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The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

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by Martin W. Lewis

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In this thoughtful and engaging critique, geographer Martin W. Lewis and historian Kären Wigen reexamine the basic geographical divisions we take for granted, and challenge the unconscious spatial frameworks that govern the way we perceive the world. Arguing that notions of East vs. West, First World vs. Third World, and even the sevenfold continental system are


In this thoughtful and engaging critique, geographer Martin W. Lewis and historian Kären Wigen reexamine the basic geographical divisions we take for granted, and challenge the unconscious spatial frameworks that govern the way we perceive the world. Arguing that notions of East vs. West, First World vs. Third World, and even the sevenfold continental system are simplistic and misconceived, the authors trace the history of such misconceptions. Their up-to-the-minute study reflects both on the global scale and its relation to the specific continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa—actually part of one contiguous landmass.

The Myth of Continents sheds new light on how our metageographical assumptions grew out of cultural concepts: how the first continental divisions developed from classical times; how the Urals became the division between the so-called continents of Europe and Asia; how countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan recently shifted macroregions in the general consciousness.

This extremely readable and thought-provoking analysis also explores the ways that new economic regions, the end of the cold war, and the proliferation of communication technologies change our understanding of the world. It stimulates thinking about the role of large-scale spatial constructs as driving forces behind particular worldviews and encourages everyone to take a more thoughtful, geographically informed approach to the task of describing and interpreting the human diversity of the planet.

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The Myth of Continents

A Critique of Metageography

By Martin W. Lewis, Kären E. Wigen


Copyright © 1997 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91859-7


The Architecture of Continents

The Development of the Continental Scheme

In contemporary usage, continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water. Although of ancient origin, this convention is both historically unstable and surprisingly unexamined; the required size and the requisite degree of physical separation have never been defined. As we shall see, the sevenfold continental system of American elementary school geography did not emerge in final form until the middle decades of the present century.


According to Arnold Toynbee, the original continental distinction was devised by ancient Greek mariners, who gave the names Europe and Asia to the lands on either side of the complex interior waterway running from the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Black Sea, and the Kerch Strait before reaching the Sea of Azov. This water passage became the core of a continental system when the earliest Greek philosophers, the Ionians of Miletus, designated it as the boundary between the two great landmasses of their world. Somewhat later, Libya (or Africa) was added to form a three-continent scheme. Not surprisingly, the Aegean Sea lay at the heart of the Greek conception of the globe; Asia essentially denoted those lands to its east, Europe those lands to its west and north, and Libya those lands to the south.

A seeming anomaly of this scheme was the intermediate position of the Greeks themselves, whose civilization spanned both the western and the eastern shores of the Aegean. Toynbee argued that the inhabitants of central Greece used the Asia-Europe boundary to disparage their Ionian kin, whose succumbing to "Asian" (Persian) dominion contrasted flatteringly with their own "European" freedom. Yet not all Greek thinkers identified themselves as Europeans. Some evidently employed the term Europe as a synonym for the northern (non-Greek) realm of Thracia. In another formulation, Europe was held to include the mainland of Greece, but not the islands or the Peloponnesus. Still others—notably Aristotle—excluded the Hellenic "race" from the continental schema altogether, arguing that the Greek character, like the Greek lands themselves, occupied a "middle position" between that of Europe and Asia. In any case, these disputes were somewhat technical, since the Greeks tended to view continents as physical entities, with minimal cultural or political content. When they did make generalizations about the inhabitants of different continents, they usually limited their discussion to the contrast between Asians and Europeans; Libya was evidently considered too small and arid to merit more than passing consideration.

Twofold or threefold, the continental system of the Greeks clearly had some utility for those whose geographical horizons did not extend much beyond the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean, and Black Seas. But its arbitrary nature was fully apparent by the fifth century B.C.E. Herodotus, in particular, consistently questioned the conventional three-part system, even while employing it. Criticizing the overly theoretical orientation of Greek geographers, who attempted to apprehend the world through elegant geometrical models, he argued instead for an "empirical cartography founded on exploration and travel." One problematic feature of the geography that Herodotus criticized was its division of Asia and Africa along the Nile, a boundary that sundered the obvious unity of Egypt. After all, as he noted, Asia and Africa were actually contiguous, both with each other and with Europe: "Another thing that puzzles me is why three distinct women's names should have been given to what is really a single landmass; and why, too, the Nile and the Phasis—or, according to some, the Maeotic Tanais and the Cimmerian Strait—should have been fixed upon for the boundaries. Nor have I been able to learn who it was that first marked the boundaries, or where they got their names from."

Similar comments, suggesting a continued awareness that these were constructed categories, echoed throughout the classical period. Strabo, writing in the first century B.C.E., noted that there was "much argument respecting the continents," with some writers viewing them as islands, others as mere peninsulas. Furthermore, he argued, "in giving names to the three continents, the Greeks did not take into consideration the whole habitable earth, but merely their own country, and the land exactly opposite...."

Under the Romans, the continental scheme continued to be employed in scholarly discourse, and the labels Europe and Asia were sometimes used in an informal sense to designate western and eastern portions of the empire. In regard to military matters, the term europeenses was deployed rather more precisely for the western zone. Asia was also used in a more locally specific sense to refer to a political subdivision of the Roman Empire in western Anatolia.


