The Evolution of the World Map: An Inventive Infographic Shows How Our Picture of the World Changed Over 1,800 Years

For about 190 years, human­i­ty has known what the world looks like. Or rather, human­i­ty has known the shape and size of the land mass­es that rise up above the oceans, as well as where those land mass­es stand in rela­tion to one anoth­er. For gen­er­a­tion upon gen­er­a­tion, we’ve all grown up see­ing visu­al depic­tions of this knowl­edge in the form of the stan­dard world map — dis­tort­ed, of course, usu­al­ly by Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion, giv­en the impos­si­bil­i­ty of turn­ing a three-dimen­sion­al globe into a two-dimen­sion­al image with per­fect accu­ra­cy. We can call it to mind (or up on our phones) when­ev­er we need it. But what did the world look like before we knew what it looked like? Thanks to a Red­di­tor who goes by PisseGuri82, we can now take in, at a glance, human­i­ty’s image of the world as it evolved over the past two mil­len­nia.

This Shape of the World info­graph­ic begins in 150 AD with the world map used by Claudius Ptole­my of Alexan­dria, Egypt, “the first to use posi­tions of lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude based on astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tions.” Not that those obser­va­tions pro­duced any­thing imme­di­ate­ly resem­bling an ances­tor of the map we remem­ber from class­room walls grow­ing up, but it cer­tain­ly must have marked an improve­ment on the guess­work and pure fan­ta­sy used in even ear­li­er times.

World maps from the medieval peri­od, such as the one includ­ed on the dia­gram cre­at­ed by an unknown French monk in 1050, were meant “not to explain the world but the Bible.” Hence its focus on such Bib­li­cal parts of the world as Jerusalem, the Red Sea, and even the Gar­den of Eden.

Just over a cen­tu­ry lat­er, a map by Italy’s Muhammed al-Idrisi employed the more objec­tive method of cal­cu­lat­ing dis­tances by what trav­el­ers and mer­chants told him about how long it took them to reach the dis­tant lands they vis­it­ed. Despite its “rec­og­niz­able and detailed Eura­sia and North­ern Africa,” how­ev­er, it still makes for a vague (and, need­less to say, hard­ly com­plete) approx­i­ma­tion of the world. Only in 1529, with the empire-mind­ed Span­ish Crown’s offi­cial and secret “mas­ter map,” updat­ed “by Span­ish explor­ers on pain of death,” do we arrive at a world map that would remind any of us of the ones we use in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Sub­se­quent devel­op­ments came from such advances as the afore­men­tioned Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion, invent­ed in 1569 in the Nether­lands and refined in Eng­land 30 years lat­er, as well as the inven­tion of the marine chronome­ter in 1778. The final map in the chart, an 1832 edi­tion by Ger­many’s Adolf Stiel­er in which “only the unex­plored Polar regions are miss­ing or depict­ed inac­cu­rate­ly,” may look almost exact­ly like the world maps we use today. But the evo­lu­tion cer­tain­ly has­n’t stopped: with the ever more detailed dig­i­tal maps and satel­lite imagery that now fea­ture in our world maps, our abil­i­ty to per­ceive the Earth still improves every day. Our descen­dants 2000 years hence may well place them­selves in a world we would hard­ly rec­og­nize. See the full-size “Shape of the World” info­graph­ic here. Make sure you click on the image once you open the page, and then you can see it in a larg­er for­mat.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Maps Reveal the True Size of Coun­tries (and Show How Tra­di­tion­al Maps Dis­tort Our World)

The “True Size” Maps Shows You the Real Size of Every Coun­try (and Will Change Your Men­tal Pic­ture of the World)

Japan­ese Design­ers May Have Cre­at­ed the Most Accu­rate Map of Our World: See the Autha­Graph

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

A Rad­i­cal Map Puts the Oceans – Not Land – at the Cen­ter of Plan­et Earth (1942)

Why Mak­ing Accu­rate World Maps Is Math­e­mat­i­cal­ly Impos­si­ble

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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    This arti­cle fails to do sev­er­al things.

    It does­n’t even men­tion or show Ter­ra Aus­tralis Incog­ni­ta, the huge, unknown south­ern land, which Euro­peans thought had to be there until James Cook in the 18th cen­tu­ry proved that it did not exist, which was a major break­through in per­cep­tion of the world.

    It fails to deal with the ques­tion of WHY maps showed the north­ern hemi­sphere on TOP of the world, an eth­no­cen­tric idea. There is no oth­er good rea­son to show Europe on top.Hence maps might just as well show South Amer­i­ca on top.

  • Hassan SAFAR says:

    Appre­ci­at­ed to check the below link relat­ed to maps inven­tion that is miss­ing in your map evo­lu­tion.

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