How Writing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Animated Map

The oldest known writing systems first emerged in Mesopotamia, between 3400 and 3100 BC, and Egypt, around 3250 BC. The Latin alphabet, which I’m using to write this post and you’re using to read it, gradually took the shape we know between the seventh century BC and the Middle Ages. Over the eras since, it has spread outward from Europe to become the most widely used script in the world. These are important developments in the history of writing, but hardly the only ones. It is with all known writing systems that historical map animator Ollie Bye deals in the video above: not just those used today, but over the whole of the past five millennia.

The conquests of Alexander the Great; the Gallic Wars; the colonization of Latin America; the “scramble for Africa”: these and other major historical events are vividly reflected in the spread of certain writing systems.


Up until 1492 — after the expiration of eight and a half of the video’s eleven minutes — the map concerns itself only with Europe, Asia, and the northern three-quarters of Africa (as well as an inlaid section depicting the civilizations of what is now Central America). Thereafter it zooms out to include the New World, and indeed the whole world, though centuries pass before most of its blank spaces fill up with the colors that indicate the adoption of a dominant script.

Arabic and Persian appear in lime green, simplified Chinese in red, and Cyrillic in light blue. Before Bye’s animation reaches the middle twentieth century, most of the world has turned medium blue, which represents the now-mighty Latin alphabet. The use of these very letters for all written communication by such a wide variety of cultures merits a volumes-long history by itself. But perhaps most intriguing here is the persistence of relatively minor scripts: Cree, used among the natives of northern Canada; hiraganakatakana, and kanji in Japan; and also hangul in Korea — which I read and write myself every day of my life in Seoul, and to whose continued dominance here I can confidently attest.

Related content:

The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Preserve Writing Systems That May Soon Disappear

The Evolution of the Alphabet: A Colorful Flowchart, Covering 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

Dictionary of the Oldest Written Language–It Took 90 Years to Complete, and It’s Now Free Online

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

The Improbable Invention of Chinese Typewriters & Computer Keyboards: Three Videos Tell the Techno-Cultural Story

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

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.

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.

Why Mapmakers Once Thought California Was an Island

In the opening of John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A., an earthquake separates Los Angeles from the mainland, and the city is repurposed into “the deportation point for all people found undesirable or unfit to live in a new, moral America.” The film’s premise (like that of Escape from New York, which it follows) taps into a deeply held sentiment about its setting. Los Angeles has long been seen as an absurd concentration of all the qualities that make California unlike the rest of the United States. California remains a state apart in a metaphorical sense, but there was a time when it was also thought to be a state apart, literally: that is to say, an island.

The word California originates in a novel, published in 1510, called Sergas de Esplandián. In that book it refers to “an island populated by black women without any men existing there. On the entire island, there was no metal other than gold.” Author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s tantalizing description of California — as well as of the “beautiful and robust bodies” of its women — got Spanish seafarers curious about the extent to which it could have been based in reality.


(At that time, the mass-printed novel was still an enrapturing new development.) This account comes from Youtuber Johnny Harris‘ video above, “The Biggest Mapping Mistake of All Time,” which connects this fantastical literary invention to centuries of geographical misconception.

The conquistador Hernán Cortés seems to have been the first prominent figure to feel the pull of California. And he certainly wasn’t the last, despite never quite having managed to pin the place down. Spain’s most ardent California enthusiasts held so fast to the notion of its being an island that it spread elsewhere in Europe, and eventually to London. With the perception thus legitimized, California appeared disconnected from the North American coast on maps printed as far away as Japan. Harris credits California’s “mythical pull,” then as now, with making it “a place where people go to dream big” — and often “to chase dreams that aren’t grounded in any sense of reality.” Fortunately, he himself lives in Washington D.C., where delusions are wholly unknown.

Related content:

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

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

The 38 States of America: Geography Professor Creates a Bold Modern Map of America (1973)

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

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The First Transit Map: a Close Look at the Subway-Style Tabula Peutingeriana of the 5th-Century Roman Empire

The first subway train, as we know such things today, entered service in 1890. Its path is now part of the Northern line of the London Underground, itself the first urban metro system. The success of the Tube, as it’s commonly known, didn’t come right away; the whole thing was on the brink of failure, in fact, before creations like 1914’s Wonderground Map of London Town aided its public understanding and bolstered its public image.


At the time, Britain still commanded a great empire with London as its capital; the Wonderground Map placed the London Underground in the context of the city, making legible the still fairly novel concept of an underground train system with copious whimsical detail.


