I learned from wiki that Africa was the name of a Roman province during Roman times, and that the continent was divided into Libya, Egypt and Ethiopia.

So when did Africa become the name of the whole continent, while Libya's meaning was restricted to only a small part of the ancient Libya?

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    You might need someone with access to a lot of old maps to answer that, as it is not just the change of name use but also the gradual discovery of the whole continent from a European perspective.
    – Trevor Christopher Butcher
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 6:59
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    Are you asking for the first time the whole continent was called Africa, or when it became the common name? In general terms the latter was true by the Roman Empire - Africa was not just the province, but also their name for the whole continent that the Greeks called Libya. In other words the two terms were more or less interchangeable, but the Roman name prevailed because, well, it's Roman. The name Libya didn't become "restricted" as much as it was phased out. Modern Libya is a 20th century revival of the ancient name by, somewhat ironically, the Italians (who colonised Libya in 1911).
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 10:13
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    @T.E.D. Yes, because under the classical definition of continents, the Nile (or sometimes Egypt) marked the division between Africa/Libya and Asia. I suppose one could say it depends on what OP means by "the whole continent", but the migration of the Afroasiatic border to the Sinai Isthmus didn't really happen until well into the modern era.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 10:47
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    @Semaphore - Unless specified otherwise in the question, I'd have to assume the term is being used in the modern sense.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 11:05
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    @Semaphore - Well...I wouldn't use those exact words. If I came across that cold, I'd assume you meant political boundaries.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 12:36

4 Answers 4


The earliest available evidence of 'Africa' applied to the whole continent (including Egypt) would appear to date from the work of 16th century map makers. Abraham Ortelius (1527-98) produced this map in 1584:

enter image description here

Source: Evolution of the Map of Africa

A map by Rumold Mercator comes just 3 years after Ortelius' but judging by the colouring, Madagascar is clearly excluded. This map was presumably primarily the work of his more famous father Gerardus Mercator whose first world map dates back to 1538, but there I've been unable to find a clear reference to Africa applied to the whole continent.

enter image description here

Source: Slika:Mercator World Map

An editor's note in the General History of Africa, vol. 1 says:

From designating the North African coast, the word 'Africa' came to be applied to the whole continent from the end of the first century before our era.

True enough if one excludes the area east of the Nile (see Semaphore and fdb's answers), but the Romans and the Byzantines had Egypt as a province, separate from (North) Africa. The Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-65) made a number of maps but does not seem to show Egypt as part of the African continent (there's a pdf download here: World Maps of al-Idrisi). Al-Idrisi, who was in the court of Roger II of Sicily, travelled widely and produced a work titled (Wikipedia translation) Recreation of the desirer in the account of cities, regions, countries, islands, towns, and distant lands. This may possibly contain a reference to 'Africa' for the whole continent, but I've been unable to find a copy.

In the 14th century, included in the document World Maps of al-Idrisi is a later (1381) world map in "Ibn Khaldun’s monumental work, The History of the World, 1381", but this too provides no evidence.

Ortelius's map was followed by other maps showing Egypt included in the African continent (see this 1656 one and this one from 1710).

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    However, there's no reference for this claim and I can find no evidence to support it. Both the Romans and the Byzantines had Egypt as a province, separate from (North) Africa But that's only because the definition of Africa as a continent evolved after the Age of Sail made it obvious that Egypt was part of Africa, not because Africa wasn't already the name of the continent as originally understood. I suppose it's a semantics issue, so it's unfortunate OP isn't a member here and can clarify.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 15:21
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    @Semaphore As you say, the OP isn't around to clarify so the question is (unfortunately) open to interpretation. My impression is that the OP wants to know when Africa was first perceived as a continent, or when the name 'Africa' was first used in the way that it is (more or less) in the modern sense. I could, of course, be completely wrong but I guess we'll never know. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 16:00
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    But that's what I'm saying. Africa was perceived as a continent in Roman times, the continents were just defined such that Egypt was in Asia. As I've commented, the classical division of continents puts the Nile as the boundary between Asia and Libya/Africa; by Roman times the name of the latter continent was more or less fixed as Africa.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 16:10
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    @Semaphore It was "fixed" if you were Latin speaker. Greeks continued to use Libya for the exact same corner of the earth. It will stay in semantic's territory. Anyway two links for you and Lars. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 17:04
  • @LangLangC Thanks for the links. No time to read now but will check later. I saw the 1554 map on another cite but was looking for an unambiguous inclusion of Egypt in Africa (though I'm guessing the intention here was to include). Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 1:50

It didn't, in the same way that iron didn't become the name of an element. It was the name of a substance that was later discovered to be an element.

