Changing Planet

Geography in the News: Eurasia’s Boundaries

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM


Europe and Asia, while often considered two separate continents, both lie on the same landmass or tectonic plate, the Eurasian supercontinent. The historic and geographic story of the Eurasian boundary is intriguing.


Most students of history, political science, economics and geography through the 20th century learned that Europe and Asia were two separate continents.The reasoning, however, was based more on cultural variables than on physical facts. In recent years, students began learning that Europe and Asia are not separate continents at all.

A continent is defined conventionally as one of several large, continuous and discrete landmasses on Earth, residing on a separate tectonic plate, usually separated from others by water. Traditionally, most geographers and historians identified seven continents. Listed from largest size to smallest were Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe and Australia.

Other than the conflicts surrounding Europe and Asia, the other continents are more clearly, but not perfectly, separated from one another. In reality, North America and South America are joined by the Isthmus of Panama. Likewise, Asia and Africa connect to one another at the Isthmus of Suez. The manmade canals cutting through each of these isthmuses, however, technically divide them.

In the case of Europe and Asia, arbitrary historical boundaries trumped these conventional continenetal criteria. The reasons are buried in antiquity.

By the 6th century B.C., Greek geographers had divided the Old World into three parts: Asia, Europe and Africa. At that point, the division between Asia and Europe was along the Rioni River in the Caucasus Mountains of present-day Georgia. By the Hellenistic Period of Greek history (323-330 B.C.), the division had moved to follow the Don River west of the Urals in present-day Ukraine.

Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, a German geographer, was the first to depart from the classical dividing line along the Don River in 1725, moving it farther east to follow the Volga River north and then north along the Ural Mountains. By the 19th century, the boundary between Europe and Asia was still very much in question with all three conventions used by geographers and historians of the times.

In conventional terms, since no water separates Europe and Asia and they physically exist on the same landmass or tectonic plate, their division into two continents clearly is a historical anomaly. This division’s roots likely were perpetuated by cultural biases of Europeans toward the Mongol people mostly located to the east of the Ural Mountains.

The modern convention of the Europe-Asia boundary (from south to north) follows the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles-Sea of Marmora-Bosporus, the Black Sea, along the watershed of the Greater Caucasus, the northwestern portion of the Caspian Sea and along the Ural River and Ural Mountains. Controversy, however, still exists over the formal boundary, which remains nebulous since it has no geographical, political or economic significance.

The modern definition of the Eurasian boundary places Georgia and Azerbaijan mostly in Asia, however, each has small sections that lie north of the Greater Caucasus watershed in Europe. Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, is split by the Bosporus Strait and was considered a transcontinental city, lying on both sides of the line. By that definition then, Turkey was a transcontinental country, as are Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Today, the past confusion in defining continents leads most geographers to identify only six continents by combining Europe and Asia into Eurasia. In fact, the division of Eurasia into two continents based on the definition of continents is now dated.

Separating Europe and Asia was a product of efforts mainly by European academicians seeking to distinguish their region of the world. Although it may be difficult for readers more than 40 years of age to accept, the continuation of Europe and Asia as two continents in any context other than the study of pre-20th century history arguably is passé.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.


Geography in the NewsTM  (GITN) is independently owned and operated.






Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • Chancellor Roberts

    There doesn’t seem to be any logical basis for dividing Europe and Asia into two continents. It’s clearly a cultural/political thing. So, let’s just stop calling them two and stop treating them as two.

  • Joseph Gatt

    The following statement is probably incorrect: “Listed from largest size to smallest were Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Europe and Australia.” Australia is larger than Europe !

    • Peter Schramm

      Europe is 3.9 million sq mi; Australia is 2.9 m sq mi

  • George

    I am currently reading Strahlenberg’s book. That is how I ended up here. He treats the subject in some detail. His arguments for why the Urals should divide Europe & Asia are interesting. Among other things, he noted the differences in flora & fauna, the difference in the drainage of the rivers, and the difference in altitude between both sides of the mountain chain. I think the issue is complex & not simply one of conceptual difference, or cultural difference. I think a strong argument can still be made they are two separate continents. I suggest anyone really interested in the issue read up on Strahlenberg’s viewpoints. And to clarify: Mr. Strahlenberg was a Swedish military officer captured by the Russians during the Great Northern War. He was held several years in captivity in SIberia, and produced a monumental treatise covering the region then known as Tartary. He covers a wide range of subjects including language, history, culture, geography, geology, wildlife, botany & politics.
    I believe you do err by labeling him a “German geographer.”

  • Neal Lineback

    Thanks for your comments about Strshlenberg. Yes, Strahlenberg was a learned and accomplished geographer and cartographer. But he was born, raised and trained (largely self-) in Germany (as a German), joining the Swedish military as a military officer. I did a quick search of some of his history and found that the Wikipedia article does a good job explaining his basic historical credentials:

    And, yes, one can come up with all sorts of rationales for having two continents on Eurasia, but physically the definition of “continent” always relies on there being two separate landmasses. We are not likely to change anyone’s opinion with this article, but the intent was to explain the reasons why historically the landmass has been divided into two parts and Strahlenberg’s work helped galvanize the concept–for right or wrong.

  • Stan W

    Inane statements and the decline of thoughtful writing in National Geographic are the only things those over 40 have a hard time accepting. We’re not too daft to grasp plate tectonics.

  • Glenn

    Europe and Asia should be referred to as constituent continents that together form the constitutive continent of Eurasia

  • Glenn

    Europe and Asia should be called constituent continents that together form the constitutive continent of Eurasia

  • Frank Rayner

    The largely underwater continent of Zealandia (around New Zealand and encompassing various South Pacific islands to the east of Australia) adds to layman confusion of what is a continent.

  • Dick

    And why is that greEnland is nOt consider as anOther coNtinent.. ?

  • Stuff

    I like this stuff

  • John Frost

    I bet these same idiots who want to combine Europe and Asia want to strip Pluto of planethood.

    • Bud Howard

      Nobody wants to combine Europe and Asia. There simply isn’t any difference. Saying that they want to combine Europe and Asia is like saying that you want to combine the U.S.A. with the United States of America. They are the exact same thing. They aren’t the idiots, John. You are the idiot.

  • Neil

    after reading this i have to think and wonder why is India considered asia. its separated by the largest mountain and it sits on its own tectonic plate

  • carol sutton md

    Ok let’s get this straight: France and Germany, England, Ireland, India, China, and all surrounding countries are in Eurasia? No more Europe or Asia? Right? Is there a map out there that shows this? Are the writers going to correct our geography books?

  • Bruce

    The reason I started reading this was,that ever since learning the continents in primary school,60 years ago,I have always been confused as to why Europe and Asia were classed as separate. Seems logical they are indeed one.Surely the rules of geography cant be changed to suit differing opinion.

  • satyam sikarwal

    lot of valuable stuff. My geography teacher will be impressed tomorrow with me. yeah!!!!!!!!

  • Rocky

    The boundaries and geographical boundaries seem to be forever changing depending who is doing the article. The same goes for the Caucus Region of Russia. My Russian Orthodox Christian Grandparents who were Slavic Cossack only had the Northern and Southern Caucus regions. Now there seems that some in the World of Academia have added the Central Caucuses. Also, the term Caucasian depicts individuals from the Caucuses. Thus we can state that any white person that calls themselves Caucasian are also saying they are of Russian DNA. Lets not forget that the seeds of America may lie in Siberia as people crossed over into North America some 25,000 +- years ago. Travel to the regions and meet the many people and the rich cultures of the regions many people. Eastern Europe is often referred to as Eurasia. How many know that Cossack derives from the Turkic word and that in a short definition means a free and independent people

  • Reji

    I would still prefer Europe and Asia as separate continents , mainly due to cultural difference . So, apart from geographical rules, cultural similarities and differences also contribute to the continental perception. It is better to accept this as a fact. Russia will always be considered part of Europe than Asia. While China part of Asia.

    • JayY1Thousand

      But where are the cultural similarities between West Asia and East Asia? Central Asia and Southeast Asia? North Asia and South Asia? There are no cultural similarities.
      There are more similarities between Europe and West Asia than West Asia and East Asia or even East Asia and Southeast Asian island countries like the Philippines and Indonesia.


    I’ve always wondered about why Europe would be considered a separate continent. History and Geography are to separate subject matters. Maybe Australia and New Zealand should then be considered part of Europe.

  • Gunnar Burling

    I always thought racism played a role in the teaching that Europe and Asia were different continents.

  • Bud Howard

    The reasons for the Europe vs Asia misnomers aren’t “buried in Antiquity”: they’re buried in racism. Your futile attempts to cover up racist ideals does nothing but establish your position as a racist. For example, how can there be “European academics” when there is no such thing as Europe? What you really mean is that white Eurasian academics who wanted to separate themselves from the people who looked different from them fabricated an imaginary border between two areas of the same continent that have no true boundary and are only separated by mental constructs of racism.

  • David Schilling

    The next thing you know, they’re going to tell us that Pluto isn’t a real planet. Oh wait.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media