Afro-Eurasia designates the land masses of Africa and Eurasia, together with adjacent islands, as a single spatial entity. The concept of Afro-Eurasia is useful in the study of both historical and contemporary social phenomena whose full geographical contexts overlap in one way or another the conventionally defined continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. A prominent example is the Roman empire, which politically unified societies all around the Mediterranean basin, a region that has a fairly uniform climatic and vegetational regime. Acknowledg-
The English Hereford Map (c. 1280) shows Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Ment of the unity of the Mediterranean lands in the larger frame of Afro-Eurasia benefits the study of relatively large-scale developments in the empire, whereas a conception of the basin as made up of three primary and arbitrarily fixed sections—European,
African, and Asian—may inhibit investi gation of such processes.
The single land mass comprising Eurasia and Africa, the largest on the globe, has never acquired a distinctive and enduring name of its own. This is ironic, since geologists have named a number of great land areas, Pangaea, Gondwana, and Laurasia, for example, that existed in earlier eons before the earth’s tectonic plates arranged themselves into their current configuration. Afro-Eurasia is sometimes identified as the Eastern Hemisphere or the Old World as against the Western Hemisphere or the New World, that is, the Americas.
Extending from approximately 78degrees north latitude to 35 degrees south latitude, Afro-Eurasia exhibits a multitude of distinctive climatic and vegetational zones from Arctic tundra to wet tropical forest. The supercontinent’s topography is equally varied, including the highest point (Mount Everest) and the lowest point (the Dead Sea) on the earth’s land surface. Afro-Eurasia’s climatic and topographical diversity, however, did not deter human beings from populating, at least in sparse numbers, nearly all parts of the land mass and neighboring islands by about twenty thousand years ago. A satellite view of Afro-Eurasia reveals several prominent geographical features that have both challenged humankind’s adaptive powers and facilitated travel, migration, and interchange.
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature from satellite distance is the lateral belt of arid and semi-arid land that extends from the North Atlantic coast of Africa to northeastern China. This chain of deserts, scrublands, mountains, and grassy plains includes the great Sahara and the
Arabian, Kyzyl Kum, Takli-makan, and Gobi Deserts, as well as the dry Iranian Plateau and the semiarid steppes of Inner Eurasia. Except where river valleys run through or other water sources could be tapped, Afro-Eurasia’s great arid zone has had low population density relative to the supercontinent’s temperate and tropical zones. Nevertheless, human groups began as early as the seventh millennium BCE to adapt to arid lands by herding animal domesticates on seasonal grasses and eventually harnessing horses, camels, and oxen to carry loads and pull wagons across large expanses of rain-starved land.
Another prominent feature of Afro-Eurasia is the nearly continuous chain of highland ranges that stretches across the land mass from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the uplands of western China. Afro-Eurasian highlands have sometimes impeded human movement, notably north and south across the “roof” of the Hindu Kush, Pamirs, and Himalayas. Pioneer travelers, however, inevitably found the high passes, which thereafter became funnels of travel for merchants, missionaries, and conquering armies.
Because the Indian Ocean extends across much of the Eastern Hemisphere’s tropical latitudes, Afro-Eurasia’s only large expanse of tropical rainforest climate is in equatorial Africa, an area significantly smaller than Amazonia’s wet tropics in South America. We must also include southern India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, both mainland and insular, as part of Afro-Eurasia’s discontinuous tropical belt, lands where humans adapted ecologically in quite similar ways.
The Eurasian part of the supercontinent, whose long axis runs east-west, displays somewhat less floral and faunal diversity than does Africa, owing partly to its relatively narrower latitudinal range. Indeed, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the geographer and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond has argued that, because of the relative evenness of daylight and climate along Eurasia’s long axis, food crops, animal domesticates, and related
In a borderless world we can go anywhere. If we are not allowed a good life in our countries, if we are going to be global citizens, then we should migrate North....
Masses of Asians and Africans should inundate Europe and America.
Agricultural technologies have in the past ten thousand years diffused more easily across the region than they have along the long north-south axes of either Africa or the Americas. The reason is that in Africa and the Western Hemisphere migrating farmers and herders had to make repeated adaptations to new climatic conditions.
