where did the continents come from?

who invented the concept of continents and delineated the continents we know today? ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ were Greek words used by sailors to differentiate between the coasts of what is now Greece (Europe) and what is now Turkey (Asia). As ‘Asia’ came to mean the general area east of the Mediterranean, what is now often termed the Middle East, Anatolia became known as Asia Minor — this name is found in the Bible for example. ‘Asia’ may have been borrowed from the Akkadian word for ‘sunrise’. H. T. Bossert theorises that it originates from ‘Assuwa’, a confederation of states in western Anatolia. another idea is ‘muddy’….

Europe might descend from the Greek goddess ‘Europa’. One idea that fits nicely with the Akkadian ‘sunrise’ is the notion that Europe came from ‘Ereb’ meaning darkness/descent, suggesting the sunset. As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so the Greeks saw the ‘sunrise’ in Asia and a ‘sunset’ over Europe.

The Greek perspective became key. the Aegean sea was the centre of the world: Asia to the east, Europe to the north and west, and south… what was known as Libya became Africa. Africa came from a term just referring to Tunisia. The ‘Diocesis of Africa’ then grew in size, so the church can be credited for the spread of the term to encompass the whole continent. (The debate of whether Africa and Asia should be considered separate continents is not new: Herodotus theorised that Egypt was part of Asia).

Africa etymology could be.. ‘aprica’, ‘sunny’ in Latin… the ‘Afri’ tribe of Tunisia area… Greek ‘aphrike’ ‘without cold…’ etc.

The ‘Mundus Novus’ account, allegedly by Vespucci, implies that the discovered Americas were a continent in their own right, similar to Europe Asia and Africa. The 1507 Waldseemuller map was the first to connect North and South America and show the Pacific ocean separating them from Asia. His accompanying book can be credited for popularising ‘America.’ This almost definitely comes from Amerigo Vespucci, the first to suggest the Americas were a separate continent, as Columbus maintained that he had found an eastern part of Asia until his death.

Europe Asia and Africa were not called ‘continents’ way back then though — they were ‘parts’ of the world. It was only later that they became continents, as the concept of grand continents emerged in the eighteenth century. By 1813 Australia was in debates around whether it was part of Asia or part of its own continent.

yet here’s the really crucial part — these terms were still quite fluid going into the early modern period! despite the prevalence of medieval T-O maps, areas could still very much be in the inbetweeny zones — and continents are still not very set in stone, because they are fairly arbitrary definitions anyway. (to be continued if I can ever be bothered)



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Joel Galilee

rambling thoughts on history, the Bible, current events, or even vague concepts