The Biggest Mistakes in Mapmaking History

As we all know by now, every world map is wrong. But some world maps are more wrong than oth­ers, and the ear­li­est world maps togeth­er con­sti­tute an enter­tain­ing fes­ti­val of geo­graph­i­cal mis­takes and mis­per­cep­tions. Like so many pur­suits, map­mak­ing has util­i­tar­i­an roots. For mil­len­nia, as Kay­la Wolf explains in the Ted-Ed les­son above, our ances­tors all over the world made “func­tion­al maps, show­ing trade routes, set­tle­ments, topog­ra­phy, water sources, the shapes of coast­lines, or writ­ten direc­tions.” But some also made “what are known as cos­mo­gra­phies, illus­trat­ing the Earth and its posi­tion in the cos­mos, often includ­ing con­stel­la­tions, gods, and myth­ic loca­tions.”

Cre­ators of ear­ly world maps tend­ed to mix their func­tion­al­i­ty with their cos­mog­ra­phy. Com­mis­sioned in Eura­sia and North Africa from the Mid­dle Ages into the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, their map­pae mun­di were “meant to depict the world’s geog­ra­phy, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly to be use­ful for nav­i­ga­tion. And giv­en their maker’s incom­plete knowl­edge of the world they were real­ly hypothe­ses — some of which have been glar­ing­ly dis­proven.”

Take, for exam­ple, the Span­ish maps that for more than a cen­tu­ry “depict­ed the ‘Island of Cal­i­for­nia’ detached from the rest of the con­ti­nent” (one exam­ple of which still hangs today in the New York Pub­lic Library).

Even Ger­ar­dus Mer­ca­tor, the car­tog­ra­ph­er respon­si­ble for the “Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion” still used in world maps today, “spec­u­lat­ed that the North Pole promi­nent­ly fea­tured the ‘Rupes Nigra,’ a giant mag­net­ic rock sur­round­ed by a whirlpool that explained why all com­pass­es point north.” But all knowl­edge begins as spec­u­la­tion, in geog­ra­phy and car­tog­ra­phy as any­where else. We must also main­tain an aware­ness of what we don’t know, which medieval map­mak­ers famous­ly did with fan­tas­ti­cal beasts: “a tiny cop­per globe cre­at­ed in the ear­ly 1500s,” for exam­ple, labels south­east Asia with the famous warn­ing “Here be drag­ons.” And “as late as 1657, Eng­lish schol­ar Peter Heylin lumped Aus­tralia togeth­er with Utopia.” The land down under is per­haps the “lucky coun­try,” but Utopia is sure­ly push­ing it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

The Largest Ear­ly Map of the World Gets Assem­bled for the First Time: See the Huge, Detailed & Fan­tas­ti­cal World Map from 1587

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

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 Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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