For almost two millennia after Herodotus, the threefold division of the earth continued to guide the European scholarly imagination. The continental scheme was reinforced in late ntiquity when early Christian writers mapped onto it the story of Noah's successors. According to St. Jerome (who died circa A.D. 420), translator of the Vulgate Bible, "Noah gave each of his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, one of the three parts of the world for their inheritance, and these were Asia, Africa, and Europe, respectively." This new theological conception had the merit of explaining the larger size of the Asian landmass by reference to Shem's primogeniture. It also infused the Greeks' tripartite division of the world with religious significance. This sacralized continental model would persist with little alteration until the early modern period.

Medieval Europe thus inherited the geographical ideas of the classical world, but in a calcified and increasingly mythologized form. Whereas the best Greek geographers had recognized the conventional nature of the continents—and insisted that the Red Sea made a more appropriate boundary between Asia and Africa than the Nile River—such niceties were often lost on their counterparts in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Martianus Capella, whose compilation of knowledge became a standard medieval text, took it as gospel that the world was divided into Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the Nile separating the latter two landmasses. Other influential encyclopedists of the period, including Orosius and Isidore of Seville, held similar views.

During the Carolingian period, by contrast, the inherited framework of Greek geography began to recede from view. The term Europe (in one form or another) was sometimes used to refer to the emerging civilization in the largely Frankish lands of Latin Christendom, which were occasionally contrasted with an increasingly fabulous Asia to the east. In fact, proponents of both Carolingian and Ottonian (German) imperialism, as well as the papacy, employed the concept of Europe as "a topos of panegyric, [and] a cultural emblem." But until the late Middle Ages, reference to the larger formal continental scheme was largely limited to recondite geographical studies, finding little place in general scholarly discourse. Africa in particular did not figure prominently in the travel lore and fables of medieval Europeans. The southern continent at the time was dismissed as inferior, on the mistaken grounds that it was small in extent and dominated by deserts.

Scholarly geographical studies, of course, were another matter. Here the tripartite worldview of the Greeks was retained, but transposed into an abstract cosmographical model, abandoning all pretense to spatial accuracy. The famous "T-O" maps of the medieval period, representing the earth in the form of a cross, reflect the age's profoundly theological view of space. The cross symbol (represented as a T within the circle of the world) designated the bodies of water that supposedly divided Europe, Asia, and Africa; these landmasses in a sense served as the background on which the sacred symbol was inscribed. The Nile remained, in most cases, the dividing line between Africa and Asia. Classical precedence joined here with theological necessity, converting an empirical distortion into an expression of profound cosmographical order.

With the revival of Greek and Roman learning in the Renaissance, the older continental scheme was revived as well, becoming endowed with an unprecedented scientific authority. The noted sixteenth-century German geographer Sebastian Münster, for example, invoked "the ancient division of the Old World into three regions separated by the Don, the Mediterranean, and the Nile." Despite the considerable accumulation of knowledge in the centuries since Herodotus, few Renaissance scholars questioned the boundaries that had been set in antiquity. On the contrary, it was in this period that the continental scheme became the authoritative frame of reference for sorting out the differences among various human societies.

The elevation of the continental scheme to the level of received truth was conditioned in part by an important historical juncture. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, just as classical writings were being revalued, the geography of Christianity was in flux on several fronts at once. Turkish conquests at its southeastern edge were causing the remaining Christian communities in Asia Minor to retreat, while Christian conquests and conversions in the northeast were vanquishing the last holdouts of paganism in the Baltic region. Meanwhile, the rise of humanism was challenging the cultural unity of the Catholic world from within. These historical circumstances combined to give the Greek continental scheme new salience. On the one hand, as Christianity receded in the southeast and advanced in the northeast, the boundaries of Christendom increasingly (although never perfectly) coincided with those of the Greeks' Europe. On the other hand, humanist scholars began to search for a secular self-designation. As a result, these centuries saw Europe begin to displace Christendom as the primary referent for Western society.

As Western Christians began to call themselves Europeans in the fifteenth century, the continental schema as a whole came into widespread use. But it was not long before the new (partial) geographical fit between Europe and Christendom was once again offset. Continuing Turkish conquests, combined with the final separation of the Eastern and Western Christian traditions, pulled southeastern Europe almost completely out of the orbit of the increasingly self-identified European civilization.


Once Europeans crossed the Atlantic, they gradually discovered that their threefold continental system did not form an adequate world model. Evidence of what appeared to be a single "new world" land-mass somehow had to be taken into account. The transition from a threefold to a fourfold continental scheme did not occur immediately after Columbus, however. First, America had to be intellectually "invented" as a distinct parcel of land—one that could be viewed geographically, if not culturally, as equivalent to the other continents. According to Eviatar Zerubavel, this reconceptualization took nearly a century to evolve, in part because it activated serious "cosmographic shock." For a long time, many Europeans simply chose to ignore the evidence; as late as 1555, a popular French geography text entitled La Division du monde pronounced that the earth consisted of Asia, Europe, and Africa, making absolutely no mention of the Americas. The Spanish imperial imagination persisted in denying continental status to its transatlantic colonies for even longer. According to Walter Mignolo, "The Castilian notion of 'the Indies' [remained] in place up to the end of the colonial empire; 'America' [began] to be employed by independentist intellectuals only toward the end of the eighteenth century." Yet by the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese cosmographer Duarte Pacheco and his German counterpart Martin Waldseemüller had mapped the Americas as a continent. While cartographic conventions of the period rendered the new landmass, like Africa, as distinctly inferior to Asia and Europe, virtually all global geographies by the seventeenth century at least acknowledged the Americas as one of the "four quarters of the world."

