Home History & Archaeology Historical past of Maps: From Historical Artifacts to Fashionable Marvels

Historical past of Maps: From Historical Artifacts to Fashionable Marvels

Historical past of Maps: From Historical Artifacts to Fashionable Marvels


The historical past of cartography traces humanity’s relentless quest to know and depict the world round us. From historical civilizations sketching rudimentary maps to trendy digital cartography, this journey has been marked by innovation, exploration, and cultural alternate. Early maps served sensible functions like navigation and land administration, whereas additionally reflecting spiritual beliefs and political energy dynamics. Over millennia, cartography developed by way of the contributions of numerous cultures, from the Babylonians and Greeks to the Renaissance cartographers and up to date GIS specialists. To know the historical past of maps is to know mankind’s love of exploration and to know its place on this planet.

The Historical past of Maps – From Mammoth Tusks to Satellites

Return far sufficient and it may be laborious to inform whether or not an artifact was initially meant to function a “map” or one thing else. Certainly, the very definition of a map isn’t that exact. This implies there’s fairly a little bit of competitors in relation to being the “earliest identified map”. Nonetheless, there are a handful of contenders.

  • A carved mammoth tusk believed so far again to round 25,000 BC has been discovered. It’s coated in a map-like illustration of the topological options of the world surrounding Pavlov within the Czech Republic. 
  • The following contender is barely youthful, an Aboriginal Australian cyclon (cared cylindrical stone) courting again to round 20,000 years in the past. Its carvings are believed to depict the Darling River in Australia.
  • A Mammoth bone discovered at Mezhyrich in Ukraine has one thing resembling a map etched on it. It’s round 15,000 years previous.
  • The partitions of the Lascaux caves in France function dots that seem to map components of the night time sky, together with three stars: Vega, Deneb, and Altair in addition to the Pleiades star cluster. These are believed to be round fourteen and a half years previous. The Cuevas de El Castillo in Spain incorporates the same dot map thought so far again to 12,000 BC.
  • Probably the most controversial contenders for a presentation that we’d think about a map at present is an historical image created within the seventh millennium BC present in Çatalhöyük, Anatolia, trendy Turkey. It is a wall portray thought to map out a Neolithic village within the area. Nevertheless, there’s some debate as as to if this counts as a map or only a portray of a village.

Whether or not aren’t these early examples depend as maps or artworks largely is dependent upon whom you ask. Nonetheless, on the very least they’re proof that human makes an attempt to know and map out their environment return hundreds, if not tens of hundreds of years.

Engraving on a mammoth tusk perhaps representing a “map”, Pavlov (Břeclav DIstrict, Southern Moravia, Chech Republic). This engraving may well be the oldest known representation of a landscape. (Zde/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Engraving on a mammoth tusk maybe representing a “map”, Pavlov (Břeclav DIstrict, Southern Moravia, Chech Republic). This engraving might be the oldest identified illustration of a panorama. (Zde/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Maps of the Historical World: Babylonians

Within the historical world, the origins of cartography could be traced again to civilizations like Babylon, the place a number of the oldest identified maps had been created. The Babylonians are identified to have used surprisingly correct surveying strategies. A clay pill discovered at Ga-Sur in 1930 exhibits a map of a river valley within the area with cuneiform inscriptions labeling distinctive options, together with owned plots of land. 

This specific map is believed so far again to 2500-2400 BC and options topological options like hills proven by overlapping semicircles, rivers by traces, and cities by circles. One other Babylonian map, this time courting again to the Kassite interval (fourteenth–twelfth centuries BC), is way narrower in focus, displaying the partitions and buildings of the holy metropolis of Nippur. 

There’s even a Babylonian World Map, arguably the earliest surviving map of the world, from 600 BC. Nevertheless, the mapmakers made little effort to be correct and knowingly omitted the Persians and Egyptians. The map exhibits the world as a round form surrounded by water and was possible designed to suit the spiritual picture that the Babylonians believed in.

A close-up view of the Babylonian map of the World. This partially broken clay tablet contains both cuneiform inscriptions and a unique map of the Mesopotamian world. Probably from Sippar, Mesopotamia, Iraq. 700-500 BC, at the British Museum, London. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)

An in depth-up view of the Babylonian map of the World. This partially damaged clay pill incorporates each cuneiform inscriptions and a singular map of the Mesopotamian world. In all probability from Sippar, Mesopotamia, Iraq. 700-500 BC, on the British Museum, London. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Greeks and Romans

Historical Greek civilization additionally performed a key function within the growth of cartography. It’s believed the primary maps to be drawn on a type of paper moderately than on stone or clay had been Greek. Notable figures like Anaximander, Hecataeus, Herodotus, and Eratosthenes had been all key to Greek developments in cartography.

Although misplaced to time, some historians consider Anaximander, an early Greek thinker, created the primary map of the identified world (not like the Babylonian map which knowingly excluded some areas) in round 600AD. Although misplaced, this map arguably laid the groundwork for subsequent cartographic endeavors.

Herodotus, the “Father of Historical past,” included geographical descriptions in his writings. His work offers essential insights into the geography of the traditional world. His major work, “Histories,” included extremely detailed accounts of numerous areas and peoples. Whereas not technically a cartographer himself, his works contributed to the growth of geographical information in historical Greece, offering gas for the time’s map makers.

Eratosthenes, a polymath of the third century BC, made essential strides in cartography. He’s most well-known for his makes an attempt at calculating the circumference of the Earth, which he did by measuring the angle of the Solar’s rays from two areas. He then used trigonometry to work out the variations between them. 

19th century reconstruction of Eratosthenes' map of the known world, 194 BC. (Public Domain)

nineteenth century reconstruction of Eratosthenes’ map of the identified world, 194 BC. (Public Area)

The Roman method to cartography was sometimes sensible. Reasonably than the pursuit of data Roman cartography served had two functions: navy and administrative. Most of their maps had been restricted to “Mare Nostrum,” the core of the Roman Empire, and had been used to put out administrative boundaries, bodily options, and roads.

Particular Point out: The Ptolemy Map

Crucial map of this period is probably the Ptolemy map because of the function it performed in Roman growth. The map was based mostly on the data contained inside the Geographica, written by the Alexandrian Ptolemy. In it, the good polymath refers to an early system of longitude and latitude in addition to a means of describing areas based mostly on astronomical observations made out of these areas. Principally, figuring out the place you might be by observing the night time sky.

Whereas referred to as Ptolemy’s map, it’s believed the map itself was created by Agathodaemon of Alexandria however included within the Geographica. Sadly, the unique maps had been misplaced however the work was so descriptive that later cartographers had been in a position to recreate the Ptolemy map. Each the map and the Geographica went on to encourage numerous later cartographers the world over. 

Historical China

We’d be remiss to disregard advances made by early Chinese language cartographers. All through its varied dynasties developments had been made and in 605 AD one of many first maps utilizing a grid system was drawn by Pei Ju of the Sui Dynasty. In 801 AD, through the Tang Dynasty, an correct map of China and its Central Asian colonies was created, the “Hai Nei Hua Yi Tu”. This spectacular piece was 30 toes (9.1m) by 33 toes (10m) and used an extremely correct (for the interval) grid system.

A 1933 Rubbing of the Huayi Tu Stele from the Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

A 1933 Rubbing of the Huayi Tu Stele from the Library of Congress. (Public Area)

Maps of the Center Ages: Arab World

Nice strides had been made in map-making through the Center Ages, largely by Muslim students who superior on the mapmaking of the cultures that had come earlier than them. They started by following Ptolemy’s strategies and mixed them with the information and writings of the various explorers and retailers who had been placing out and touring throughout the Muslim world as commerce routes expanded.

The Arab world is famously the house of arithmetic, they usually made nice leaps in utilizing extra correct definitions of models of measure and expended a lot effort attempting to outline and calculate the circumference of the earth, getting a lot nearer than Eratosthenes had. Likewise, throughout this time Arab cartographers labored laborious to create their very own system of correct meridians and parallels (the grid programs utilized by cartographers).

Map of al-Maghrib al-Aqsa and al-Maghrib al-Awsat in the oldest known surviving manuscript copy of Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana. (Public Domain)

Map of al-Maghrib al-Aqsa and al-Maghrib al-Awsat within the oldest identified surviving manuscript copy of Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana. (Public Area)

In 1154 AD the Tabula Rogeriana was printed by Al Idrisi, an Arab geographer. Commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily and Africa, it took 16 years to create, and the atlas is made up of 70 maps. A masterpiece of its time, the work doesn’t simply kind a map of the world, it’s a geographical textual content that has the whole lot from pure options to data on ethnic and cultural teams, economies, and way more.

The Tabula was based mostly on Al Idrisi’s travels in addition to interviews with different explorers and included the work of draftsmen Idrisi paid to journey and map their routes. Impressively, the atlas depicts the world as a sphere, breaking it up into 70 rectangular sections.

European Efforts

By the 1300s the Europeans had been getting moderately good at making their world maps, referred to as “Mappa mundi”. Probably the most spectacular of those might be the Hereford Mappa Mundi which is each the biggest surviving medieval map in existence and one of the elaborate. 

This map has Jerusalem on the heart, emphasizing the period’s spiritual focus, and has the Backyard of Eden in a hoop of fireside on the prime. If this isn’t unusual sufficient, the map additionally has Africa labeled as Europe and Europe as Africa (nobody appears to know why). The map itself is round though this doesn’t essentially imply its cartographer was a flat-earther. As a substitute, it’s believed to be a type of projection, which means it’s extra of a illustration of the world’s liveable areas moderately than a real world map.

