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How Cartography Shaped Our History and the World

Discover the ancient art of mapmaking.

history of cartography
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cartography has absolutely nothing to do with cars or with toggling. Instead, it is an art in more ways than one. Cartography is ancient and has become somewhat obsolete in the face of modern technology and the Internet. It's the practice and study of mapmaking.

Now when you think about maps, the first thing that likely pops into your head is a treasure map, like those used by swashbuckling pirates in search of buried goods or J.R.R. Tolkien's intrepid Bilbo Baggins inThe Hobbit. Many movies and novels use the notion of treasure maps in their plots.

They certainly make for compelling narrative devices. Unfortunately, there is scant historical evidence to suggest pirates regularly buried treasure or drew up maps to find their booty. 

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In fact, the man largely responsible for the birth of the pirate treasure map device was also the author of one of the greatest pirate adventures. A tattered map features prominently in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. And Stevenson was not just an author; he was also an amateur cartographer. After spending a summer with his wife and stepson in Napa Valley at an abandoned mine, Stevenson began creating maps depicting fictional lands. It was this engrossing pastime which led to the making of his famed novel of Long John Silver and other pirates.

But how old is cartography, the art of making maps? Very old–so old that no one is exactly certain when the first map was made. The word "cartography" itself comes from two Greek words meaning "papyrus" and "write." In fact, the ancient Greeks are considered to be the people who made geographical cartography more mathematical and less artistic. The oldest Greek known to have made a world map was a man named Anaximander. In the sixth century BC, Anaximander made a map of the whole world known to the ancients that showed the earth as a cylinder.

cartography history
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  • Map fragments from the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museum.

    Photo Credit: John Tuttle

The Greek cartographer, mathematician, and librarian, Eratosthenes, was the first person to create a map that showed the globe as a globe, rather than flat or cylindrical. And the great Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded the Earth was spherical or circular in 350 BC. That was over 2,000 years ago.

Despite this knowledge in written records, the earliest of Greek maps have long since been lost to time. The oldest map that has been preserved to present day is "Imago Mundi", a Babylonian world map on a stone tablet believed to date back to 750-500 BC.

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Believe it or not, the oldest known 3-D globe depicting the round Earth was the Globe of Crates, made by Crates, a Greek librarian, in 150 BC. Humanity knew of the round Earth long before Columbus "sailed the ocean blue." Even though pirates did not use treasure maps, cartography was still a vital practice for seafarers like Columbus throughout history—though fantasy still found ways to seep in. If you get the chance to see a sea map drawn several hundred years ago, you might spot strange mythical marine monsters illustrated over it.

The Chinese civilization, like that of the ancient Greeks, hosted numerous skilled cartographers and took the art of mapmaking to a higher level of expertise. This improvement came in the form of printing. China was the first known nation to have begun printing maps. The Chinese were doing it as early as 1150 AD. This would have been nearly three centuries prior to the time when European countries started printing maps.

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During the Middle Ages, cartography, like many other arts and sciences, remained stagnant. Most medieval cartographers brought elements of Catholic dogma into the drawing and illustrating of maps. When Europeans began traveling to the New World, cartography became extremely important once again, particularly in fields such as exploration and trade. To many pilgrims and immigrants coming to North America, this country sounded like a new "Promised Land". And like the Biblical Promised Land, America was a vast wilderness, much of which had not yet been seen.

Several of the United States' most renowned Founding Fathers assisted in mapmaking prior to their days in political leadership. Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas, was a professional surveyor and cartographer. In 1773, Thomas Jefferson was hired as a surveyor, and though that position was short-lived, he remained an amateur cartographer

history of cartography
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  • Photo Credit: John Tuttle

George Washington, meanwhile, was a passionate surveyor for most of his adult life, beginning a professional career in the field in 1749. Within four years, Washington had 200 accomplished surveys under his belt. Despite Jefferson’s disinterest in the field, one of his landmark achievements as president would lead to one of the United States’s biggest cartographical achievements–we’re referring to, of course, the Louisiana Purchase.

Parts of the Louisiana Territory would eventually help make up over a dozen states in the USA. This was a lot of land, much of which remained unexplored by Americans or Europeans. And so, the famous Corps of Discovery was formed, which would carry out the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, this expedition employed over 50 people. Overall, this was a large-scale recon mission. The expedition ran across the new territory from May 1804 to September 1806. Apparently, Clark was the main cartographer, though he didn't really have much experience. Despite this deficit, he did his job quite well.

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Although paper maps are increasingly rare today, cartography is still in use in specific fields. For example, it comes in handy in the science of meteorology. A meteorologist studies special weather maps in order formulate a weather forecast. And of course the maps of yesteryear are invaluable to historians, offering a glimpse into the past and at how our ancestors understood and explored the world.

Clearly, the ancient art of mapmaking still has secrets left to show us. 

Featured photo of a Ptolemaic world map from the Ecumene: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photos courtesy of: John Tuttle, Vatican Museum