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This article is about the continent. For other meanings, see Europe (disambiguation).

Europe is geologically and geographically a peninsula or subcontinent, forming the westernmost part of Eurasia. It is conventionally considered a continent, which, in this case, is more of a cultural distinction than a geographic one. It is bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and to the east its boundary is culturally determined and unclear. However, the Ural mountains are considered by some to be a geographical and tectonic landmark separating Europe and Asia.

A satellite composite image of Europe
A satellite composite image of Europe
World map showing Europe (geographically)
World map showing Europe (geographically)

When considered a continent, Europe is the world's second-smallest continent in terms of area, with an area of 10,600,000 km² (4,140,625 square miles), making it larger than Australia only. In terms of population, it is the third-largest continent (Asia and Africa are larger). The population of Europe is roughly 700,000,000: about 11% of the world's population.



Picture of Europa, carried away by bull-shaped Zeus.
Picture of Europa, carried away by bull-shaped Zeus.

In Greek mythology, Europa was a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in bull form and taken to the island of Crete, where she gave birth to Minos. For Homer, Europa (Greek: Ευρωπη; see also List of traditional Greek place names) was a mythological queen of Crete, not a geographical designation. Later Europa stood for mainland Greece and by 500 BC its meaning was extended to lands to the north.

The Greek term Europe is derived from Greek words meaning broad (eurys) and face (ops), broad having been an epitheton of Earth herself in Proto-Indo-European religion, see Prthivi (Plataia). A minority, however, suggest a Greek popular etymology really based on a Semitic word, pointing to Akkadian erebu which means "sunset" (see also Erebus). From a Middle Eastern viewpoint, the sun sets over Europe: the lands to the west. Likewise, Asia is also thought to have derived from the Akkadian word asu, which means "sunrise" and is the land to the east from a Mesopotamian perspective.

The sea-faring people drew the first maps of their world. From the Eastern Mediterranean there are three major waterways. The way north, through the Dardanelles and the Black sea, the river system Don and Volga. To the south you could sail down the river Nile, and to the west you could sail through the straits of Gibraltar, and see the land disappear on both sides.

These waterways divided the land mass in three parts, which they called Europe, Asia and Africa. The Red Sea and the way to the Indian Ocean was added as a fourth divider later, and the world was divided in four parts. This can be seen in ancient maps, where a circular land mass is divided by these water stretches in three or four parts.


Main article: History of Europe

Europe has a long history of cultural and economic achievement, starting as far back as the Palaeolithic, although this is true for the rest of the Old World as well. The recent discovery at Monte Poggiolo, Italy, of thousands of hand-shaped stones, tentatively carbon-dated to 800,000 years ago, may prove to be of particular importance.

The origins of Western democratic and individualistic culture are often attributed to Ancient Greece, though numerous other distinct influences, in particular Christianity, can also be credited with the spread of concepts like egalitarianism and universality of law.

The Roman Empire divided the continent along the Rhine and Danube for several centuries. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a long period of changes arising from what is known as the Age of Migrations. That period has been known as the "Dark Ages" to Renaissance thinkers. During this time, isolated monastic communities in Ireland and elsewhere carefully safeguarded and compiled written knowledge accumulated previously. The Renaissance and the New Monarchs marked the start of a period of discovery, exploration, and increase in scientific knowledge. In the 15th century Portugal opened the age of discoveries, soon followed by Spain. They were later joined by France, the Netherlands and Great Britain in building large colonial empires with vast holdings in Africa, the Americas, and Asia.

After the age of discovery, the ideas of democracy took hold in Europe. Struggles for independence arose, most notably in France during the period known as the French Revolution. This led to vast upheaval in Europe as these revolutionary ideas propagated across the continent. The rise of democracy led to increased tensions within Europe on top of the tensions already existing due to competition within the New World. The most famous of these conflicts was when Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and set out on a conquest, forming a new French empire that soon collapsed. After these conquests Europe stabilised, but the old foundations were already beginning to crumble.

The Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain in the late 18th century, leading to a move away from agriculture, much greater general prosperity and a corresponding increase in population. Many of the states in Europe took their present form in the aftermath of World War I. From the end of World War II through the end of the Cold War, Europe was divided into two major political and economic blocks: Communist nations in Eastern Europe and capitalist countries in Western Europe. Around 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Eastern bloc disintegrated, joinning the european construction.

Geography and extent

The political and geographic boundaries of Europe are not always synoymous. This physical and political map shows Europe at its furthest extent, reaching to the Urals.
The political and geographic boundaries of Europe are not always synoymous. This physical and political map shows Europe at its furthest extent, reaching to the Urals.

For further information see the article Geography of Europe.

Geographically Europe is a part of the larger landmass known as Eurasia. The continent begins at the Ural Mountains in Russia, which define Europe's eastern boundary with Asia. The southeast boundary with Asia isn't universally defined. Either the Ural or Emba rivers can serve as possible boundaries. The boundary continues with the Caspian Sea, and either the Kuma and Manych rivers or the Caucasus mountains as possibilities, and on to the Black Sea; the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles conclude the Asian boundary. The Mediterranean Sea to the south separates Europe from Africa. The western boundary is the Atlantic Ocean, but Iceland, much farther away than the nearest points of Africa and Asia, is also included in Europe. There is ongoing debate on where the geographical centre of Europe is.