Nor was the Roman Empire anything to sneeze at, even during the fourth and fifth centuries after its decline had set in. Though it came up with some still-impressive inventions, including long-lasting concrete and monumental aqueducts, the technology to build and operate a subway system still lay some way off.


But that didn’t stop Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a general, architect, and friend of emperor Augustus, from commissioning a map of the empire that read more or less like Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 map of the New York subway. That ambitious work of cartography, historians now believe, inspired the Tabula Peutingeriana, which survives today as the only large world map from antiquity. The video above from Youtuber Jeremy Shuback approaches the Tabula Peutingeriana as “the first transit map,” despite its dating from the thirteenth century, and even then probably being a copy of a fourth- or fifth-century original.


While the Roman Empire didn’t have electric trains and payment cards, they did, of course, have transit: the word descends from the Latin transire, “go across.” Many a Roman had to go across, if not the whole empire, then at least large stretches of it. In theory, they would have found a map like Tabula useful, with its simplification of geography in order to emphasize city-to-city connections. But that wasn’t its primary purpose: as Shuback puts it, this oversized map of all lands dominated by the Romans was “made to brag.” Whoever owned it surely wanted to imply that they possessed not just a map, but the world itself.

Related content:

A Wonderful Archive of Historic Transit Maps: Expressive Art Meets Precise Graphic Design

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

The Roman Roads of Britain Visualized as a Subway Map

“The Wonderground Map of London Town,” the Iconic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Subway System

Animated GIFs Show How Subway Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & London Compare to the Real Geography of Those Great Cities

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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

Watch “The Impossible Map,” a Short Animated Film That Uses a Grapefruit to Show Why Maps of the Earth Are Misleading (1947)

There are any number of ways one might try to turn a globe into a two-dimensional surface. You could start by cutting it down the middle, as in this Vox video on world maps. You could choose volunteers and have them come up to the head of the class and peel oranges in one piece, flattening out the strips onto an overhead projector, as in this National Geographic lesson on world maps. Or, you might attack an already halved grapefruit peel with a rolling pin, as in the National Film Board of Canada’s animated short, “The Impossible Map,” above.

Each method (except, maybe, the rolling pin) has its merits, but none of them will make a 2-dimensional surface without warping, stretching, and distorting. That’s the point, in all these exercises, a point that has been made over and over throughout the years as cartographers search for better, more accurate ways to turn the Earth’s sphere (or oblate spheroid) into a representative rectangle that roughly preserves the scale of the continents. As the hands-on demonstrations show, you don’t need to remember your geometry to see that it’s impossible to do so with much precision.


A cartographer must choose a focal point, as Gerardus Mercator did in the 16th century in his famous cylindrical projection. Since the map was designed by a European for use by European navigators, it naturally puts Europe in the center, resulting in extreme distortions of the land masses around it. These have been remedied by alternate projections like the Mollweide, Goode Homolosine (the “orange-peel map”), and the 1963 Robinson projection, which was “adopted for National Geographic’s world maps in 1988,” The Guardian notes, and “appears in [a] growing number of other publications, [and] may replace Mercator in many classrooms.”

Pioneering Canadian animator Evelyn Lambart made “The Impossible Map” in 1947, several years before professor Arthur Robinson created his “Pseudocylindrical Projection with Pole Line” — for which he used “a huge number of trial-and-error computer simulations,” as the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library writes. “To this day, no other projection uses this approach to build a map,” not even most GPS mapping software, which still, in many cases, uses a “Web Mercator” projection to represent the whole Earth. But while Lambart’s film may not be technologically up-to-date, it is visually and pedagogically brilliant, explaining, with some basic narration and sliced produce, why globes still beat flat maps of the Earth every time.

via Aeon

Related Content: 

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

Why Making Accurate World Maps Is Mathematically Impossible

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

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

A Beautiful, High-Resolution Map of the Internet (2021)


The beginnings of the Internet were uncharted territory, especially before the days of graphic browsers. You had a number, you dialed up to a location. Certain locations were named after their host universities or government sites and that made sense in an old-school telephone exchange way. But the rest was just a vast ocean of data, of strange lands, and many, many barriers. How big, exactly, is the internet? And how do we measure it? What is the “space” of cyberspace?

There have been maps that overlay the internet’s main landlines onto the map of the earth—this Vox article shows the spidery web growing from the first four locations of ARPANET until the whole world is connected. But that’s not how we think of it. Surely Open Culture is always where you, dear reader, reside, and this writer’s undisclosed location has nothing to do with it. Maybe the internet is really the space that it takes up in our minds, in our lives, and in the amount of internet traffic.


