The FIVE Continents on the Map

Dear Jerry,
Through out my life I have come across a few very interesting cultures and have had many “cultural learning moments.” Growing up I have always been told that there are 7 continents in the world. Most likely in America if you say anything other than that, depending on your age, you may either get laughed at, be somewhat politely corrected or get just the shake of the head. With that said, I therefore had to break a smile when a seven year old last week told me in a matter- of- factually way that there are without a doubt 7 continents and promised me that “Everyone knows that!” Her reaction got me thinking; it is pretty safe to say that there are no more and no less than 7 continents in the world, right? Is that what everyone around the world believes or is it just an assumption on our part?

The most intriguing thing is when you find out that in some cultures there are not seven continents. I thought that my mind was firmly grasped in the statement I believe and have been always taught, but I couldn’t help but wonder what makes some people think otherwise. I have discovered that the question on the number of continents can vary anywhere from four to eight. Now Jerry, before you plan on miraculously leaving your thrown and telling my history teacher that I have gone crazy in my head and that I am going to need intensive tutoring, let me first tell you that just like most opinions are formed based on world view, this is an example of just that.

I read an article on Costa Rican beliefs and came to realize many Costa Ricans are taught and strongly believe in the the fact that there are only 5 continents. Even when we Americans go and try to convince them otherwise, they are firm in their opinion. The first thing I thought was, “Why? Surley they must have a good reason, however, to believe this. We have our ‘logical reasons’ and they must have theirs.”

The 5 continents they believe exist are Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. To get it out of the way, we seem to be on the same page and can say that Europe, Asia and Africa are continents. Enough said. Now we get to the more complicated “continents.” Last I checked, no where in my mind was the realization that Oceania is a continent, in fact if I had to guess what that would be I would have said it is probably some newly discovered island that Jack Sparrow discovered in his most recent movie. Surprisingly, Oceania is a continent made up of Australia, New Zealand, and the surrounding islands. Antarctica all together is not considered a continent. It is true that Oceania is a region, however, since teaching geography across the world has not been standardized, Costa Ricans believe that this region should be considered a continental region. Now about the continent of the Americas. Costa Ricans believe that America is one whole continent containing North, Central, and South. On a geographical approach, Costa Rica is located in the center of the Americas, in between North and South so it is not surprising to me that they feel they have no part of North, nor South America. They believe that the three regions (North, South and Central) are joined together to form one continent and feel as if they should not be considered as part of a “South American continent” because as part of Central America they are their own entity and are independent. In the words of Costa Ricans, “How can we be considered as part of a South American continent?” To them the answer is that they just can’t.

I always thought that Geography, since it is science, must be based on universal truths, but think again. You may feel a bit puzzled by now and may not be sure what to believe anymore. If you are from the US there are 7 continents, if you’re from Chile you know that there are five continents and can’t understand what’s the big fuss and if you’re from Europe you’ll think all of us are nuts because there are 6 continents! I have concluded many areas of knowledge have cultural elements that affect the “way we know things.” It is just one thing we have to accept; different cultures and people believe different things, and weather you believe that there are 5, 6, 7, or even 10 continents, the lesson you can take from this is the idea of perspective. One’s perspective can change the way you look at everything.

~Sarah

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