In practice, the borders of Europe are often drawn with greater regard to political, economic, and other cultural considerations. This has led to there being several different Europes that are not always identical in size, including or excluding countries according to the definition of Europe used.

Almost all European countries are members of the Council of Europe, the exceptions being Belarus, and the Holy See (Vatican City).

The idea of the European continent is not held across all cultures. Some non-European geographical texts refer to the continent of Eurasia, or to the European peninsula, given that Europe is not surrounded by sea and is, in any case, much more a cultural than a geographically definable area. In the past concepts such as Christendom were deemed more important.

In another usage, Europe is increasingly being used as a short-form for the European Union (EU) and its members, currently consisting of 25 member states. A number of other European countries are negotiating for membership, and several more are expected to begin negotiations in the future (see Enlargement of the European Union).

Physical features

In terms of shape, Europe is a collection of connected peninsulas. The two largest of these are "mainland" Europe and Scandinavia to the north, divided from each other by the Baltic Sea. Three smaller peninsulas&Iberia, Italy and the Balkans&emerge from the southern margin of the mainland into the Mediterranean Sea, which separates Europe from Africa. Eastward, mainland Europe widens much like the mouth of a funnel, until the boundary with Asia is reached at the Ural Mountains.

Land relief in Europe shows great variation within relatively small areas. The southern regions, however, are more mountainous, while moving north the terrain descends from the high Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathians, through hilly uplands, into broad, low northern plains, which are vast in the east. This extended lowland is known as the Great European Plain, and at its heart lies the North German Plain. An arc of uplands also exists along the northwestern seaboard, beginning in the western British Isles and continuing along the mountainous, fjord-cut spine of Norway.

This description is simplified. Sub-regions such as Iberia and Italy contain their own complex features, as does mainland Europe itself, where the relief contains many plateaus, river valleys and basins that complicate the general trend. Iceland and the British Isles are special cases. The former is a land unto itself in the northern ocean which is counted as part of Europe, while the latter are upland areas that were once joined to the mainland until rising sea levels cut them off.

Due to the few generalisations that can be made about the relief of Europe, it is less than surprising that its many separate regions provided homes for many separate nations throughout history.


Having lived side-by-side with agricultural and industrial civilisations for millennia, Europe's animals and plants have been profoundly affected by the presence and activities of man. With the exception of Scandinavia and northern Russia, few areas of untouched wilderness are today to be found in Europe, except for different natural parks.

The main natural vegetation cover in Europe is forest. The conditions for its growth are very favourable. In the north, the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Stream warm the continent. Southern Europe has a Mediterranean climate. There are frequent summer droughts in this region. Mountain ridges also affect the conditions. Some of these (Alps, Pyrenees) are oriented east-west and allow the wind to carry large masses of water from the ocean in the interior. Others are oriented south-north (Scandinavian Mountains, Dinarides, Carpathians, Apennines) and because the rain falls primarily on the side of mountains that is oriented towards sea, forests grow well on this side, while on the other side, the conditions are much less favourable. Few corners of mainland Europe have not been grazed by livestock at some point over the millennia, and the cutting down of the pre-agricultural forest habitat caused incalculable disruption to the original plant and animal ecosystems.

Eighty to ninety per cent of Europe was once covered by forest. It stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Though over half of Europe's original forests disappeared through the centuries of colonisation, Europe still has over one quarter of the world's forests - spruce forests of Scandinavia, vast pine forests in Russia, chestnut rainforests of the Caucasus and the cork oak forests in the Mediterranean. During recent times, deforestation has been stopped and many trees were planted. However, in many cases conifers have been preferred over original deciduous trees, because these grow quicker. The plantations and monocultures now cover vast areas of land and this offers very poor habitats for European forest dwelling species. The amount of original forests in Western Europe is just two to three per cent (in the European part of Russia five to ten per cent). The country with the smallest forest-covered area is Ireland (eight per cent), while the most forested country is Finland (72 per cent).

In "mainland" Europe, deciduous forest prevails. The most important species are beech, birch and oak. In the north, where taiga grows, a very common tree species is the birch tree. In the Mediterranean, many olive trees have been planted, which are very well adapted to its arid climate. Another common species in Southern Europe is the cypress. Coniferous forests prevail at higher altitudes up to the forest boundary and as one moves north within Russia and Scandinavia, giving way to tundra as the Arctic is approached. The semi-arid Mediterranean region hosts much scrub forest. A narrow east-west tongue of Eurasian grassland—the steppe—extends eastwards from Ukraine and southern Russia and ends in Hungary and traverses into taiga to the north.

