Good Reading Friday: The Invention of the Continents

What better way to end the long and productive week, than to leave you with a good book to keep you busy all weekend?

                         The Invention of the Continents by Christian Grataloup

l'inventionSince the dawn of time, schools and universities have taught history that is comprehensive, but Eurocentric. Yet, it is no longer enough to centre history around one region or continent and to only offer that point of view. To understand the complexity of this world, it is essential to take into account the history of the different regions to account for the resulting interconnectivity in global dynamics. Christian Grataloup, a geographer by profession, calls himself a geo-historian and in doing so, seeks to find in a career in the time and the space that history and geography could intersect to create.

“The Invention of the Continents” is a book which critiques the way in which the continents were delineated and established. The perception of the world transposed onto world maps is therefore incorrect. According to the geo-historian, the continents were “invented” over time by the Europeans, as they gradually discovered the world. They were subsequently divided and arbitrarily named. How we see the world now is therefore based on ethnocentric cultural constructs, which have been internalised and accepted. They are social references and representations without which the world could not be understood and communication between human beings would be limited. However, Grataloup takes the liberty of questioning these norms, which have become “obvious”, and therefore difficult to dismantle.

Grataloup structures his work chronologically. He begins his book with a lesson on the history and origins of the continents, notably based around the Bible. He then explains the evolution of certain conceptions after the discovery of America: the world is divided into four parts, each corresponding to a colour according to the different “races”. In the 19th century, Oceania was recognized as a new continent and is therefore considered antipodal to Europe, to guarantee Europe’s place at the centre of the world. The second to last chapter “Us and Them” is a more theoretical chapter, in which he denounces Eurocentrism. Lastly, Grataloup presents the reader with his vision of the world and proposes a new map.

In “The Invention of the Continents”, Grataloup gives clear responses to questions whose responses seem “obvious”. What is a continent? Yet today, the definition of this term is not respected in the case of Europe or Asia. This is proof that his reasoning is not completely far-fetched. This book is an easy and pleasant read for the younger crowd – no need to be a specialist to understand. He innovates arrestingly. He questions our reference points, shakes up our perception of the world, and upends the basics of a world that we thought we “knew”. You are compelled to know more, to get to the truth and break away from all cultural constructs.

The illustrations, maps from a variety of periods and civilisations, are beautiful and rare, highlighted and very well discussed, sometimes in the rather dense stretches of text in which we discover that geography is the product of history. In this way, we come to understand that the maps and, therefore, the division of the continents, change according to space and time and that everything is a history of mentalities, representations, epochs and places. During the Cold War, the world was divided in two; after the Cold War, we saw the emergence of the Third World, which divided the world once more, in a different way. The North and the South are synonymous respectively with wealth and poverty. The continents are full of stigmas. Nowadays, through globalisation, we are seeing the West progressively losing its dominance to emerging regions; a rereading of history and the division of the continents is ever more necessary in order to understand the world we live in.