In Afro-Eurasia’s northwesterly section, several seas penetrate deep into the land mass, which partially explain the relatively early intensification of human cultural exchange and attending technical innovation and population buildup in that region. Elsewhere on the land mass, long rivers and animal transport technologies facilitated contact between coastal and interior peoples. Moreover, the chain of seas in western Afro-Eurasia (the Baltic Sea, North Sea, eastern coastal Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Sea, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf) connect to the southern seas (the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and the China Seas) to make for a transhemispheric chain of seas that from at least 4000 bce permitted captains of sail craft to relay goods, ideas, and people from the far east to the far west of Afro-Eurasia.
Owing in large measure to the linguistic turn in social and literary research, most scholars today accept the proposition that human beings socially construct and name geographical spaces. Even mountain ranges and river valleys exist in nature only insofar as humans agree on the criteria for determining their characteristics, unity, and limits. Thus, nation-states, ethnic territories, climatic zones, and continents are invariably constructions susceptible to social acceptance, rejection, or modification over time. The idea of Afro-Eurasia is equally constructed as a place on the world map and as an arena of historical developments. So far, however, this construction has gained little attention or credence despite the supercontinent’s ready discernibility on the globe and despite accumulating evidence of complex, long-distance intercommunication among its peoples since very ancient times.
The greatest impediment to recognition of Afro-Eurasia as a geographical entity has been what the geographers Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen call the myth of continents, that is, the doctrine that the world comprises seven major land divisions, three of them being Africa, Asia, and Europe. Western and Western-educated scholars fully articulated the idea that the earth is constituted of seven primary “land worlds” only during the first half of the twentieth century. As late as 1950, for example, geographers were not fully agreed that the Americas constituted two continents, rather than one, or that Australia deserved continental rather than merely large-island status.
Since the mid-twentieth century, however, the seven-continent scheme has become dogmatic in school textbooks, scholarly literature, geographical atlases, and the popular media, despite fundamental inconsistencies in the very definition of the word continent. If a continent is by conventional definition a large mass of land surrounded or nearly surrounded by water, why, critics of the sevenfold categorization have asked, do both Europe and Asia qualify as primary land masses, when no distinct watery division between them exists? Indeed, the conventional definition applies well to Australia, Antarctica, North America, South America, and Afro-Eurasia, making for five continents rather than seven. From this five-continent perspective we may perceive the Mediterranean, Red, and Black seas as internal seas of Afro-Eurasia, since they are inconsequential intercontinental partitions compared with the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, geographers, travelers, merchants, and soldiers have long known by experience the irrelevance of these waters as barriers to human contact. As soon as humans invented sturdy rafts and sailboats, which in the Red Sea region may have occurred as long as 100,000 years ago, people began to traverse these seas and transform them into busy channels of cultural and commercial exchange.
The ancient Greeks, whose world centered on the Aegean Sea, were the first we know of to identify Europe to the northwest, Asia to the east, and Africa to the south as distinct regions. But the Greeks also imagined these three zones as comprising parts of a larger integrated whole, the orbis terrarum, or “world island.” Considering Greek commercial and colonial enterprise all around the rim of the eastern and central Mediterranean, as well as
If there is any strength that we have, it is in the numbers. Three-fourth of the world is either black, brown, yellow or some combination of all these. We will make all nations in the world rainbow nations. . . • Dato Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad (b. 1925)
In the Black Sea region, such a holistic conception is hardly surprising. Roman scholars, by contrast, despite the empire’s intercontinental span, tended to emphasize the threefold division. Medieval Christians drew maps of a world revolving around Jerusalem, a point technically in “Asia,” but in their worldview the lands northwest of the Holy City, that is, Europe, possessed sharp cultural and historical definition, whereas most of Asia and Africa, lands of heathen darkness, did not.
Almost all societies that share language and cultural traditions also possess a foundational myth that situates themselves at the center of creation. Their territory is the place where the primordial creator made the first land mass and the ancestral human beings. From that “continent,” as it were, humans went forth to populate the rest of the world. The Chinese self-perception as the people of the earth’s “middle kingdom,” the Hebrew story of the Garden of Eden, and the Muslim idea of the Dar al-Islam (land of surrender to God) versus the Dar al-Harb (land of war) have all served such mystiques of cultural and historical primacy.
