of Eurasia

  9. Glenn
    August 27, 2016, 4:11 am

    Europe and Asia should be referred to as constituent continents that together form the constitutive continent of Eurasia

  10. Stan W
    June 26, 2016, 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.

  11. Neal Lineback
    May 1, 2016, 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.

  12. George
    Yonkers, NY
    May 1, 2016, 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.”

  13. Joseph Gatt
    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 !

  14. 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.