America. A continent with 3 subdivisions (South, Center/Caribbean and North) or 2 continents (North and South) where Panama is part of North America?

I love Frederik’s comment which feels “things are done because of convenience and some flavor of consensus,” especially as I have heard this or know this to be used by people who are in that area (as their preferred or accepted-to-work-with-others convention). Yes.

This is how OSM works. This is how the world works, really.

I like approaches which allow a pluralistic view of others, as that’s when we find keys that fit into locks that turn open and allow agreement. Zeke’s (with continent: tagging…) is a hyper, could-go-there flavor of us maybe doing this, I’m “not shaking my head no” at this, though, nor am I specifically nodding, as he only proposes it as a loose talking point, so I do, too.

There’s so much going on here, sociologically, linguistically, kind of historically, maybe.

As (not if) we agree that the world (including OSM) works with versions of agreement, some loose, good for us.

There are times when the answer is not either-or. It is “yes.”

I was generally taught that North and South America are different continents. Europe and Asia too in primary school, but that one’s highly dubious.

My general feeling these days is that the land bridge between North and South America is tenuous enough relative to the whole that I don’t really credit it as making it all one continent, especially with the bulk of them being on two separate plates (the pinch at the north end of the Caribbean plate doesn’t “feel” narrow enough to count as a third to me. If anything the connection at Panama is more tenuous than between Eurasia and Africa¹ and those two are definitely different continents in my mind.

1 - about half as wide if a quick and dirty measurement in OsmAnd is to be trusted

You could do the same exercise and measure the distance in a straight line from the city of Flensburg to Dagebüll, the distance is around 50 km, somewhat less than the narrowest part of the land bridge you mention.
Maybe we could also separate Denmark from the European continent.
The distance between Calais and Dover is around 40 km. Has the possibility of placing the United Kingdom outside the European continent been considered at any time?
Iceland is closer to America than to Europe and it is still a European country.

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There are various common definitions of Europe, some of which include Iceland and even Greenland but not the UK. We’d be in serious trouble if we had to model continents as boundary relations.


The continental part of America is made up of 3 tectonic plates = North American Plate, Caribbean Plate and South American Plate.
If we base it on the fact that it is a “Continent” from a geological point of view, the result would be that America is 3 continents.
If we divide the continent in two, North and South, then let’s do the narrowest part, Panama, there would be half Panama for the north and half Panama for the south.
If the idea is to annex the Caribbean Plate to one of the 2 largest tectonic plates we could also annex it to the South American tectonic plate, after all we have more in common than with northern tectonic plate.
All of the above are just ways to refute various points of view following similar thinking to the one proposed.
I don’t mean to be rude or cynical. Using a translator is sometimes difficult when you want to answer correctly, constructing sentences in Spanish so that they do not seem rude takes time. That is one of the reasons why my posts have so many edits, I write in Spanish on gboard, then Google translates again from English to Spanish and I find differences with what I wrote originally. Sometimes I have come across kind warnings about how I say something, and I am surprised at the translations.

It may not be clear to some (it is to me, it seems clear to others in this topic) that the answer is “yes” (or “both” or even “many”). It isn’t either-or as the topic is phrased. We are taught (sort of slightly different, sometimes significantly different) various things as “correct,” some more in a particular context, some less in a particular context. They are very likely all correct answers in a given particular context. This might depend on the discipline (bathymetry, geology…), a language / cultural context (look at Europe!), what one “was generally taught” and is “prevailing understanding around here” et cetera.

This happens with borders (and conflicts), we have mechanisms, they are fuzzy and imperfect. So are humans. This happens with continents and their many contexts and languages and perspectives, too.

There are a great many correct answers given many particular contexts. This is correct.

Many have said, I agree, that use-cases should or even must be able to do some discernment of the data. This means what you might be presented with as data (or “an answer”) by OSM may not always meet your expectations that this answer is in a (syntactic, tagged) form which offers you a “correct” answer, to you, in your particular use-case context. This isn’t new or unique to OSM.

We’re fine. We might continue to discuss how we might refine things, but let’s agree on this much.


Most people probably don’t give as much thought to this question as we’re giving it. These are all just terms of convenience, for geologists, geographers, and geography teachers alike. The division between North and South America is usually explained in terms of the Isthmus of Panama, just as Africa is usually set off based on the Isthmus of Suez, but not because there’s a rigorous global standard for continental separation.

Our tagging scheme for places has an inherent bias, by including place=continent but not including any tag for a similarly sized cultural or geopolitical region like Latin America or the Middle East. Arguably these regions matter more than the continents for some purposes. Maybe there was an assumption was that the continents are better defined, and thus a better fit for a data-driven project like OSM. But we’re realizing that the continents are only as well defined as other macrogeographical features like seas and mountain ranges – that is, sometimes but not always.

