“Europe is a continent” (1600s- ) is a fallacy common in the West. Most seem to know it is Untrue In The Technical Sense but think it is harmless.
But it is not harmless: it leads to what I call the Continental Fallacy – the idea that most people on a continent are somehow alike:
- That one can speak of “Asians” even though most of mankind is Asian.
- That one can speak of “Africans” even though they speak a thousand different languages.
- That one can speak of “Indians” (natives of the Americas) even though they had 2,000 cultures, from the Cree to the Mayans to the Fuegians.
Unfortunately, just when the West learned how to cross the oceans in the late 1400s, “Europe”, Christianity and white skin all covered pretty much the same region.
This has led to unsound conclusions about other parts of the world!
The words “European” and “Indian” (meaning native American) enter English. Before 1500, the main way the English divided mankind was by religion, not by continent or race.
The English start calling mainland Europe “the Continent”.
“Continent” now means one of the chief land masses of the world.
Linnaeus divides the human species by continent, giving each a native skin colour: Europe is white, Africa is black, Asia is yellow and America is red.
Blumenbach takes the Continental Fallacy a step further: scientific racism, dividing mankind based on physical appearance, stereotyped by continent. This becomes known as “race”.
“Europe” too has changed through time:
700s BC: an ancient queen of Crete in Homer
600s BC: the northern shore of the Aegean Sea. “Asia” is the eastern shore.
500s BC: Anaximander, a Greek, divides the known world into three parts: Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa in Latin). The eastern land border of Europe with Asia is the Phasis River (now called the Rioni), which flows from the Caucasus mountains into the south-eastern Black Sea.
AD 20: Strabo, a Greek, sets the eastern land border at the Tanais (Don) river, which flows into the north-eastern Black Sea. The Tanais is seen as the northern counterpart of the Nile, making Europe the north-western quarter of the known world.
1607: the eastern land border runs from the Don north to the Arctic Ocean. The Nile and the eastern edge of Europe still line up, as in Strabo’s map.
1700s and 1800s: the eastern land border drawn according to taste. The Don and Volga rivers are favoured.
1861: the eastern land border still a matter of debate, but begins to settle on the Ural mountains, Ural river and the Caucasus mountains.
2012: Still no fixed land border through the Caucasus.
Europe is divided from Asia mainly by mountains – the only place where continents are divided that way and they are not even the tallest mountains!