How Did Cartographers Create World Maps before Airplanes and Satellites? An Introduction

Reg­u­lar read­ers of Open Cul­ture know a thing or two about maps if they’ve paid atten­tion to our posts on the his­to­ry of car­tog­ra­phy, the evo­lu­tion of world maps (and why they are all wrong), and the many dig­i­tal col­lec­tions of his­tor­i­cal maps from all over the world. What does the sev­en and a half-minute video above bring to this com­pendi­um of online car­to­graph­ic knowl­edge? A very quick sur­vey of world map his­to­ry, for one thing, with stops at many of the major his­tor­i­cal inter­sec­tions from Greek antiq­ui­ty to the cre­ation of the Cata­lan Atlas, an aston­ish­ing map­mak­ing achieve­ment from 1375.

The upshot is an answer to the very rea­son­able ques­tion, “how were (some­times) accu­rate world maps cre­at­ed before air trav­el or satel­lites?” The expla­na­tion? A lot of his­to­ry — mean­ing, a lot of time. Unlike inno­va­tions today, which we expect to solve prob­lems near-imme­di­ate­ly, the inno­va­tions in map­ping tech­nol­o­gy took many cen­turies and required the work of thou­sands of trav­el­ers, geo­g­ra­phers, car­tog­ra­phers, math­e­mati­cians, his­to­ri­ans, and oth­er schol­ars who built upon the work that came before. It start­ed with spec­u­la­tion, myth, and pure fan­ta­sy, which is what we find in most geo­gra­phies of the ancient world.

Then came the Greek Anax­i­man­der, “the first per­son to pub­lish a detailed descrip­tion of the world.” He knew of three con­ti­nents, Europe, Asia, and Libya (or North Africa). They fit togeth­er in a cir­cu­lar Earth, sur­round­ed by a ring of ocean. “Even this,” says Jere­my Shuback, “was an incred­i­ble accom­plish­ment, roughed out by who knows how many explor­ers.” Sand­wiched in-between the con­ti­nents are some known large bod­ies of water: the Mediter­ranean, the Black Sea, the Pha­sis (mod­ern-day Rioni) and Nile Rivers. Even­tu­al­ly Eratos­thenes dis­cov­ered the Earth was spher­i­cal, but maps of a flat Earth per­sist­ed. Greek and Roman geo­g­ra­phers con­sis­tent­ly improved their world maps over suc­ceed­ing cen­turies as con­quer­ers expand­ed the bound­aries of their empires.

Some key moments in map­ping his­to­ry involve the 2nd cen­tu­ry AD geo­g­ra­ph­er and math­e­mati­cian Marines of Tyre, who pio­neered “equirec­tan­gu­lar pro­jec­tion and invent­ed lat­i­tude and lon­gi­tude lines and math­e­mat­i­cal geog­ra­phy.” This paved the way for Claudius Ptole­my’s huge­ly influ­en­tial Geo­graphia and the Ptole­ma­ic maps that would even­tu­al­ly fol­low. Lat­er Islam­ic car­tog­ra­phers “fact checked” Ptole­my, and reversed his pref­er­ence for ori­ent­ing North at the top in their own map­pa mun­di. The video quotes his­to­ri­an of sci­ence Son­ja Bren­thes in not­ing how Muham­mad al-Idrisi’s 1154 map “served as a major tool for Ital­ian, Dutch, and French map­mak­ers from the six­teenth cen­tu­ry to the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry.”

The inven­tion of the com­pass was anoth­er leap for­ward in map­ping tech­nol­o­gy, and ren­dered pre­vi­ous maps obso­lete for nav­i­ga­tion. Thus car­tog­ra­phers cre­at­ed the por­tolan, a nau­ti­cal map mount­ed hor­i­zon­tal­ly and meant to be viewed from any angle, with wind rose lines extend­ing out­ward from a cen­ter hub. These devel­op­ments bring us back to the Cata­lan Atlas, its extra­or­di­nary accu­ra­cy, for its time, and its extra­or­di­nary lev­el of geo­graph­i­cal detail: an arti­fact that has been called “the most com­plete pic­ture of geo­graph­i­cal knowl­edge as it stood in the lat­er Mid­dle Ages.”

Cre­at­ed for Charles V of France as both a por­tolan and map­pa mun­di, its con­tours and points of ref­er­ence were not only com­piled from cen­turies of geo­graph­ic knowl­edge, but also from knowl­edge spread around the world from the dias­poric Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to which the cre­ators of the Atlas belonged. The map was most like­ly made by Abra­ham Cresques and his son Jahu­da, mem­bers of the high­ly respect­ed Major­can Car­to­graph­ic School, who worked under the patron­age of the Por­tuguese. Dur­ing this peri­od (before mas­sacres and forced con­ver­sions dev­as­tat­ed the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Major­ca in 1391), Jew­ish doc­tors, schol­ars, and scribes bridged the Chris­t­ian and Islam­ic worlds and formed net­works that dis­sem­i­nat­ed infor­ma­tion through both.

In its depic­tion of North Africa, for exam­ple, the Cata­lan Atlas shows images and descrip­tions of Malian ruler Mansa Musa, the Berber peo­ple, and spe­cif­ic cities and oases rather than the usu­al drag­ons and mon­sters found in oth­er Medieval Euro­pean maps — despite the car­tog­ra­phers’ use of the works like the Trav­els of John Man­dev­ille, which con­tains no short­age of bizarre fic­tion about the region. While it might seem mirac­u­lous that humans could cre­ate increas­ing­ly accu­rate views of the Earth from above with­out flight, they did so over cen­turies of tri­al and error (and thou­sands of lost ships), build­ing on the work of count­less oth­ers, cor­rect­ing the mis­takes of the past with supe­ri­or mea­sure­ments, and crowd­sourc­ing as much knowl­edge as they could.

To learn more about the fas­ci­nat­ing Cata­lan Atlas, see the Flash Point His­to­ry video above and the schol­ar­ly descrip­tion found here. Find trans­la­tions of the map’s leg­ends here at The Cresque Project.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

Down­load 91,000 His­toric Maps from the Mas­sive David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • G H Fink says:

    Very inter­est­ing and enlight­en­ing. I appre­ci­ate the absence of the ‘how igno­rant and back­ward were this or that group to not dis­cov­er this soon­er’ snark so com­mon to many such videos.

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