Volunteer Abroad - Costa Rica, Volunteer Abroad Programs

Question: How Many Continents Are on a Map?

by Hannah Nevitt, Greenheart Travel Volunteer Abroad Participant

Throughout the months I have faced a number of cultural “learning moments,” but none so defining as the day we debated the question of “How many continents are there?”

It started out as a normal day at the project site. I had arrived around 8 a.m., had chatted with some of the current volunteers and had gotten them started on their projects. We had just received 14 veterinary students from colleges across the United States for a week long program of volunteering.

My Costa Rican boss, Alvaro, had just returned from dropping them off at the airport, when he came into the office baffled. He asked me to explain how it was possible that these bright, young Veterinary students could not properly know, “how many continents there were in the world.”

My initial thought was, “uh oh, what did they say!”

He then accounted to me that the students were adamant that there were indeed seven continents in the world, saying that “They think that North America and South America are separate continents!”

I immediately thought back to my grade school world geography class, counting quickly…confirming. “But Alvaro,” I said.” There are 7 continents; North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, & Antarctica.”

At this, both Alvaro, and the office secretary (who had now joined the conversation) were shaking their heads in what appeared to be disgust in my ignorance (or therefore the ignorance of the U.S. education system) and said to me, “No Hannah…there are only 5.”

Alvaro then began his explanation that there were only 5 continents; Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. He explained that the “Americas” is one whole continent, including the North, Central, and South. Being that Costa Rica is in Central America many people, especially here, do not associate it with South or North America. They were taught that are three separate regions, connected to form one continent. They argue that since Central America is its own entity, how could it possibly be included into the South American continent? Oceania, is made up of Australia, New Zealand, and the surrounding islands. They were taught that Antarctica is not a continent.

At this point I am very confused. I need to make sure I am not losing my mind and therefore decide to ask around. I approached one of the current volunteers, Kate, from New York who immediately confirmed with me that she was taught seven. However, when I went home for the siesta, I asked my host mother and her relatives who all confirmed that there were five. Only one Costa Rican, my host-mother’s brother in-law, paused for a short while and thought that there might be seven…but he wasn’t sure.

I even asked one of my friends from New Zealand how many continents there were and what he believed his country to be associated with. He agreed with me that he was taught that there were seven, however, he told me that his country was associated with Oceania, and not with Australia. (New Zealanders’ are always defending their country as separate from Australia so I am not surprised by their not wanting to be associated as part of the Australian continent).

In short; There definitely seems to be some variation in answers to this question! Wondering now if we had been taught wrong all these years I decided to do a little more research; I went online. After searching Nations online, Wikipedia, and finally consulting the National Geographic website: a source I would trust to be unbiased. The Answer is exactly that…varied. It turns out that there is no right answer to this question and that the answers vary from 5 to up to 7 continents!

It all depends on your cultural perspective. In many Latin countries it is culturally accepted that the “Americas” is one continent. This is also why it is possible to “hit a nerve” with people from “the Americas” when for example, individuals from the United States exclusively identify themselves as “Americans;” As someone from Central or South America could also consider themselves an “American.”

As I related my findings back to Alvaro, that indeed, according to sources like National Geographic, there was no “right answer” and that it was a matter of cultural perspective, he was still quite skeptical. Just as I imagine there are those people out there who are adamant that there exist not five continents…but seven.

But whether there are 5, 7, or even 8 continents, the lesson learned here is about perspective. Being born in a different country carries with it a different culture, and different theories of belief. Therefore, the answers to many of life’s pending questions can be accounted for in different ways.

For example, here in Costa Rica the flooding beaches are accounted for by “full moons” and crazy weather by the “uncharacteristic chirping of birds.” They also believe that sprinkling “holy water” around your house will cure internet problems as well as heal the sick.

Whether I believe these things or not, it is a matter of cultural perspective and I have learned to respect that.

Once again. It is not wrong…just different.


About Greenheart Travel

CCI Greenheart Travel is personally invested in providing cultural immersion programs that change lives, advance careers and create leaders. We achieve this by partnering with organizations and governments overseas that empower their local communities through experiential learning and practical development. We provide others with the same positive travel experiences in which we ourselves engage. Through travel and cultural exchange, we help individuals reach their full potential, leading to a more tolerant, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.


14 thoughts on “Question: How Many Continents Are on a Map?

  1. If Antarctica is a Continent than the Arctic should be one too!Everywhere on this Eart schools teach America is one Continent!Well the US School System came up with it’s own”Logic”Saying North and South America is two Continent,and Now Americans want to force this on the rest of the World!!!

    Posted by jozseffrd | May 15, 2013, 12:53 am
  2. There are actually six continents. North America, South America, Antarctica, Africa, Australia, and Eurasia. Continents are based on tectonic plates, and those five continents are on there own plates. Europe and Asia are on the same plate, however historically they were counted as separate because Europeans didn’t want to admit they were from the same continent as Orientals.

    Contrary to what you say, and your map shows, the region of Central America, as well as Cuba, are part of North America. Panama north is North America, south of Panama is South America. Oceania isn’t a continent, it’s a region made up of islands to small to be considered continents. New Zealand, the other Oceanic islands, Hawaii, Azores islands, Bermuda, etc are to small continuous land masses to be continents. And not being on the same plates as any continents, they are not part of any continent.

    The South American contention that North and South America are one continent since they barely touch at Panama is very strange since they also say Europe and Asia are two continents. Those two regions are on the same plate and their border goes right down the middle of the largest land mass on the planet. Yet South Americans think that is two continents? And to ignore Antarctica altogether is just crazy. Very poor geography education in South America.

    Posted by Eric | February 26, 2012, 3:13 pm
    • Typo correction: “Continents are based on tectonic plates, and those SIX continents are on there own plates.”

      Posted by Eric | February 26, 2012, 3:17 pm
    • Ok this makes no sense because if we use Alvaro’s logic then Europe, Asia, and Africa make up one super continent in that they touch way more than North and South America do. In my opinion it would be more logical to say there are 5 continents: North America, South America, Eurasiafrica, Oceania, and Antarctica. Or you could say 4 if you made North and South America one continent which I think is totally stupid.

      Posted by Johnathan Washington | September 19, 2012, 9:51 pm
  3. There are 5 continents Europe,America,Africa,Asiaand Australia.

    Posted by Ismini | April 18, 2011, 8:59 pm
  4. O.k. there are 5 continents america,europe,africa,asia and australia

    Have you ever middle east, is it a continent?

    Posted by Beau | November 10, 2010, 9:15 am
  5. More that cultural is political . Many beliefs are often support by a Country in order of make cultural differences , easier to think on two Continents and better to excluded Mexico of North America because of their heritage . I think who ‘s nerves are being constantly touch are the Citizens of United States that when out of home confronted with the reality of other peoples thinking different from them , seems can not handle it well and needs to make patronizing comments on them like the one regarding the internet . Very interested about Don Alvaro or your costarrican friends would think about it .

    Posted by Ana | October 11, 2010, 5:55 pm
  6. Noe is right, there are 5 continents. I don’t understand why in the United States, children are taught that there are 7 continents. By the way, North, Central and South America is one continent and is called America.

    Posted by Sandy | August 25, 2010, 8:26 pm
  7. If the america’s are to be considered one because yhey are in fact attaches, then why is Africa, Asia and Europe considered seperate when they are clearly attached as well. Not only this but if you look back, scientists say that north and South America where different land masses before they becam one.

    Posted by Michael | August 10, 2010, 3:32 pm
  8. in my own opinion there are 5 continents america,europe,africa,asia and australia that’s my knowledge

    anyways get your own conclusion http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continent

    Posted by Noe | March 1, 2010, 3:51 am
    • you are not correct there are 7 continents there were one they cracked into 7 it was called Pangaea now they are Europe, North america, South america, Australia, Africa, Asia,and Antarctica

      Posted by yohannes fikre | September 29, 2012, 4:40 am


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