Groundbreaking Map from 1858 Colorfully Visualizes 6,000 Years of World History

We start to under­stand his­to­ry by lis­ten­ing to it told to us ver­bal­ly, which lets us visu­al­ize it in our imag­i­na­tion. But how much more might we under­stand his­to­ry if we could see it ren­dered visu­al­ly right before our eyes? That ques­tion seems to have occu­pied the minds of cer­tain of the car­tog­ra­phers of 19th-cen­tu­ry Europe, those who want­ed to take their craft beyond its tra­di­tion­al lim­its in order to do for chronol­o­gy what it had long done for geog­ra­phy. Here we have one of the most glo­ri­ous such attempts in exis­tence, Eugene Pick­’s 1858 Tableau De L’His­toire Uni­verselle — or at least the half cov­er­ing the civ­i­liza­tions of the East­ern Hemi­sphere — as held in the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion.

At first glance, all of the infor­ma­tion on the map might appear over­whelm­ing. But zoom in (look­ing at the cen­ter first, ide­al­ly from top to bot­tom) and you’ll soon grasp how Pick has depict­ed the his­to­ry of the world, as a mid-19th-cen­tu­ry French­man would con­ceive of it it, by draw­ing a kind of net­work of rivers and trib­u­taries.

The “sources” of ancient civ­i­liza­tions, like those of the Greeks, the Phoeni­cians, the Egyp­tians, and the Chi­nese, flow down to those of var­i­ous descen­dants — the Gauls, the Nor­we­gians, the Rus­sians, the Turks — and the mighty empires in which they pool, and arrive at the nations of the Danes, the Swedes, the Bel­gians, the Span­ish, the Per­sians, and oth­ers besides. In total the map cov­ers 6,000 years of his­to­ry, mov­ing from 4004 B.C. to 1856.

This tech­nique of visu­al­iz­ing his­to­ry has its prece­dents, includ­ing Friedrich Strass’ Der Strom der Zeit­en oder bildliche Darstel­lung der Welt­geschichte, pic­tured just above (and lat­er updat­ed by Amer­i­can map­mak­er Joseph Hutchins Colton as The Stream of Time in the 1840s and 1860s.) The David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion notes that, unlike Strass’ map, Pick­’s also has “vignettes of peo­ple, build­ings, his­tor­i­cal scenes and impor­tant places in the his­to­ry of the world” lined up on either side of the main con­tent. It thus illu­mi­nates the abstract and con­tin­u­ous cen­tral ren­der­ing of his­to­ry with rep­re­sen­ta­tive, dis­crete ones, show­ing view­ers every­thing from the Bib­li­cal flood and the Tow­er of Babel to the Great Sphinx of Giza and Agrip­pa’s Pan­theon to Notre Dame and the Arc de Tri­om­phe. It has a cer­tain fran­co­cen­trism, to be sure, but con­sid­er how many in Pick­’s time con­sid­ered France the cen­ter of human­i­ty’s genius. Pro­duc­ing a map as com­pelling as this one could­n’t have dimin­ished that image.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the His­to­ry of the World Unfold on an Ani­mat­ed Map: From 200,000 BCE to Today

The His­to­ry of Civ­i­liza­tion Mapped in 13 Min­utes: 5000 BC to 2014 AD

5‑Minute Ani­ma­tion Maps 2,600 Years of West­ern Cul­tur­al His­to­ry

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, the “Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever,” Is Now Free Online

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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