As this brief account suggests, accepting the existence of a transatlantic landmass required more than simply adding a new piece to the existing continental model. As Edmundo O'Gorman has brilliantly demonstrated, reckoning with the existence of previously unknown lands required a fundamental restructuring of European cosmography. For in the old conception, Europe, Africa, and Asia had usually been envisioned as forming a single, interconnected "world island," the Orbis Terrarum. The existence of another such "island" in the antipodes of the Southern Hemisphere—an Orbis Alterius—had often been hypothesized, but it was assumed that it would constitute a world apart, inhabited, if at all, by sapient creatures of an entirely different species. Americans, by contrast, appeared to be of the same order as other humans, suggesting that their homeland must be a fourth part of the human world rather than a true alter-world. Thus it was essentially anthropological data that undermined the established cosmographic order.

In the long run, the discovery of a distant but recognizably human population in the Americas would irrevocably dash the world island to pieces. Over the next several centuries the fundamental relationship between the world's major landmasses was increasingly seen as one of separation, not contiguity. In 1570 Ortelius divided the world into four constituent parts, yet his global maps did not emphasize divisional lines, and his regional maps sometimes spanned "continental" divisions. By the late seventeenth century, however, most global atlases unambiguously distinguished the world's main landmasses and classified all regional maps accordingly. The Greek notion of a unitary human terrain, in other words, was disassembled into its constituent continents, whose relative isolation was now ironically converted into their defining feature. Although the possibility of an Orbis Alterius was never again taken seriously, the boundaries dividing the known lands would henceforth be conceived in much more absolute terms than they had been in the past. Even as the accuracy of mapping improved dramatically in this period, the conceptualization of global divisions was so hardened as to bring about a certain conceptual deterioration.


As geographical knowledge increased, and as the authority of the Greeks diminished, the architecture of global geography underwent more subtle transformations as well. If continents were to be meaningful geographical divisions of human geography, rather than mere reflections of an ordained cosmic plan, the Nile and the Don obviously formed inappropriate boundaries. Scholars thus gradually came to select the Red Sea and the Gulf and Isthmus of Suez as the African-Asian divide. Similarly, by the sixteenth century, geographers began to realize that Europe and Asia were not separated by a narrow isthmus, that the Don River did not originate anywhere near the Arctic Sea, and that the Sea of Azov was smaller than had previously been imagined. While the old view was remarkably persistent, a new boundary for these two continents was eventually required as well.

The difficulty was that no convenient barrier like the Red Sea presented itself between Europe and Asia. The initial response was to specify precise linkages between south- and north-flowing rivers across the Russian plains; by the late seventeenth century, one strategy was to divide Europe from Asia along stretches of the Don, Volga, Kama, and Ob Rivers. This was considered an unsolved geographical issue, however, and geographers vied with each other to locate the most fitting divisional line. Only in the eighteenth century did a Swedish military officer, Philipp-Johann von Strahlenberg, argue that the Ural Mountains formed the most significant barrier. Von Strahlenberg's proposal was enthusiastically seconded by Russian intellectuals associated with Peter the Great's Westernization program, particularly Vasilii Nikitich Tatishchev, in large part because of its ideological convenience. In highlighting the Ural divide, Russian Westernizers could at once emphasize the European nature of the historical Russian core while consigning Siberia to the position of an alien Asian realm suitable for colonial rule and exploitation. (Indeed, many Russian texts at this time dropped the name Siberia in favor of the more Asiatic-sounding Great Tartary.) Controversy continued in Russian and German geographical circles, however, with some scholars attempting to push the boundary further east to the Ob or even the Yenisey River, while others argued for holding the line at the Don.


Excerpted from The Myth of Continents by Martin W. Lewis, Kären E. Wigen. Copyright © 1997 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Martin W. Lewis is Associate Research Professor of Geography, Duke University, and author of Wagering the Land: Ritual, Capital, and Environmental Degradation in the Cordillera of Northern Luzon, 1900-1986 (California, 1992) and Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism (1994). Kären E. Wigen is Associate Professor of History, Duke University, and author of The Making of a Japanese Periphery, 1750-1920 (California, 1995).

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The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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As an educated layman, I found this book to be accessible to anyone who has a basic understanding of geography and is willing to spend a little time to try and understand the world today. What I especially found useful, informative and interesting was the authors' approach to how the world is seen and understood. It seems that my own geographic perceptions of how the world is catagorized are conservative and traditional. The authors' made me see the world in a fresh and original way.