The idea that Europe is one of the earth’s primary land masses had its origins in Greek thought, took root in the Middle Ages, and became canonical in modern times, even as Western geographical knowledge accumulated to reveal the absence of any significant waterway or other physical partition separating the eastern side of Europe from what came to be known as Asia. Thus, Europe’s status as a continent had to rest on exceptional criteria, specifically its possessing a population that exhibited distinct cultural characteristics—the shared heritage of Western Christendom. Whatever linguistic, cultural, and political differences divided Europeans from one another, they all shared, according to the theory, a piece of the world distinctive for not being Asia or Africa, lands inhabited by Muslims and other unfathomable strangers. However, because of the absence of any compelling physical border separating Europe from Asia north of the Aegean and Black seas, European intellectuals struggled for several centuries to agree on the location of their continent’s eastern, sealess border. Various rivers flowing north-south across Russia commanded followings, but in the nineteenth century, scholars reached general consensus that the Ural Mountains should be the marker. An obscure Swedish military officer first put forth this idea in the previous century, and pro-Westernizing Russians found it attractive because it emphasized “the European nature of the historical Russian core while consigning Siberia to the position of an alien Asian realm suitable for colonial rule and exploitation” (Lewis and Wigen 1997, 27). In the twentieth century, the Ural partition became dogmatic in Western academic and school geography. It largely remains so today despite the flood of historical evidence showing that those round-topped hills, whose highest peak reaches only 1,894 meters, have never thwarted human communication. Thus, the social construction of the “Continent of Europe” has well served the fundamentally flawed notion that the lands north of the Mediterranean and Black seas possess geographical singularity comparable to both Asia and Africa and that this European entity generated unique cultural ingredients and mechanisms that set it intrinsically apart from those two places, as well as from all other continents.
The eastern land frontier between Europe and Asia has not been the only continental demarcation subject to debate and revision. Medieval European geographers, for example, took it for granted that the Nile separated Africa from Asia, the Red Sea coming into its own as the conventional dividing line only in recent centuries. Contending for a racial definition of continents, a few scholars have asserted that the Sahara Desert, not the Mediterranean, properly splits Europe from Africa because the desert separates “white” populations from “black” ones.
In the late nineteenth century, scholars introduced the concept of Eurasia, though with a variety of definitions. Eurasia, characterized simply as Asia and Europe as a single land mass, though distinguished from Africa, relegates Europe to the status of subcontinent, that is, a large peninsula of Eurasia comparable to South Asia, Indochina, or Arabia. As the world historian Marshall Hodgson has
The first law of history is to dread uttering a falsehood; the next is not to fear stating the truth; lastly, the historian’s writings should be open to no suspicion of partiality or animosity. • Leo XIII C1810—1903)
Pointed out, this reordering averts the categorical pairing of huge and tiny countries, for example, the questionable notion that Luxembourg and Slovenia are countries on the continent of Europe paralleling China and India as countries in Asia. The idea of a Eurasian continent has also been useful in the study of numerous historical processes whose proper geographical frame is that land mass as a whole. These developments include the dispersion of Indo-European-speaking populations from China to Ireland between the fourth and first millennia bce; the long-distance migrations and invasions of pastoral groups (Scythians, Germans, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks) in the past three millennia; the opening of the trans-Eurasian Silk Roads; the east-west flow of technologies, ideas, and religions; the forging of the Mongol empire in the thirteenth century; the rise of the Russian empire in the seventeenth; and the emergence of the Soviet Union after 1917. All these developments notwithstanding, however, Eurasia has not so far come close to disturbing the conventional school wisdom that the world has seven continents, not six.
The failure of Eurasia to supersede Europe and Asia on the continental honors list suggests that Afro-Eurasia faces a steep climb to acceptance, despite its value in formulating questions about long-term and large-scale change in world history. The human eye can readily see Eurasia as a single bulk of land but requires serious reeducation to perceive the Mediterranean and Red seas, together with the Suez Canal (whose navigational width is 180 meters), as something other than lines between great spatial compartments.
On the other hand, several scholars of world history have either explicitly or implicitly envisaged Afro-Eurasia as a single field of historical development, thereby ignoring or minimizing the conventional threefold division as having any bearing on the comparative or world-historical questions they wish to pose. In the early fourteenth century, when a chain of Mongol-ruled states stretched all the way from Korea to Bulgaria, the Persian historian Rashid al-Din wrote the Collected Chronicles, an immense work of history and geography that encompassed not only the lands of the Dar al-Islam but also India, China, Inner Eurasia, the Byzantine empire, and Western Europe. Indeed, Rashid al-Din, along with other well-educated scholars and travelers of his time, may have been among the first people in world history to possess a consciousness of Afro-Eurasia in all its length and breadth as an interconnected whole. In the early modern centuries, when geographers were rapidly accumulating knowledge about the earth’s every nook and cranny, European scholars wrote a number of “universal histories” that divided the world into primary parts, whether continents or civilizations, but that also acknowledged Asian peoples, if not yet Africans south of the Sahara, as having contributed in some measure to “Old World” history.