Amateur graphic designer Martin Vargic visualized those spaces as countries on a vast globe inspired by National Geographic Magazine. (Although National Geographic borrowed its cartographic style from some of the first printed maps of the world.) Vargic first published his map in 2014 when he was a student in Slovakia. And now he has decided to update the map for 2021. (See the map in high resolution here.) Large continents represent the main websites of the Internet: Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon. The seas represent the aforementioned ocean of data under different names: Ocean of Information, North Connection Ocean, etc. To compare his relatively spare original map to the one he just released is to notice how much more crowded this world has become, and how divided.

First, his methodology.

Vargic based the relative size of each website on its average traffic between January 2020 and January 2021, according to Alexa Rank, the Amazon-owned Alexa Internet’s measure of how popular a website is, calculated by unique users and page views.

However, the center of the map is now different. This now depicts the “core and backbone of the Internet as we know it,” Vargic said. This means a core of service providers surrounded by larger islands of web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, et al).

While the 2014 map considered website size as the main organizer and contained around 200 websites, this version contains 3,000. The north of the globe features country clusters: a grouping of academic, research, and free education sites (wikipedia, archive.org, etc.), governmental websites to the east and conspiracy QAnon lands to the west.

The Antarctica of the map? The Dark Web, where the Onion isn’t a parody news site and TOR isn’t the sci-fi/fantasy publisher.

You might find some of Vargic’s decisions odd, or you might just spend your time wondering how much of the internet is indeed an unknown land, with large “countries” you’ve never heard of, but with millions of “residents”. It might not be real, but Vargic’s map will put you in an exploratory mood while you light off for the territories. You can view it in a high resolution format here. Purchase it as a poster here.

Related Content:

The History of the Internet in 8 Minutes

How the Internet Archive Digitizes 3,500 Books a Day–the Hard Way, One Page at a Time

The Oldest Known Globe to Depict the New World Was Engraved on an Ostrich Egg, Maybe by Leonardo da Vinci (1504)

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

The idea that the world maps are wrong — all of them — is hardly controversial. It’s a mathematical fact that turning a globe (or an oblate spheroid) into a two-dimensional object will result in unavoidable distortions. In the TED-Ed lesson above by Kayla Wolf, you’ll learn a brief history of world maps, starting all the way back with the Greek mathematician Ptolemy, who “systematically mapped the Earth on a grid” in 150 AD in order to create maps that had a consistent scale. His grid system is still in use today — 180 lines of latitude and 360 lines of longitude.

Most of the world maps we knew come from the Mercator Projection, “a cylindrical map projection presented by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569,” writes Steven J. Fletcher.

This map projection is practical for nautical applications due to its ability to represent lines of constant course, known as rhumb lines, as straight segments that conserve the angles with the meridians…. the Mercator projection distorts the size of objects as the latitude increases from the equator to the poles, where the scale becomes infinite. 

Mercator’s innovation allowed for the shipping routes that created the modern world (including those through the now-unblocked Suez Canal). But the projection has its problems: 14 Greenlands, for example, could fit inside the continent of Africa, says Wolf, but “you wouldn’t guess it from most maps of the world”  in which the two land masses are almost the same size.


“In 2010,” Adam Taylor notes at The Washington Post, “graphic artist Kai Krause made a map to illustrate just how big the African continent is. He found that he was able to fit the United States, India and much of Europe inside the outline of the African continent.”

Geographical misperceptions “shape our understanding of the world,” Nick Routley writes at Business Insider, “and in an increasingly interconnected and global economy, this geographic knowledge is more important than ever.” We are no longer primarily using maps, that is to say, to chart, trade with, or conquer formerly unknown regions of the world — from locations assumed to be the natural centers of commerce, culture, or religion.

Non-Mercator world maps have, over the last few decades especially, attempted to correct the errors of cylindrical projection by unfolding the globe like an orange peel or a series of interlocking triangles, as in Buckminster Fuller’s 1943 Dymaxion Map. These have proved nautical miles more accurate than previous versions but they are useless in navigating the world.

Why create new, more accurate world maps? Because the Mercator projection has given the impression of Euro-American geographical supremacy for almost 500 years now, Wolf’s lesson argues, simply by virtue of the location of its origin and its original purpose. But it is now not only inaccurate and outdated, it is also irrelevant. Maps play a vital role in education. The practical utility, however, of flat world maps these days is pretty much beside the point, since GPS technology has mostly eliminated the need for them altogether.

Related Content: 

Buckminster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Innovation that Revolutionized Map Design (1943)

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

Why Making Accurate World Maps Is Mathematically Impossible

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Babylon, Rome, and the Islamic World

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

200 Online Certificate & Microcredential Programs from Leading Universities & Companies

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

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.