Letters to Paula, MJ97

Paula Poundstone is waiting to answer your questions about life's little mysteries. E-mail her at paula@motherjones.com.

Bob Spark, West Sacramento, Calif.: Why, since Asia and Europe are obviously contiguous parts of the same landmass, are they referred to as separate continents?

A: I have a globe from 1972 standing in the front room of my house. I sleep with a globe that lights up beside my bed. I have an antique globe in my office. I watch "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" whenever I can, and I very much enjoyed crying throughout The English Patient. Yet I have never wondered why, since Asia and Europe are obviously contiguous parts of the same landmass, they are referred to as separate continents. I looked, though, and, by golly, you're right.

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This gave me a great excuse to call Rand McNally. A guy there pointed out that sometimes that landmass is called Eurasia. (I'd heard that term in the past, but I presumed the speaker was slurring his words and refused to get in the car with him.) Anyways, the Rand McNally guy turned me on to Professor David Woodward at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Woodward was smart, all right. He had a British accent, which always intimidates me because people with British accents sound so much smarter than me and may know Julie Andrews personally. He said that the Don River was the traditional boundary between Asia and Europe in the Middle Ages, but that the boundary has changed depending on historical circumstances. More importantly, he explained, medieval Christian history divided the world into three parts because Noah's sons were each given a kingdom. His first son, Shem, took Asia; the middle son, Ham, took Africa; and his third son, Japheth, was given Europe. Apparently, Noah wasn't interested in teaching sharing.

I got the sense that there could be a lot more to the answer than this, but Woodward found me too geographically illiterate to go into everything necessary to complete my understanding of this topic.

Later, when my kid's preschool teacher made the mistake of asking what I'd been up to and I explained to her about Shem, Ham, and Japheth, she asked if Buddhist history would offer a different explanation. Of course, that's an excellent question.

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