European civilisation began with a beef crisis. Zeus, chief of the Greek gods, fell in love with Europa, daughter of the Phoenician king Agenor.
After disguising himself as a white bull, he wandered among her and her handmaidens, and lay down to let them stroke him.
Europa found him so sleek and gentle, she climbed on his back, whereupon he galloped off into the sea and carried her off to Crete.
After turning back into Zeus, he made love to her either in a cave or under a plane tree (which, according to legend, was rewarded for the shelter it provided by being made evergreen).
Before ditching her, Zeus gave Europa three sons and three presents: an unerring spear, Laelaps the inexorable hound and Talos, a bronze man who drove away strangers.
Europa, whose name comes either from the Greek for 'broad face' or a Semitic verb meaning 'to set' (symbolising her riding off into the setting sun on a bull), gave her name to the continent; the bull took its place as the constellation of Taurus.
Geographically, Europe has no real claim to be considered a continent.
Its notional boundary with Asia began as a matter of convenience for the Greeks, who wanted a way to differentiate between the land on the two sides of the Hellespont.
That local viewpoint extended as European civilisation did, causing great confusion to Herodotus.
After his account of the discovery and exploration of Asia, he wrote: 'As for Europe, nobody knows if it is surrounded by sea, or where it got its name from, or who gave it.'
Covering 4 million square miles (roughly eight per cent of the Earth's surface), Europe is much the same area as Canada. Geologically, its oldest part is the Baltic (or Fennoscandian) Shield, covering Scandinavia, which is a relic dating back to pre-Cambrian times of around 600 million years ago.
The vast bulk of Europe, from the British Isles to the Urals, was formed during the Hercynian orogeny in the Paleozoic era between 570 million and 225 million years ago.
Britain's insularity dates back only 5,000 to 10,000 years, when the seas rose to form the Channel and North Sea.
Man's ancestors, Homo sapiens Neanderthalensis, first appeared in Europe between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago - which is up to 100,000 years after the first hominids in Africa.
The earliest artefacts in Europe date back around 30,000 years, with the Willendorf Venus, dated at around 21,000BC, the earliest known European sculpture of a female nude.
According to the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia of 1921, there are two main anthropological types in Europe: 'The two extremes are round heads where the width exceeds 85%, and long heads where the width is less than 77% of the length.'
Only Portugal, England and areas near the Rhine are inhabited by long heads.
The present population of Europe (excluding the former USSR and the European part of Turkey) is about 500 million.