Ancient points of
The world of
map making, cartography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is both
steeped in history and made by the most modern of technologies.
Maps have been made since earliest
times to help people get from one place to another or to
indicate features in the landscape near and far. Mapmaking is
one of the earliest human technologies we know of and goes back as far as human history
itself. Map materials (see
Map Making Materials in this section) ranged from a sketch
in the sand to the use of leather, parchment, cloth, bone, stone
and cave walls as well as, of course, human memory.
Early maps depicted settlements, for example, hunting grounds, natural or man made boundaries,
and landscape features. Maps of buildings, such
as temple complexes and palaces, were also common during the
early city civilizations. People just needed to know where they
where going and how to get there. It's no different today.
Where the Babylonians saw the world as a flattened disk, a view
that was relevant for millennia, it was the Greek geometrician
and mathematician Ptolemy that first showed the earth as
spherical in his eight-volume encyclopedia on geography in the
2nd Century AD.
The earliest Chinese map was recently discovered by
archeologists in China's Northwest province of Gansu. The map,
dating back to 239 BC, is carved on wooden plates and depicts a
drawing of Guixian County, then part of the Qin kingdom. (See
The center of the universe
During the European Middle Ages most world maps depicted
Jerusalem as its center point, following the religious doctrines
prevalent in Europe at that time.
It is typical of humans that they have always placed themselves,
their civilization or their religion as the center of their
maps. This practice continues today where European maps show
Europe as the center, American maps show the United States and
Australian maps show Australia at the center, for example. Of
course, since we are living on a sphere it makes it easier for
any point to be depicted as the center. Political fact often
comes secondary to wishful thinking or nationalistic
So when Galileo insisted that the world was revolving around the
sun instead of the other way around and certainly not the center
of the universe he was burned at the stake for his heresy.
Map on clay tablet of the city of Nippur, Mesopotamia, ca.
Babylonians made maps as far back as 2300 BC.
The world is an island, a flat disk, with Greece as its center,
surrounded by the world ocean. The map of Hecataeus - 6th
Typical example of elaborate - and accurate - 18th century map
Detail of the New York City subway map showing lower Manhattan
and the former World Trade Center subway stations. (c)
Only when seamen such as Magellan started on their exploration
voyages did more accurate maps of coast lines and continents
emerge and did geographic reality supersede religious or
Maps were not limited to earth bound features, however. The
earliest civilizations also made many sky maps (see
Sky watching in
the Space section) to depict the placement and movement of the
sun, the moon and the stars across the heavens. North American
Indians used star maps to guide them during night time travel
and the Polynesians used the stars to guide them across the vast
ocean that was their home.
The popularity of maps was not limited to navigation and
exploration purposes. Many other publications, encyclopedias,
magazines and books started using maps to depict events,
locations and routes to enhance information and teaching.
Famous cartographers and
the golden age of cartography
Besides Ptolemy, there
have been a number of people that have advanced the art and
science of cartography and map making throughout the ages.
Names of the earliest map makers elude us, and, even though
the practice of "I was here - with date" goes back at least 4000
years, makers of maps were not prone to signing them.
With the gradual emergence of Europe out of the Dark Ages of
religious and knowledge oppression, the sciences flourished once
again and technologies such as ship design and construction, the
compass, the telescope increased the thirst for exploration and
The great explorers of the age - Columbus, da Gama, Vespucci,
Cabot and Magellan - all had cartographers on board their ships
to map the new lands and routes. Slowly but surely the world was
mapped out in its entirety for the first time in the modern age.
Meanwhile, "back home" in Europe map making studios sprang up
all over the continent and Europe itself came under close
scrutiny. In Rome, the center of map making, the Danish
geographer Clausson Swart made the first known map of Northern
Europe in 1427.
Cardinal Nicholas Krebs manufactured the first modern map of
Germany in 1491, and Martin Waldseemuller of St. Diť in France
constructed an atlas of more than 20 maps in 1513. His best
known work however was the first map of "America", a name he
used to indicate the new continent as explored by the Florentine
seaman Amerigo Vespucci. This huge map, made in 1507, and
divided into twelve separate sheets, showed clearly for the
first time that "America" consisted of two parts, and that it
was in no way connected to Asia.
Early Southeastern North American map from the middle 16th
century recently stolen from a collection.
Detail of map showing Kansai International Airport, Japan.
Kansai International Airport
And so it went on. In 1524 Petrus Apianus published his
Cosmographiae, a treatise of geography, history, the sciences
and astronomy, illustrated with maps and illustrations.
This matter was finally settled when Diego Ribero,
cosmographer to the King of Spain, received enough information
from the survivors of Magellan's voyage of circumnavigation of
the world in 1522, to draw up a map of the Pacific Ocean and its
coast lines in 1529.
The encyclopedia published by Sebastian Munster in 1544 was
even larger than the Cosmographiae and remained the definitive
authority for another fifty years.
The new renaissance in Europe triggered a huge interest in
the outside world and maps depicting far off lands and peoples
were amongst the most popular of printed works of the age.
Memories of almost a thousand years of knowledge oppression
finally found an outlet in maps of exploration. It also
triggered another period of wars within the continent itself.
Cartography in its present form has roots just a
few centuries past.
The fall of Byzantium and the invention of the printing press
made a fortunate coincidence for cartography. Many Italian
scholars left the city of Byzantium (Constantinople) when it
fell to the Turks late in the 14th century and brought with them
large parts of Ptolemy's "Geography".
This "re-discovery" of the world caused an enthusiastic
renaissance of general discovery and with the aid of the
printing press several hundred copies of Ptolemy's work were
made and distributed widely by the end of the 15th century,
including several German editions.
When Columbus sailed out for East India and found the American
continent instead the need for accurate maps of this new found
land was acute. The argument or imposed doctrine that the earth
was a flat disk rather than a sphere was rapidly losing ground
and it was necessary
to find a way to transpose the features of a sphere - the Earth
- onto a flat surface to aid navigation and exploration.
When the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator came up with his
solution for handling the problem of map projection in 1569 map
making, and especially marine navigation, benefited greatly.
The development of the telescope to determine the length of a
degree of longitude and the tables which the English
mathematician Edward Wright devised in 1599 further clarified
Mercator's projections and made for more accurate map making and
Consequently, during the 17th and 18th century the European map
making technology and printed maps
as a result thereof showed an ever-increasing accuracy and sophistication unknown
before, greatly facilitating colonization of the world by the
European powers as it was now possible to view far off lands and
make strategic and tactical planning before sending off troops
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
Modern cartography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) often involves technology such as satellite
and aerial photography. Translating this information into maps
is called photogrammetry. As before, the use of modern
technology increased the accuracy of the map.
Using sophisticated equipment such as
satellites to plot charts and maps aids such diverse disciplines
as exploration, exploitation, surveillance, urban planning and
tourism. More on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) on our
GIS page in this section.