“Continent” derives from the Latin terra continēns [terra = “land”, continēns = present participle of the verb contineō = con (“together”) + teneō (“I hold”). The meaning is therefore “land held together” or “connected land.”
Originally the term “continent” was applied to any area of land, of any size, not separated by water, including islands.
Concurrently, ever since the times of ancient Greek mariners and philosophers, the world was separated into “parts.”
These parts were initially Europe and Asia, with the subsequent addition of Africa and, in 1507, of the Americas. Only in the late nineteenth century such parts of the earth came to be explicitly defined as continents.
Today, continents are understood to be large, continuous, distinct masses of land, ideally (but not necessarily) separated by expanses of water. No required minimum size to qualify as “large” (or “very large”) has been defined, nor the requisite degree of physical separation.
Continents are therefore defined by convention rather than a strict criteria. The criteria used can be of geographical, historical, cultural, anthropological, political, or even of philosophical nature.
How many Continents in the World?
It depends. Because of the broad definition of continent, there are many different ways to divide the world into continents, with models ranging from four to seven continents.
This is the most widely used classification system, and it divides the world into seven continents:
- North America
- South America
- Australia (or Oceania)
List of the Seven Continents by Population
There are two variations of the six-continent model:
- the first six-continent model (used mostly in France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Greece, and Latin America) groups together North America+South America into the single continent “America” (or “Americas”).
- the other six-continent model (mostly used in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Japan) combines together Europe + Asia into the single continent “Eurasia“
This model adopts the criteria of both the six-continent models, resulting in the following 5 continents: Africa, Eurasia, America, Oceania (or Australia), and Antarctica.
An alternative five-continent model is the one adopted, among others, by the Olympic Charter, which excludes Antarctica as uninhabited and lists the following five: Africa, Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania (or Australia).
This would probably be the correct subdivision if we adopted a strict definition of continents, ideally defined as large landmasses separated by water. Furthermore, we should consider “separated” only what is naturally separated, excluding therefore the separations resulting from the artificially made Panama Canal (which separates North and South America) and Suez Canal (which separates Africa from Eurasia).
Under this model, the four continents of the world are: Afro-Eurasia (or Eurafrasia), America, and Australia (not Oceania, which combines Australia with smaller countries in the Pacific Ocean which are separated by water), and Antarctica.
An alternative four-continent model, introduced at the beginning of the 20th centry, included Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
Past Continent Models
Prior to the end of the 18th & 19th century, two continents were sometimes recognized as the Old (Europe, Asia, and Africa together) and the New (North and South America). There are many models which different countries follow like 6 Continents, 4 Continents and 5 Continents.
How many Regions in the World? (instead of Continents)
The United Nations Statistics Division (which we follow when reporting population statistics on this website) groups countries into macro geographical (continental) regions and geographical sub-regions rather than into continents. This system is referred to as the United Nations Geoscheme.
This classification identifies into 6 regions: Asia, Africa, Europe (includes Russia), Latin America and the Caribbean (which includes South America, Central America, and the Caribbean), Northern America, and Oceania.
Which continent does Russia belong to?
Russia is both a European and an Asian country. In fact, it’s not always clear where Russia belongs in the seven continents model.
Along the Ural Mountains line, from the source of the Ural River down to the Greater Caucasus, from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, Russia is divided into two parts (European Russia and the “Asian part” of the Russian Federation) (following the modern definition of Europe as provided by the National Geographic Society).
However, we had to place Russia in one of the continents in the list of continents, so we put it in Europe, as per the UN classification.
The European continent is home to about 75% of the Russian population. On the other hand, Asia accounts for 75% of Russian territory.
Hawaii is located on which continent?
None. Hawaii is politically part of North America, but it does not belong to any continent geographically.