History of Maps

Ancient Maps

Cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia showing map of the local village and surrounding landscape.

Maps are one of the oldest forms of human communication, perhaps even pre-dating the written word. Cave paintings dating back almost 20,000 years have been found that contain simple astronomical maps of the stars and constellations. Aside from cave paintings, the oldest surviving maps were carved into stone or clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago in a region known as Mesopotamia. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern day Iraq, Mesopotamia is known as the “cradle of civilization.” The area saw the rise of the Sumerian civilization and the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires.

The ancient maps focused on important features of the landscape including the location of hills, mountains, valleys, villages, canals, rivers and other water sources, gates, walls, and houses. The ancient Egyptians used advanced surveying techniques to produce accurate maps showing boundaries, routes, and the locations of mineral deposits and other important features. One of the best preserved maps of ancient Egypt, the Turin Papyrus, included a map legend and depicted various features using different colors.

Left half of the Turin papyrus map. Courtesy of J. Harrell, Wikipedia.

Greek & Roman Maps

The Greeks used observations and mathematics to create maps of the entire globe as it was known at the time. The Greeks did in fact consider the Earth to be a sphere, rather than a flat plane. In the 4th century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle made the argument for a spherical Earth based on the observations that 1) during the lunar eclipse the Earth casts a circular shadow on the Moon, 2) ships dip below the horizon as they sail out to sea rather than simply disappearing from view, and 3) not all the stars can be seen from one point on Earth. Later, Eratosthenes used the angle of sunlight at different latitudes to calculate the circumference of the Earth and was only about 2 percent off the true measurement.

Ptolemy’s world map, circa 150 CE. Source: The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Greek and Roman map-making reached it’s pinnacle with Claudius Ptolemy (90–168 CE), who used a coordinate system of lines running north-south (longitude) and east-west (latitude) in order to locate fixed positions on the Earth’s surface — a fundamental cartographic method still in use today. Ptolemy’s main geographic work, Geography (or Geographia), included his most famous map, a world map showing Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa, and western Asia. While ground-breaking, Ptolemy’s maps contained inaccuracies partly due to a miscalculation of the Earth’s circumference.

Roman maps tended to be practical, showing the locations of towns, roads and other infrastructure vital to the administration of the empire. The map below, Tabula Peutingeriana (Peutinger Map), is a 13th century copy of a 1st century Roman map showing the empire’s extensive road network, the cursus publicus.

Small section of the Tabula Peutingeriana showing Rome’s impressive road network, the cursus publicus. Source: Bibliotheca Ausgustana.

Chinese Maps

Yu Ji Tu, a map carved into stone in the year 1137 during the Song Dynasty. Source: Library of Congress.

The earliest maps in China date back to the 4th century BCE.  Many of the early maps were drawn on sheets of silk or wooden and were used to depict river systems, administrative boundaries, and locations of natural resources like timber and minerals. Pei Xiu (224–271), known as the “Ptolemy of China,” produced maps with a geometrical grid and graduated scale to more accurately determine location and the distance between points. In the 12th century, during the Song  Dynasty, detailed maps of China and the surrounding region were etched into stone. These  stone stele maps (named after the Stele Forest of Xian where they were found) are impressively detailed, with intricate coastal boundaries, major river systems, and hundreds of settlements.

Maps of the Middle Ages

In Europe, map-making and cartography were dominated by the church during the Middle Ages (roughly from 400 to 1400 CE). The works of classical cartographers like Ptolemy were largely forgotten or ignored in favor of more simplistic, theology-based depictions of the Earth’s surface. The so-called “T-O” map is perhaps the definitive example of the medieval map.  It is a circular map (the “O”) of the world divided into three parts by a T-shaped (the “T”) divide.

The basic layout of a typical T-O map (Meyers Konversationslexikon, 1895).

The section of the map above the T represented Asia; to the left of the T was Europe, and to the right was Africa. In addition to depicting the three known continents, the sections also represent the portions of the Earth apportioned to the three sons of Noah: Shem (Asia), Japheth (Europe) and Ham (Africa). At the very center of the map was Jerusalem, the birthplace of the three major Abrahamic religions —Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The lines of the T represented the known world’s major waterways, which included the Mediterranean Sea (the upright portion of the T running east-west), the Don River (the northern portion of the T), and the Nile River (the southern portion of the T).

Despite the simplistic “disk-like” world view illustrated by the T-O map, it was common knowledge throughout the Middle Ages that Earth was a sphere rather than a plane. However, at the time it was believed that no one could inhabit the southern portion of the globe due to the torrid climate of the equatorial region.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, created circa 1300 in England, is a typical “T-O” map with Jerusalem at center, Europe at bottom left and Africa on the right. Credit: Richard of Haldingham.

Maps of the Renaissance & the Age of Exploration

By the early 1400s there was renewed interest in the works of the classical cartographers. The works of Ptolemy, including his maps and books, became widely distributed with the introduction of the printing press in 1436. At the same time these classic maps and carographic methods were being rediscovered, technological advancements in shipbuilding and navigation heralded a new and unprecedented era of exploration and discovery.

With the new information provided by explorers such as Dias, Columbus, Cabot and Magellan, German and Purtugese cartographers took the lead in expanding Ptolemy’s world map and drawing new nautical maps for sailing. Following Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492, cartographers began to include the America’s in maps of the world. In 1507, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller produced the first map of the world, titled Universalis Cosmographia, with the the label “America.”

The Waldseemuller map provided the first geographic reference to America. Source: Cornell U. Library.

The Portuguese cartographer Diogo Ribeiro is credited with the first “scientific” world map, the 1527 Padrón real. The map, which shows much of eastern North and Central American and almost all of South America, was created using the latest information obtained from Magellan’s voyage around the world. Ribeiro’s map is the first to show the (nearly) full extent of the Pacific Ocean, and to depict eastern North America as a single contiguous landmass.

Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594), a well-known Flemish cartographer, developed the Mercator map projection in 1569. As with all cylindrical projections, the lines of latitude and longitude meet at right angles on the Mercator projection. Maps based on the Mercator projection were eventually adopted by the seafaring community, which relied upon accurate directions, particularly over long distances. One major disadvantage of the Mercator projection is the east-west and north-south stretching that becomes increasingly pronounced toward the poles. This size distortion causes landmasses in the mid and upper latitudes to appear larger, and landmasses around the equator to appear smaller, than the actually are.

Gerardus Mercator’s world map, 1569. Not the absence of Australia, which was discovered by Europeans until 1770.

Modern Maps

With the advent of better surveying equipment and other scientific tools, such as the telescope, sextant and chronometer (to tell time), maps have became increasingly accurate and detailed over the last 300 years. Only in the last 100 years, however, has much of the Earth’s surface been mapped accurately. The rapid development of flight in the early 20th century allowed large tracts of land to be sensed remotely and mapped according to photographs taken from the air. By the end of the century, satellites orbiting the Earth could scan the entire surface within just a few days. Today, cartography is still both an art and a science, but it is done mainly on computers rather than on the drawing board. First developed in the 1980s, computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allow users to not only create maps, but to also analyze, store, and manipulate spatial information.

The Earth as seen from NASA’s Terra satellite using the MODIS sensor. Credit: NASA.


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