Glaciation during the most recent ice age and the presence of man affected the distribution of European fauna. As for the animals, in many parts of Europe most large animals and top predator species have been hunted to extinction. The woolly mammoth and aurochs were extinct before the end of the Neolithic period. Today wolves (carnivores) and bears (omnivores) are endangered. Once they were found in most parts of Europe. However, deforestation caused these animals to withdraw further and further. By the Middle Ages the bears' habitats were limited to more or less inaccessible mountains with sufficient forest cover. Today, the brown bear lives primarily in the Balkan peninsula, in the North and in Russia; a small number also persist in other countries across Europe (Austria, Pyrenees etc.), but in these areas brown bear populations are fragmented and marginalised because of the destruction of their habitat. In the far North of Europe, polar bears can also be found. The wolf, the second largest predator in Europe after the brown bear, can be found primarily in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans.

Other important European carnivores are Eurasian lynx, European wild cat, foxes (especially the red fox), jackal and different species of martens, hedgehogs, different species of snakes (vipers, grass snake...), different birds (owls, hawks and other birds of prey)

Important European herbivores are snails, amphibians, fish, different birds, and mammals, like rodents, deers and roe deers, boars, and living in the mountains, marmots, steinbocks, chamoises among others.

Sea creatures are also an important part of European flora and fauna. The sea flora is mainly phytoplankton. Important animals that live in European seas are zooplankton, molluscs, echinoderms, different crayfish, squids and octopuses, fish, dolphins, and whales.

Some animals live in caves, for example proteus and bats.


Almost all of Europe was possibly settled before or during the last ice age ca. 10,000 years ago. Neanderthal man and modern man coexisted during at least some of this time. Roman road building helped with the interbreeding of the native Europeans' genetics. <! In contemporary times Europe has one of the lowest inbreeding rates in the world because of an extensive transport network paired with open borders. -->

Europe passed well over 600 million people before the turn of the 20th century, but now is entering a period of population decline, for a variety of social factors.

Dependent territories

The European territories listed below are recognised as being culturally and geographically defined. Most have a degree of autonomy. In the list below, each territory is followed by its legal status.

Note that this is not a list of all dependencies of all European countries. Dependencies located on other continents are not listed.

Unilaterally seceded territories

Following are breakaway regions of independent states. These regions have declared and de facto achieved independence, but this is not recognised de jure by their "home" state or by the other independent states.

Territories under United Nations administration

Linguistic and cultural Regions in Europe

The sub-division in several linguistic and cultural regions is much less subjective than the geographical sub-division, since they correspond to people's cultural connexions. There are three main groups :

Germanic Europe

Germanic Europe, where Germanic languages are spoken. This area corresponds more or less to north-western Europe and some parts of central Europe. The main religion of the region is Protestantism, even if there are also some countries with Catholic majority (particularly Austria). This region consists of: United Kingdom, Iceland, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Luxemburg, Liechtenstein, the Faroe Islands, German-speaking Switzerland, the Flemish part of Belgium, and the South Tyrol part of Italy.

Latin Europe

Latin Europe, where the Romance languages are spoken. This area corresponds more or less to south-western Europe, with the exception of Romania and Moldova which are situated in Eastern Europe. The major religion is Catholicism, except in Romania and Moldavia. This area consists of: Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Romania, Moldova, French-speaking Belgium and French, Italian and Romansh speaking Switzerland.

Slavic Europe

Slavic Europe, where Slavic languages are spoken. This area corresponds to more or less Central and Eastern Europe. The main religions are Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, but also Islam. This area consists of: Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria.

Outside of this classification

Outside of these three main groups we can find:

  • The Celtic nations: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Cornwall (within the United Kingdom); the Isle of Man (a British Crown dependency); the Republic of Ireland; Brittany (within France). These are all nations where a Celtic language is spoken, or was spoken into modern times, and there is a degree of shared culture (see Pan Celticism). Also considered a Celtic nation, by some, is Galicia (Spain) (within Spain), whose own Celtic language died out several hundred years ago.
  • Greece, the only country of "Hellenic Europe". It is sometimes associated with the Latin countries, due to the geographical and cultural ties to the Mediterranean Sea, and sometimes to the Slavic-Orthodox part of Europe due to the importance or Orthodoxy in Greece.
  • Ibero-Caucasian, a group that includes ethnic groups throughout the Caucasus region (both North and South). Ibero-Caucasian languages are not linked to the Indo-European languages. This group includes Georgians, Abkhaz, Chechens, Balkars, and a number of other smaller ethnic groups that reside in the Caucasus.
  • Turkey, having a language not of Indo-European origin, and mainly a Muslim country, unlike the main groups' different versions of Christianity.
  • Hungary (Magyar language), a language related to Finnish and Estonian. Due to its location Hungary is normally grouped with Central or Eastern European countries.
  • Finland and Estonia, whose languages are related to Hungarian. Despite this connection (not a close one), Finland and Estonia are normally associated with northern European countries (of an even farther connection).
  • Lithuania and Latvia are Baltic/Aistian Language Countries. Baltic/Aistian languages are oldest languages in Europe. See Balts

See also

Lists and tables

External links

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