world's largest and most diverse continent,
covering about 30 percent of the land area on Earth.
The eastern four-fifths of the giant Eurasian landmass, Asia is
more a geographic term than a homogeneous continent. It has the
greatest range of land elevation of any continent, has the longest
coastline, is subject overall to the world's widest climatic
extremes, and, consequently, produces the most varied forms of
vegetation and animal life on Earth. In addition, the peoples of
Asia have established the broadest pattern of human adaptation found
on any of the continents.
The name Asia is ancient, and its origin has been variously
explained. The Greeks used it to designate the lands situated to the
east of their homeland. It is also believed that the name may be
derived from the Assyrian word asu, meaning "east."
Another possible explanation is that it was originally a local name
given to the plains of Ephesus and gradually extended to include
Anatolia (contemporary Asia Minor, which is the western extreme of
mainland Asia) and the rest of the continent.
Asia is bounded by the Arctic Ocean on the north, the Pacific
Ocean on the east, the Indian Ocean on the south, the inland seas of
the Atlantic Ocean--the Mediterranean and the Black--on the
southwest, and Europe on the west. Asia is separated from North
America to the northeast by the Bering Strait and from Australia to
the southeast by the mingled waters of the Indian and Pacific
oceans. The Isthmus of Suez unites Asia with Africa, and it is
generally agreed that the Suez Canal forms the border between them.
Two narrow straits, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, separate
Anatolia from the Balkan Peninsula.
The land boundary between Asia and Europe is a historical and
cultural construct that is subject to various interpretations; only
as a matter of agreement is it tied to a specific borderline. The
most convenient geographic boundary--one that has been adopted by
most geographers--is a line that runs south from the Arctic Ocean
along the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains and then turns
southwest along the Zhem River to the northern shore of the Caspian
Sea; west of the Caspian, the boundary follows the Kuma-Manych
Depression to the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.
The total area of Asia, including the Caucasian isthmus and
excluding the island of New Guinea, amounts to about 17,226,000
square miles (44,614,000 square km). The islands--Severnaya Zemlya,
the New Siberian Islands, Wrangel Island, Sakhalin, the Kurils,
Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, Hainan, the Philippines, Indonesia and
insular Malaysia, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Sri Lanka, and
Cyprus--account for about 1,240,000 square miles (3,210,000 square
km) of the total (although New Guinea is mentioned occasionally in
this article, it generally is not considered to be a part of Asia).
The farthest terminal points of the Asian mainland are Cape
Chelyuskin in north-central Siberia, Russia (77º43' N), to the
north; the tip of the Malay Peninsula, Cape Piai, or Bulus (1º16'
N), to the south; Cape Baba in Turkey (26º4' E) to the west; and
Cape Dezhnyov, or East Cape (169º40' W), in northeastern Siberia,
overlooking the Bering Strait, to the east.
Asia has the highest average elevation of the continents and
contains the sharpest relief. The highest peak in the world, Mount
which is 29,028 feet (8,848 meters) high; the lowest place on the
Earth's land surface, the Dead
Sea, which averages about 1,312 feet (400 meters) below sea level;
and the world's deepest continental trough, occupied by Lake
Baikal, which is 5,315 feet (1,620 meters)
deep and whose bottom lies at 3,822 feet (1,165 meters) below sea
level, are all located in Asia. These physiographic extremes and the
overall predominance of mountain belts and plateaus are the result
of Asia's prolonged and intense geologic activity. Asia is the
youngest of the continents; broadly speaking, it consists of several
ancient platform cores, which over time accumulated immense
quantities of material around them and were subjected to a series of
collisions with one another that resulted in uplifting along the
zones of collision.
Asia's coastline--some 39,000 miles (62,800 km) in length--is,
variously, high and mountainous, low and alluvial, terraced as a
result of the land being uplifted, or "drowned" where the
land has subsided. The specific features of the coastline in some
areas--especially in the east and southeast--are the result of
active volcanism; of thermal abrasion (resulting from a combination
of action by sea breakers and of thawing) by the subterranean
fossilized ice (consisting of fossil ice, subsurface ice, and
ice-formed rock), as in northeastern Siberia; and of coral building,
as in the areas to the south and southeast.
The mountain systems of Central Asia not only have provided the
continent's great rivers with water from their melting snows but
also have formed a forbidding natural barrier that has influenced
the movement of peoples into the area. Migration has been possible
only through mountain passes. As a result, the historic movement of
population has been broadly from the arid zones of Central Asia
through the mountain passes into the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent,
from China through Southeast Asia to modern Indonesia and Malaysia,
and from the Arabian Peninsula and from India across the Bay of
Bengal into Indonesia and Malaysia. The Korean and Japanese people
and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese have remained ethnologically
more homogeneous than the populations of other Asian countries.
Also as a result of this configuration, Asia's population is
unevenly distributed. There is a concentration of population in
western Asia as well as great concentrations in the Indo-Pakistan
subcontinent and the eastern half of China and appreciable
concentrations in the Pacific borderlands and on the islands; but
vast areas of Central and North Asia have remained sparsely
populated. Nonetheless, Asia, the most populous of the continents,
contains almost three-fifths of the world's people.
Asia is the birthplace of all the world's major
religions--Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism--and
of many minor ones. Of these, only Christianity developed primarily
outside Asia; it exerts little influence on the continent, though
many Asian countries have Christian minorities. Buddhism has had a
greater impact outside its birthplace in India and is prevalent in
various forms in China, Korea, Japan, the Southeast Asian countries,
and Sri Lanka. Islam has spread out of Arabia eastward to South and
Southeast Asia, as well as westward and southward to Africa.
Hinduism has been mostly confined to the Indian subcontinent.