Take a look at any map, and it’s clear that the African continent is a big place.
However, despite the common perception that Africa is a large landmass, it’s still one that is vastly underestimated by most casual map viewers.
The reason for this is that the familiar Mercator map projection tends to distort our geographical view of the world in a crucial way — one that often leads to misconceptions about the relative sizes of both countries and continents.
A Geographical Jigsaw
Today’s infographic comes from Kai Krause and it shows the true size of Africa, as revealed by the borders of the countries that can fit within the continent’s shape.
The African continent has a land area of 30.37 million sq km (11.7 million sq mi) — enough to fit in the U.S., China, India, Japan, Mexico, and many European nations, combined.
|Country||Land Area (sq. km)||Land Area (sq. mi)||% of Africa|
|United States||9.83 million||3.80 million||32.4%|
|China||9.60 million||3.71 million||31.6%|
|India||3.29 million||1.27 million||10.8%|
|Mexico||1.96 million||0.76 million||6.5%|
|Peru||1.29 million||0.50 million||4.2%|
|France||0.64 million||0.25 million||2.1%|
|Spain||0.51 million||0.20 million||1.7%|
|Papua New Guinea||0.46 million||0.18 million||1.5%|
|Sweden||0.45 million||0.17 million||1.5%|
|Japan||0.38 million||0.15 million||1.3%|
|Germany||0.36 million||0.14 million||1.2%|
|Norway||0.32 million||0.13 million||1.1%|
|Italy||0.30 million||0.12 million||1.0%|
|New Zealand||0.27 million||0.10 million||0.9%|
|United Kingdom||0.24 million||0.09 million||0.8%|
|Nepal||0.15 million||0.06 million||0.5%|
|Bangladesh||0.15 million||0.06 million||0.5%|
|Greece||0.13 million||0.05 million||0.4%|
|Total||30.33 million sq. km||11.71 million sq. mi||99.9%|
You could add together all of the landmasses above and they would not equate to the geographical footprint of Africa, which itself is home to 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.
Editor’s note: The above table is slightly different from the countries shown in the visualization, which focuses more on fitting recognizable country shapes into the geographical shape of Africa.
Why the Misconception?
Interestingly, the problem with maps is not that Africa is sized incorrectly.
Using the animation below, you’ll see that Africa is actually the most accurately sized continent using the common Mercator map projection:
The Mercator projection attempts to place the spherical shape of the world onto a cylinder, causing areas closest to the poles to be “stretched”.
Africa, which straddles the Equator, barely changes in size — meanwhile, the countries furthest from the Equator become inflated from their true sizes on this type of map.
For those of us living in Western countries, this is an interesting dilemma to consider.
This means that the sizes of European and North American countries are distorted, giving us an inaccurate mental “measuring stick” for judging the relative sizes of other countries.
This has implications not only for Africa, but for the whole Southern Hemisphere: South America, India, the Middle East, and even Australia are “bigger” than they may initially appear on a map.
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