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15 Continents that No Longer Exist

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Earth only has so much space. Over time, the continents have merged and divided on countless occasions. Accordingly, over the past 4.5 billion years, our globe has changed pretty dramatically—and it will never stop doing so.  

DISCLAIMER: Continents are a tricky thing to define.

“Is Australia a tiny continent or the world’s biggest island? Are North & South America—being connected by Panama—a single continent or two different ones?” Depends on who you ask. In this article, we’ll rely on an often-used (though often-violated) geographical definition: Continents are “large landmasses that are separated from other large landmasses by oceans and too big to be considered islands.”

Also, note that while the continents listed below don’t exist anymore as such (again, in the geographic sense), the chunks of land which combined or separated to form them are definitely still around—they’ve just shifted thanks to plate tectonics.

1. UR

Named after the German word for “original,” Ur may well have been Earth’s very first continent. Formed about 3 billion years BCE, it was likely a bit smaller than present-day Australia. Ur proceeded to spend hundreds of millions of years getting jostled around before eventually becoming part of Pangaea (see number 8). When Pangaea finally split, Ur was broken up and is now divided between India, Madagascar, and Australia.

2. KENORLAND

Most of Canada, Greenland, Western Australia, the Kalahari Desert and the U.S. were included within Kenorland’s gigantic coastlines. After staying intact for 300 million years, it split up approximately 2.4 billion years ago.

3. BALTICA

Currently a part of Northern Europe, Baltica contained Scandinavia, Poland, and Northern Germany, with some Russian territory thrown in for good measure. Cut off from Earth’s other continents, it would have rested near the South Pole (or maybe the North Pole) around 500 million years ago.

4. SIBERIA

Few regions are less tropical than present-day Siberia, but around a third of this Slavic region floated about as its own, separate continent for several hundred million years—during which time it enjoyed a stint on the equator.

5. LAURENTIA

This one really got around. Laurentia was a prehistoric land that once contained most of present-day North America, Greenland, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. It managed to assert geographic independence many times over (e.g., after parting ways with Kenorland), but also helped form Columbia, Rodinia, and Pangea, all of which we’ll meet below.

6. COLUMBIA

“I [chose the name] ‘Columbia’ because some of the best evidence for its existence is in the Columbian river region of western North America,” says geologist John J.W. Rogers, who announced its discovery back in 2002. Not to be confused with a certain constitutional republic, Columbia’s total landmass was approximately 50 million square kilometers (only slightly smaller than Eurasia). Its birth took place around 1.8 billion years ago.

7. RODINIA

Rodinia—a name that means “homeland” in Russian—was a “supercontinent” that combined all (or most) of the Earth’s landmasses when it came together 1.2 billion years BCE.

8. PANGAEA

Rifts eventually started tearing Rodinia apart 750 million years ago. However, the blue planet was hardly finished with supercontinents. Pangaea came along 300 million years BCE and its subsequent division laid the groundwork for the modern geographical landscape.

9. GONDWANA

In essence, Pangaea consisted of two large sections: Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south. They began parting ways around 230 million years ago, and though Gondwana remained intact for a while, it, too, split up over the course of the next few geologic periods into Africa, South America, Australia, Madagascar, Antarctica, Arabia, and India.

10. LAURASIA

Baltica, Siberia, Laurentia, and a few other paleo-continents had combined to form Laurasia before a merger with Gondwana created Pangaea. After that supercontinent divided, Laurasia went on to create North America and large chunks of Eurasia (excluding India and Arabia).

11. SOUTH CHINA

For most of its history, South China existed as its own, separate entity adrift in the open ocean. North China, too, was an isolated body for quite some time. The two finally combined somewhere between 215 and 176 million years ago.

12. PANNOTIA

A short-lived supercontinent that was located somewhere in the southern hemisphere, Pannotia temporarily united Baltica, Siberia, Laurentia, and Gondwana after Rodinia’s dismemberment. 

13. ATLANTICA

Like Ur, traces of Atlantica are now widely-dispersed, having been found in Africa and eastern South America. Also like Ur, this was one of Earth’s earliest continents.

14. EURAMERICA

Baltica and Laurentia became linked during the Silurian period (400 million BCE), creating Euramerica—a landmass also known as the “Old Red Sandstone Continent” due to some of the distinctive oxidized rock deposits it left behind. This body later became a central component of Laurasia.

15. ASIAMERICA

As the age of dinosaurs began climaxing 83 million years ago, a narrow seaway divided North America, whose western half was connected to China and Mongolia. This resulted in a great deal of faunal exchanges and allowed—among other things—Tyrannosaurus rex’s Asian ancestors to reach such places as present-day Alberta, Montana, and South Dakota. 

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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