Asia as a name is ancient. The Greeks were the
first to record it for posterity, although it doubtless existed
in common use for some time before that.
The earliest attribution seems to be by Herodotus
(around 440 BC) who was referencing Anatolia - or possibly the
Persian empire as a whole - in order to differentiate it from
Greece or that other great civilisation, Egypt.
Exploring the Asia of Herodotus
The origins of this usage appear to be in a
confederacy in western Anatolia known as Assuwa or Assua. Certainly
by about 1400-1300 BC this confederacy had already been formed by a
number of regional minor states which, collectively, were allied to
the Hittite empire dominating Anatolia at that time. The city of
Troy (or Wilusa) was a member of this confederacy.
The name Assuwa may or may not have survived the
great dark age collapse at the end of the thirteenth century BC.
This collapse was caused by drought and loss of crops, but it took
place amid an international system that was already starting to
break down. It gave the Mycenaean Greeks more freedom to colonise
western Anatolia in the face of their own collapse on the Greek
mainland, and ensured that Mycenaean civilisation survived both
there and in Athens. Given this, it's quite likely that the use
of Assuwa did survive in Greek usage to denote western Anatolia.
In time the name seems to have been used to refer
to an increasing amount of Anatolia so that, by the time of
Herodotus, it could be used to refer to Anatolia as a whole. Whether
or not this usage formed the basis for the modern word 'Asia' and
its usage to denote all of the continental land mass to the east of
the Ural Mountains and Anatolia is open to debate, although this is
the commonly-held opinion.
Some modern guesses at the origins of Asia/Assuwa
have been proposed, such as using the Aegean root 'Asis', meaning
'muddy, silted', to refer to the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.
Admittedly, this could be the basis for Assuwa even though the
Assuwans were Luwian speakers rather than Greek (see the related
link, right, for an exploration of Indo-European Daughter
Another claim is that it could derive from the
borrowed Semitic root 'Asu' (wasum), meaning 'rising, light' as
a reference to the sunrise with the inference that Asia is the
land of the sunrise. This option is far less likely to be correct
than using Assuwa to refer to ever-increasing areas of Anatolia,
and should be dismissed as being somewhat desperate.
Instead, a far older word could be the basis for
'Asia' as a name. This option seems to be virtually ignored or,
more likely, its relevance has not been realised by many. It
relates to the ancestors of the Greeks and Luwians, a group of
peoples who are now known as Indo-Europeans. As well as spreading
westwards into Europe they also headed eastwards from the
Pontic-Caspian steppe (to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian
Sea) to dominate Central Asia.
These Indo-Europeans (IEs) were the most widely
ranging ethnic group in ancient times. Due to their existence on
the Pontic-Caspian steppe as cattle and horse-raising people, they
were quite mobile - a characteristic which they shared with other,
later, steppe nomads such as the Turkic and Mongolian peoples.
Map 3 from the earlier feature on Indo-European (IE) language
and migration shows IE migration out of the Pontic-Caspian
steppe by around 3000 BC, with East IEs (Indo-Iranians)
spreading out towards the east and the proto-Germanic groups
heading north-west towards Scandinavia (click on map to view