We don’t have a perfect answer for how to handle such large features, because we don’t have any way to model amorphous features other than as an arbitrary point. We probably have to accept some degree of arbitrariness at this scale, but “splitting the difference” and including both systems of dividing the western hemisphere seems like a decent compromise to me.

I agree.

There is no division between the North and the South simply because they do not touch each other, in the middle there is a third part.

A large majority of geologists and geographers locate the southern boundary of North America on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The evolution of geopolitical conveniences over the centuries influences more than the conveniences of geologists, geographers and geography teachers.

I have always geographically defended America as a single continent with three geographic subdivisions, the cultural and/or sociopolitical features that can distance us or bring us closer are the subject of anthropologists and politicians.

If Denmark were the size of Australia I definitely would, but is isn’t and size is a big part of what makes a continent.

Major political news of the last few years notwithstanding, it’s never been considered part of “Continental Europe” in any discussion I’ve heard that doesn’t mention Doggerland.

How interesting – both of us jumped to a conclusion about how geographers “usually” define North America, without any hard data to back up that claim. It’s just common knowledge, in both cases, depending on whatever we’ve heard over the years in our respective regions.

In the U.S., we’re taught that the Isthmus of Panama is the boundary between the two continents. In part that’s because the Panama Canal cuts across it, joining the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific. Of course, that isn’t unique to the Panama Canal. Few students are ever taught about the other waterway connections closer to home.

Or we learn about how the Darién Gap interrupts the Pan-American Highway, not that many here would dream of traversing the entire highway, but we hear about the gap increasingly often in the context of northward migration. Or we’re shown an animation of the Isthmus of Panama developing as the final portion of a land bridge between two continents.

By contrast, practically no one up here has ever heard of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but having heard of it, no one would dispute its narrowness. Is narrowness the sole, deterministic criterion for partitioning the Americas? Or is it just one of several convenient approaches? Plenty of maps delineate the two continents at the Colombia–Panama boundary or the Guatemala–Mexico boundary, as Geofabrik does, even though a political boundary is clearly irrelevant to physical features.

All of this is very interesting, but ultimately irrelevant if we map all three continents as a compromise and continue to represent them as simple nodes.

Strictly speaking, the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific only join in the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel and Drake Sea, the Panama Canal is a system of locks that raise water to lift ships to the level of Gatun Lake.
It is only a passage through the land, not the union of two oceans. Even in recent days they have had a big problem filling the locks due to El Niño Phenomenon that has decreased the level of the fresh waters that fill the locks. Lake Gatun in turn provides water to the population and the large number of studies and projects related to preventing the salinity of these waters by preventing filtration (environmental unfeasibility of the construction of a third set of locks) from one side or the other It clearly shows that there is no physical contact between the two oceans.
Something else to check.

One learns something new every day! But these technical considerations do not detract from the imperfect real-world usage of the terminology for continents and regions. Ultimately, we’re making a map (database), not a hydrological or ecological model. Maybe it would help to provide some examples of published maps that show a single American continent, so others who haven’t participated in this discussion can have more confidence that this isn’t just a niche perspective? Unfortunately, such maps are very hard to come by around here.

This thread seems to be heading toward a discussion of how the world should be, as opposed to how it is. Such a discussion could go on forever and distract us from the mapping we all prefer to do. Imagine all the nodes we could map in the time it has taken to write these 61 posts and counting about a single node!

I’d map the America node myself, but it sounds like someone in Bogotá should do the honors:

Three plates to be exact.
Geological arguments to define geographical entities are an error that must be avoided in order not to fall into comparisons using the same arguments; geologically speaking Europe It is a Eurasian peninsula that rests on a single tectonic plate, a single continent from Spain to China (geological point of view of tectonic plates).

I said the bulk of them, not all of them.

And my argument is mostly that they are connected by a bridge less than 2% of the width of the narrower one, not the tectonics.


From that site:

“Plate tectonics has nothing to do with it historically, and it certainly could not provide a principled basis for continents now; nearly every continent includes parts of multiple plates, and continental boundaries are not, and have never been, defined by plate boundaries.”

Although that doesn’t help much with regard to 1, 2 or 3 Americas! :grinning:

Well, parts of Mexico and US are on the Pacific Plate, so that makes at least 4 :person_shrugging:t2:



I see the coverage in the first image, I wanted to highlight that there are more tectonic plates in America and its surroundings.
At the southern tip of America I see the “Scotia Plate”
Then there would be 4 tectonic plates for the continental area of America and The Caribbean plate would cover the continent and island areas.
I suppose that at some point in the distant future California and Baja California will be an island separate from the mainland, located on their own tectonic plate.
This topic is quite interesting, the largest number of earthquakes occur at the boundaries between two plates.

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