The Early History of Cartography

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The Early History of Cartography


A recent survey noted that nearly one-third of the people living in the United States could not distinguish North from South on a map. These results are somewhat surprising in light of the fact that maps have been an integral part of human society for over 5,000 years. Mapmaking is one of the oldest forms of communication and has taken on many different forms and functions throughout the course of history. Nearly every conceivable material has been used to produce maps, including stone, clay, skins, parchment, and even snow. Maps are generated in attempt to help people navigate better and to give us a clearer understanding of our world and surroundings.

The art and science of graphically or pictorially representing a geographic region is called cartography. These representations are usually made on a flat surface and are referred to as maps or charts. In addition, they may have nongeographical representations on them to indicate cultural areas, political precincts, natural phenomena, and many other categories. Cartography is an ancient discipline that dates back to the time of recorded history. The first maps were believed to be illustrations of prime hunting and fishing territories.

The oldest known map is Babylonian in origin and dates from about 2300 b.c. In addition, various pictorials of land features have been found with Egyptian artifacts from around the same period. It is notable that both of the areas depicted were river valleys and that knowing the intricacies of the geography would provide vital information for sustainable communities. Maps from later periods show plans for the construction of canals, roads, and places of worship. These were the predecessors of modern city planning and engineering maps.

While cosmography, the science of mapping the shape of the entire known world, was not heavily practiced until the time of the ancient Greeks, archeological studies in Iraq have uncovered a map dating from 1000 b.c. that shows Earth as a concentric circle with Babylon at the center of it, surrounded on all sides by water. However, there is little additional evidence that the Egyptians or Babylonians attempted to depict the entire planet and their place within it. Rather, their cartographic endeavors focused on pursuits of a more practical nature. They were more concerned with mapping fertile areas, regions with exceptional game, or their own boundaries. It would not be until the Greek philosopher-geographers began to speculate on the nature and shape of Earth that mapmakers attempted to map not only their surroundings, but also the entire world.


The Greeks made the greatest early contributions to mapmaking through their systematic scientific pursuit of geography. This was somewhat motivated by need because they lacked productive soil for agriculture. This need led to colonization and the establishment of trade, primarily through navigable sea routes that needed to be charted. The city of Miletus was considered to be the center of cartographic knowledge and speculation around 600 b.c.

Hecataeus (sixth-fifth century b.c.) produced the first known geography book in about 500 b.c. In it he speculated that the world was a flat disk surrounded by a great ocean. This book was later modified and expanded by the great historian Herodotus (484?-420? b.c.). His significant contributions included a reference to the idea that the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa nearly 2,000 years before Vasco da Gama (1460?-1524). He added a significant amount of new information regarding the geography of the known world and even extended into the realm of the unknown by predicting the natural features of unfamiliar lands. Herodotus also questioned the idea that the Earth was a flat disk and proposed several different theories regarding its actual shape, including one that supported the theory that Pythagoras (580?-500 b.c.) put forward that the world was a sphere.

By 350 it was commonly accepted by Greek scholars that Earth was in fact a sphere. Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) strongly argued this point and presented six lines of reasoning to demonstrate the world was shaped like an orb. Nearly all subsequent cartographers generally accepted this idea.

Dicaearchus of Messina, who was a follower of Aristotle, made significant contributions in this area. He was the first cartographer to place reference lines on world maps. He placed one running in an east-west direction and passing through Gibraltar and Rhodes. This had a significant influence on others and eventually led to the development of longitude and latitude.

The next significant Greek figure in cartography was Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276?-194? b.c.), the first person to reasonably estimate Earth's circumference. He realized that the Sun was very distant from Earth and that by using the angle by which the sunrays fell on two different cities of a known distance apart, he could estimate Earth's circumference. Eratosthenes made other contributions as well. He improved upon the reference lines of Dicaearchus and provided much scientific thought in other areas.

Hipparchus was a contemporary of Eratosthenes and was often quite critical of his work. The major contribution of Hipparchus was to apply rigorous mathematical principles to the field of cartography. He used trigonometry to help determine locations on Earth's surface and extended the reference lines of Dicaearchus to specify longitude and latitude as it is still used today. He attempted to measure latitude by using the ratio of the longest to shortest day for a particular area. Hipparchus was also the first person to partition the known inhabited world into climatic zones on a map.

Certainly the greatest and most important cartographer from the ancient world was Ptolemy (a.d. 100?-170?). Ptolemy was a great scientist who wrote one of the most influential scientific works of all time, The Guide to Geography. This eight-volume work dealt with the basic principles of map and globe construction, locations of various cities, theories of mathematical geography, and instructions for preparing maps of the worlds. Interestingly enough, this work had little initial influence, as it was largely forgotten and not rediscovered until 1,400 years later. The maps and directions were often crude approximations from discussions with travelers, but they were accurate enough to show relative locations and direction. The work, however, provided a summary of all of the knowledge of geography at that time. Ptolemy also contributed to the mathematical aspect of cartography as well as many other areas of science.

After Ptolemy, there seems to be stagnation in the science of mapmaking. While the Romans constructed maps of their extensive road systems, they had little use for the mathematical principles that the Greeks had extolled. Additionally, most of the ancient records had been lost or destroyed, so they had little influence until some were discovered over 1,000 years later.


Interestingly enough, there was little progress in the field of cartography immediately after Ptolemy. In fact, it was not until the late fifteenth century, when copies of his maps were published in an atlas, that the field saw renewed activity. Because of this, it can be surmised that the early cartographers exerted little impact, at least initially. Certainly each important predecessor in the field of cartography influenced those who came later, but the real impact of these people is not readily seen on society until the late fifteenth century, when explorers began to study the early maps of Ptolemy. Because of a constant exchange of ideas in ancient Greece, successive improvements in cartography were made quickly. It was less than 100 years from the introduction of the idea that maps could contain reference lines to the incorporation of longitude and latitude. As a matter of fact, this is largely the same system that exists today.

The early explorers such as Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521), and Americus Vespucci (1454-1512) used Ptolemy's map as a guide for their voyages. While the map was as accurate as it could be for the time that it was produced, it was still grossly inadequate in many areas. For instance, it greatly exaggerated the combined size of Europe and Asia, while underestimating the size of Earth. This was a critical mistake that strengthened the idea that Columbus could reach Asia by traveling westward and actually led him to underestimate the distance to Asia as he set out across the Atlantic on his first voyage. Ptolemy's influence even extended into the Southern hemisphere, where his idea that a great southern continent existed was perpetuated for many years. It was not until 1775 and many voyages when James Cook (1728-1779) demonstrated that it did not exist. Thus, Ptolemy helped to spur the age of exploration.

This increase in exploration set up a domino effect in human society. Exploration encouraged many improvements in technology, which further aided mapmaking. These improvements included the development of the principles of navigation and improvements in the instruments for these purposes. This age of discovery brought cultures together. These interactions sometimes had a positive effect, such as an exchange of commerce and ideas, however, it also had tragic effects for some cultures.

The ancient cartographers also had considerable influence in emphasizing for future generations the need to have mathematical map constructions, as opposed to more abstract and philosophical aspects of geography. Modern scientists have made significant strides in this area, including the development of satellite technology. Yet as advanced as we have become, we still need to emphasize basic map-reading skills in our society.


Further Reading

Crone, G.R. Maps & Their Makers: An Introduction to the History of Cartography. North Haven: Shoe String Press, 1978.

Goss, John. The Mapmaker's Art: An Illustrated History of Cartography. Skokie: Rand McNally, 1993.

Wilford, John. The Mapmakers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

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The Early History of Cartography

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