Detail of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, showing Africa south of the Nile River. A Troglodyte rides a goat-beast, and headless Blemmyes. (Public Domain)

Element of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, displaying Africa south of the Nile River. A Troglodyte rides a goat-beast, and headless Blemmyes. (Public Area)

Probably the most superior Center Ages maps is the Fra Mauro Map, drawn by Fra Mauro, a monk, in 1450 AD. This huge map, six and a half toes (two meters) in diameter was painted on vellum and stretched over a picket body. It‘s a surprisingly correct illustration of Europe, Asia, and Africa however has one odd function. It’s oriented with the south on the prime, not like most maps of the time (which had been nonetheless taking inspiration from Ptolemy’s map). It’s because Fra Mauro felt the Ptolemy map was based mostly on previous information and his contemporaries had been too reliant on it.

Early Fashionable Interval: Europe

The following huge bounce got here through the Early Fashionable Interval, a time marked by outstanding occasions just like the Renaissance, Age of Exploration, and Protestant Reformation. Printing alongside the event of recent surveying strategies and new, extra correct devices led to higher maps, and cartographers themselves grew to become individuals who wielded actual affect.

As commerce routes expanded even additional, Europeans tried to colonize increasingly of the world and navy campaigns unfold additional afield, rulers grew to become extra conscious than ever that they wanted extra correct maps. It’s troublesome to steer an offensive when your navy doesn’t know the place to land and your military doesn’t know the place it’s protected to march in any case. You can also’t colonize a spot when you can’t discover it. 

One of many huge names in cartography throughout this era is the Flemish geographer, cartographer, and cosmographer Gerardus Mercator. In 1569 he printed the Mercator Map, arguably one of the essential maps in maritime historical past. It sought to resolve the issue inherent in representing a spherical earth on a flat piece of paper, which tends to distort everything- particularly, the traces of latitude and longitude used for navigation. 

The Mercator map allowed for straight traces, referred to as loxodromes, which made it extremely helpful when navigators had been attempting to chart a course. In 1570 cartographer Abraham Ortelius used these maps in his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Notable not only for utilizing this new mapmaking methodology, this atlas is known for primarily utilizing maps based mostly on up to date data moderately than specializing in previous information just like the Ptolemy Map.

Mercator 1569 world map. (Public Domain)

Mercator 1569 world map. (Public Area)

Asia and the Americas

In fact, it wasn’t simply in Europe that advances had been made. Cartography continued to develop within the East as nicely. 1579 noticed the creation of the Guang Yutu atlas which contained greater than forty maps. It confirmed essential landmarks like street programs, and mountain ranges and highlighted the borders between completely different political areas in Asia.

The 1500s had been additionally vital as a result of that is when the primary maps of the Americas got here to be. Created by Juan de la Cosa, an explorer and Cartographer from Spain, these maps used data he gathered whereas touring alongside Columbus. He additionally drew a number of the first maps that included the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia all on the identical map. This era additionally featured Diogo Ribeiro designing the world’s first “scientific” map, the Pardon Actual, which precisely confirmed the coasts of Central and South America.

Facsimile of Diogo Ribeiro's 1529 Carta Universal. (Public Domain)

Facsimile of Diogo Ribeiro’s 1529 Carta Common. (Public Area)

Fashionable Cartography: Publish-Industrial Revolution

Engaged on the groundwork laid down over hundreds of years the final 2 hundred years or so has seen speedy developments in cartography. The appearance of printing presses and lithography through the Industrial Revolution facilitated the mass manufacturing of maps, making them extra accessible to the general public. The nineteenth century noticed the event of topographic mapping strategies, notably with the Ordnance Survey in Britain and related initiatives worldwide, leading to extremely detailed and correct maps for varied functions. 

The twentieth century caused revolutionary modifications with the introduction of aerial pictures, satellite tv for pc imagery, and Geographic Data Techniques (GIS), enabling cartographers to create extra exact, dynamic, and interactive maps. The digital age additional accelerated the evolution of cartography, with the rise of computer-assisted mapping instruments, GPS expertise, and on-line mapping platforms like Google Maps and OpenStreetMap. Right this moment, cartography continues to push boundaries with developments in 3D mapping, augmented actuality, and real-time information visualization, shaping how we understand, navigate, and work together with the world round us.


From historical Babylonian clay tablets to the delicate digital maps of at present, cartography has developed considerably over millennia. Improvements pushed by exploration, scientific inquiry, and technological progress have revolutionized the way in which we understand and navigate our planet. 

Right this moment most of us carry round an virtually pinpoint correct map with us in all places within the type of both Google or Apple Maps. Realizing the place we’re going is one thing we take with no consideration and getting misplaced is sort of a factor of the previous. We owe this to the courageous explorers and diligent cartographers of the previous.

Let’s hope that in our complacency we don’t lose that relentless curiosity and sense of exploration that drove our predecessors. If humankind continues to discover, it should want cartographers- whether or not it’s the underside of the deepest oceans or new horizons on new planets.

High picture: Facsimile of Diogo Ribeiro’s 1529 Carta Common.  Supply: Public Area                 

By Robbie Mitchell



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