In the twentieth century, several world history pioneers, including Alfred Kroeber, Arnold Toynbee, Marshall Hodgson, William McNeill, and Leften Stavrianos, adopted varying conceptualizations of the “ecumene” (or in Greek, the oikoumene) to describe the belt of interlinked agrarian civilizations that began to emerge in the fourth millennium bce and that eventually extended from the Mediterranean basin to the North Pacific. Hodgson frequently used the term Afro-Eurasia in connection with the ecumene, defined by him as “the various lands of urbanized, literate, civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere” that “have been in commercial and commonly in intellectual contact with each other...” (Hodgson 1954, 716). On occasion, Hodgson also employed the term Indo-Mediterranea, though without detailed explication, to delineate the region of intense human interactivity that ran from North India to the Mediterranean basin, a region that overlay parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe.
In The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, William McNeill postulated the progressive “closure of the Eurasian ecumene,” that is, the interlinking of Eurasian civilizations, as a key historical dynamic, though his definition of Eurasia implicitly incorporated the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean littorals of Africa as well.
In the more recent book The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History, William and John McNeill have consistently used Old World as their term of choice for the Afro-Eurasian landmass, even though many scholars have rejected this phrase as Eurocentric, that is, as one implying that the Americas were a new world whose history began when Europeans discovered them.
Philip Curtin, another world history leader, has also described “the gradual formation and spread of a series of intercommunicating zones, beginning from small points in the river valleys and spreading gradually to larger and larger parts of the Afro-Eurasian land mass” (Curtin 1995, 47). In ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Andre Gunder Frank contends that in large-scale investigation of the development of the world economy between 1400 and 1800, Afro-Eurasia is a far more relevant geographical unit than Europe, Asia, Africa, or even Eurasia. Arnold Toynbee recognized the climatic, ecological, and historical contiguity of the Sahara and Arabian deserts by coining the term Afrasian steppes, an expression that transformed the Red Sea from a continental partition to a long, narrow lake within the Afro-Eurasian arid zone. The historian Michael Pearson has suggested that Afrasian Sea might well replace Arabian Sea in order to acknowledge the long historical associations among peoples of the East African coast, Arabia, Persia, and India. Indeed Pearson, Frank, and Ross Dunn have proposed the term Afrasia as an alternative to Afro-Eurasia in order to award the land mass a more distinctive name and to erase the hyphenation (Pearson 1998, 36; Frank 1998,2-3; Dunn 1992,7). However, this innovation, which conceptually embraces Europe but omits the combining form Eur-, has so far attracted few academic buyers.
As the literature of transnational, interregional, and global history has accrued, both scholars and teachers have recognized the liabilities of accepting conventional geographical expressions as natural, fixed, or timeless, because these presumed entities may impose arbitrary and distracting barriers to investigating historical phenomena in their totality. Thus, in order to formulate comparative and large-scale questions about developments that have occurred in the world, historians interested in comparative and large-scale change have in recent years taken a more situational and fluid approach to geographical contexts, shaping them to the specific historical problem at hand. These spatial reorientations include conceptions of the Atlantic basin, the Pacific basin, the Indian Ocean rim, the Mediterranean-Black Sea rim, and Inner Eurasia as zones of interaction different from and sometimes historically more serviceable than the conventional conceptions of civilizations and continents. Afro-Eurasia is simply one among several useful geographical categories, one that should not replace Europe, Africa, and Asia as named areas on the world map, but rather be put to work as a useful tool in the historian’s methodological kit.
Ross E. Dunn
See also Geographic Constructions; Human Evolution—
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So often people say that we should look to elderly, learn from their wisdom, their many years. I disagree, I say we should look to the young: untarnished, without stereotypes implanted in their minds, no poison, no hatred in their hearts. When we learn to see life through the eyes of a child, that is when we become truly wise. • Mother Theresa C1910—1997)
Pearson, M. N. (1998). Port cities and intruders: The Swahili coast, India, and Portugal in the early modern era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Stavrianos, L. S. (1998). A global history: From prehistory to the 21st century (7th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Toynbee, A. J (1947). A study of history. New York: Oxford University Press.