Africa was the Roman name for the land south of the Mediterranean but they had no idea of its southern extent and they had no idea the world was made up of continents. Their concept of Africa simply expanded as the area known expanded and it "became" a continent when they discovered you could sail most of the way round and that there were other "continents".

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    This sounds very plausible but including a source reference or two that would improve this as an answer.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 15:08
  • I quite agree. The problem is how to give a reference for a non-event. I am not aware of any Roman sources that say African is an island*/*not an island*/*nearly an island or that define continent or that discuss its southern boundary. I am not aware of any other source that attempts definition of Africa and describes its extent prior to the discovery that you could sail most of the way round. My position is essentially the default position until someone comes up with evidence of some specific change - which is what the questioner wants. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 15:24
  • @DavidRobinson For evidence, I suggest looking for a T-O map that labels the African corner "Africa". There is an example from illustrations for the Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville, for instance.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 15:25
  • Thank you, @semaphore. The map en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/T_and_O_map shows that Africa extended as far as they knew - or rather guessed - that the land mass extended but there is still no evidence that anyone ever thought Africa didn't extend as far as they imagined the land mass south of the Mediterranean to extend. They just didn't think very far south to start with. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 15:53
  • @DavidRobinson Sorry, I was probably unclear. I suggested the T-O maps as positive evidence that the entire landmass was indeed called "Africa". Classically, the world was assumed to be consisted of three continents surrounded by the ocean. So although they had no good idea of the continent's shape, the entire southern continent was called Africa.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 16:04

Africa has been used as the name of the continent since the Roman Empire. In the circa AD 600 medieval encyclopaedia Etymologiae, for example, Isidore of Servile wrote that:

The [globe] is divided into three parts, one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa. The ancients did not divide the three parts of the globe equally, for Asia extends from south to north in the east, but Europe from the north to the west, Africa form the west to the south.

That is, the entire landmass in this direction, bounded by the oceans, was considered "Africa". This is well illustrated by Medieval world maps, for example the T-O maps that accompanies versions of the Etymologiae:

enter image description here From a 13th century manuscript of the Etymologiae. Source: Wikimedia Commons

While certainly extremely crude, this graphic neatly showcased the Isidore's conception how the world was divided, which to him was already received wisdom passed down from classical antiquity. Likewise, this high medieval illustration from Bede's De rerum natura depicts the entire landmass, as bounded by the oceans, with the label "Affrica".

enter image description here
From a 12th century version of Bede's De rerum natura. Source: University of Oklahoma Online Course

While Europeans of the time had no good conception of what Africa actually looks like, it is clear from both their writings and drawings that "Africa" was their name for the entire landmass.

  • I think the quotation from Isidore is a paraphrase of Mela (see my answer) some 600 years earlier.
    – fdb
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 18:04
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    @fdb Probably - I only posted this answer to show that Africa as a continent name vastly predates the 1500s date being claimed.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 19:08
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    If I'm reading the map correctly, Bede has the Nile river as the boundary between Africa and Asia.
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 0:47
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    @Mark Like I keep saying, that's the traditional boundary between Asia and Africa. You guys are making this question into when did the continent of Africa acquire its modern borders.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 7:38
  • Oh I forgot the T-O map... If I recalled this, I would have asked this question more clearly... Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 9:12

The division of the earth into three parts with the names Africa, Europa and Asia is first attested in the Roman author Pomponius Mela, who lived about the beginning of the Christian era. He uses these names in his “de Chorographia” 1,8:

Hoc mari et duobus inclutis amnibus, Tanai atque Nilo, in tres partes universa dividitur. Tanais a septentrione ad meridiem vergens in mediam fere Maeotida defluit; et ex diverso Nilus in pelagus. quod terrarum iacet a freto ad ea flumina ab altero latere Africam vocamus, ab altero Europen: ad Nilum Africam, ad Tanain Europen. Vltra quicquid est, Asia est.

If I may paraphrase this, rather than translating literally: The earth is divided into three parts by the sea (i.e., the Mediterranean) and by two rivers, the Nile and the Don (Tanais). The lands to one side of the sea up to the Nile are “Africa”, those on the other side of the sea up to the Don are “Europe”, and beyond these limits is “Asia”.

  • Thank you very much. This exactly answered one point of my question. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 9:10

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