I’ve been thinking about maps lately, about how they change over time and what kind of reality they portray. In a way, they mirror the mapmaker’s knowledge and their worldview. But as much as showing that, what is known, a map also shows what is unknown.
One of the earlier maps aiming to depict the world was produced by Anaximander sometime in the 6th century BCE. It looked something like this:
Anaximander’s world is centered around the Aegean Sea, composed of two continents: Europe and Asia, and surrounded by the bitter river Oceanus. It is said that Anaximander might have been the first person to use the name of Europe as a geographical denomination.
Skip almost two millennia, to the beginning of the 14th century CE ,and you’ve got the Hereford mappa mundi, drawn on a single sheet of vellum, meaning calf skin from one whole animal.
The authors of this map pictured the world also as round, but its center has moved to Jerusalem. They distinguished three continents: Asia on top of the circle, Europe in the bottom left, and Africa in the bottom right. Their map includes a surprising amount of geographical details but also biblical and mythical elements. It shows Paradise lying somewhere beyond the river Ganges, locates Scylla and Harybdis on two islands in the Mediterranean, and traces the rout of the Israelites across the Red Sea. The map also shows various beasts, such as elephants and unicorns, as well as different more or less fantastical peoples.
The Age of Discovery brought a dramatic change to cartography. The world depicted by Waldseemüller and Ringmann in 1507 is quite recognizable to a contemporary traveller, even if it’s still missing Australia and New Zealand¹, while also squishing the Americas to narrow slips of land.
This map is based on ancient Ptolemy’s projection, which was revised some fifty years later by Gerardus Mercator. From then on world maps show true shapes and angles of depicted lands, however they distort the dimensions. It’s an inevitable problem arising when you attempt to project a spherical object, the Earth, onto a flat surface, the map.
To see the effect of this distortion you can go to The True Size app. This wonderful interactive project allows you to move around countries and see how their sizes change depending on the distance from the equator (the further from the equator an area, the more distorted it is, appearing bigger than it is in reality).
Recently there have been many interesting attempts at reimagining standard maps. There’s been the upside down map:
The world map scaled by population:
As well as hilarious maps of prejudice produced by Yanko Tsvetkov. Check them out on his website: Atlas of Prejudice.
And all that just makes me wonder: how will the maps look like in, say, year 2500?
¹ Though let’s face it, this happens even nowadays: