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History of cartography

Cartography (from Greek ?????? khart?s, "map"; and ??????? graphein, "write"), or mapmaking, has been an integral part of the human story for a long time, possibly up to 8,000 years.[1] From cave paintings to ancient maps of Babylon, Greece, and Asia, through the Age of Exploration, and on into the 21st century, people have created and used maps as the essential tools to help them define, explain, and navigate their way through the world. Mapping represented a significant step forward in the intellectual development of human beings and it serves as a record of the advancement of knowledge of the human race, which could be passed from members of one generation to those that follow in the development of culture. Maps began as two dimensional drawings. Although that remains the nature of most maps, modern graphics have enabled projections beyond that.

Earliest known maps

The earliest known maps are of the heavens, not the earth. Dots dating to 16,500 BCE found on the walls of the Lascaux caves map out part of the night sky, including the three bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair (the Summer Triangle asterism), as well as the Pleiades star cluster. The Cuevas de El Castillo in Spain contain a dot map of the Corona Borealis constellation dating from 12,000 BCE.[2][3][4]

Cave painting and rock carvings used simple visual elements that may have aided in recognizing landscape features, such as hills or dwellings.[5] A map-like representation of a mountain, river, valleys and routes around Pavlov in the Czech Republic has been dated to 25,000 BP, and a 14,000 BP polished chunk of sandstone from a cave in Spanish Navarre may represent similar features superimposed on animal etchings, although it may also represent a spiritual landscape, or simple incisings.[6][7]

Another ancient picture that resembles a map was created in the late 7th millennium BCE in Çatalhöyük, Anatolia, modern Turkey. This wall painting may represent a plan of this Neolithic village;[8] however, recent scholarship has questioned the identification of this painting as a map.[9]

Whoever visualized the Çatalhöyük "mental map" may have been encouraged by the fact that houses in Çatalhöyük were clustered together and were entered via flat roofs. Therefore, it was normal for the inhabitants to view their city from a bird's eye view. Later civilizations followed the same convention; today, almost all maps are drawn as if we are looking down from the sky instead of from a horizontal or oblique perspective. The logical advantage of such a perspective is that it provides a view of a greater area, conceptually. There are exceptions: one of the "quasi-maps" of the Minoan civilization on Crete, the “House of the Admiral” wall painting, dating from c.?1600 BCE, shows a seaside community in an oblique perspective.

Ancient Near East

Maps in Ancient Babylonia were made by using accurate surveying techniques.[10]

For example, a 7.6 × 6.8 cm clay tablet found in 1930 at Ga-Sur, near contemporary Kirkuk, shows a map of a river valley between two hills. Cuneiform inscriptions label the features on the map, including a plot of land described as 354 iku (12 hectares) that was owned by a person called Azala. Most scholars date the tablet to the 25th to 24th century BCE; Leo Bagrow dissents with a date of 7000 BCE.[page needed] Hills are shown by overlapping semicircles, rivers by lines, and cities by circles. The map also is marked to show the cardinal directions.[1]

An engraved map from the Kassite period (fourteenth–twelfth centuries BCE) of Babylonian history shows walls and buildings in the holy city of Nippur.[11]

In contrast, the Babylonian World Map, the earliest surviving map of the world (c.?600 BCE), is a symbolic, not a literal representation. It deliberately omits peoples such as the Persians and Egyptians, who were well known to the Babylonians. The area shown is depicted as a circular shape surrounded by water, which fits the religious image of the world in which the Babylonians believed.

Examples of maps from ancient Egypt are quite rare, however, those that have survived show an emphasis on geometry and well-developed surveying techniques, perhaps stimulated by the need to re-establish the exact boundaries of properties after the annual Nile floods. The Turin Papyrus Map, dated c.?2500 BCE, shows the mountains east of the Nile where gold and silver were mined, along with the location of the miners' shelters, wells, and the road network that linked the region with the mainland. Its originality can be seen in the map's inscriptions, its precise orientation, and the use of colour.

Ancient Greece

Early Greek Literature
In reviewing the literature of early geography and early conceptions of the earth, all sources lead to Homer, who is considered by many (Strabo, Kish, and Dilke) as the founding father of Geography. Regardless of the doubts about Homer's existence, one thing is certain: he never was a mapmaker. The enclosed map, which represents the conjectural view of the Homeric world, was never created by him. It is an imaginary reconstruction of the world as Homer described it in his two poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is worth mentioning that each of these writings involves strong geographic symbolism. They can be seen as descriptive pictures of life and warfare in the Bronze Age and the illustrated plans of real journeys. Thus, each one develops a philosophical view of the world, which makes it possible to show this information in the form of a map.

The depiction of the earth conceived by Homer, which was accepted by the early Greeks, represents a circular flat disk surrounded by a constantly moving stream of Ocean (Brown, 22), an idea which would be suggested by the appearance of the horizon as it is seen from a mountaintop or from a seacoast. Homer's knowledge of the Earth was very limited. He and his Greek contemporaries knew very little of the earth beyond Egypt as far south as the Libyan desert, the south-west coast of Asia Minor, and the northern boundary of the Greek homeland. Furthermore, the coast of the Black Sea was only known through myths and legends that circulated during his time. In his poems there is no mention of Europe and Asia as geographical concepts (Thompson, 21), and no mention of the Phoenicians either (Thompson, 40). This seems strange if we recall that the origin of the name Oceanus, a term used by Homer in his poems, belonged to the Phoenicians (Thomson, 27). That is why the big part of Homer's world that is portrayed on this interpretive map represents lands that border on the Aegean Sea. It is worth noting that even though Greeks believed that they were in the middle of the earth, they also thought that the edges of the world's disk were inhabited by savage, monstrous barbarians and strange animals and monsters; Homer's Odyssey mentions a great many of them.

Additional statements about ancient geography may be found in Hesiod's poems, probably written during the 8th century BCE (Kirsh, 1). Through the lyrics of Works and Days and Theogony he shows to his contemporaries some definite geographical knowledge. He introduces the names of such rivers as Nile, Ister (Danube), the shores of the Bosporus, and the Euxine (Black Sea), the coast of Gaul, the island of Sicily, and a few other regions and rivers (Keane, 6–7). His advanced geographical knowledge not only had predated Greek colonial expansions, but also was used in the earliest Greek world maps, produced by Greek mapmakers such as Anaximander and Hecataeus of Miletus.

Early Greek maps
In classical antiquity, maps were drawn by Anaximander, Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, and Ptolemy using both observations by explorers and a mathematical approach.

Early steps in the development of intellectual thought in ancient Greece belonged to Ionians from their well-known city of Miletus in Asia Minor. Miletus was placed favourably to absorb aspects of Babylonian knowledge and to profit from the expanding commerce of the Mediterranean. The earliest ancient Greek who is said to have constructed a map of the world is Anaximander of Miletus (c.?611–546 BCE), pupil of Thales. He believed that the earth was a cylindrical form, like a stone pillar and suspended in space.[12] The inhabited part of his world was circular, disk-shaped, and presumably located on the upper surface of the cylinder (Brown, 24).

Anaximander was the first ancient Greek to draw a map of the known world. It is for this reason that he is considered by many to be the first mapmaker (Dilke, 23). A scarcity of archaeological and written evidence prevents us from giving any assessment of his map. What we may presume is that he portrayed land and sea in a map form. Unfortunately, any definite geographical knowledge that he included in his map is lost as well. Although the map has not survived, Hecataeus of Miletus (550–475 BCE) produced another map fifty years later that he claimed was an improved version of the map of his illustrious predecessor.

Hecatæus's map describes the earth as a circular plate with an encircling Ocean and Greece in the centre of the world. This was a very popular contemporary Greek worldview, derived originally from the Homeric poems. Also, similar to many other early maps in antiquity his map has no scale. As units of measurements, this map used "days of sailing" on the sea and "days of marching" on dry land (Goode, 2). The purpose of this map was to accompany Hecatæus's geographical work that was called Periodos Ges, or Journey Round the World (Dilke, 24). Periodos Ges was divided into two books, "Europe" and "Asia", with the latter including Libya, the name of which was an ancient term for all of the known Africa.

The work follows the assumption of the author that the world was divided into two continents, Asia and Europe. He depicts the line between the Pillars of Hercules through the Bosporus, and the Don River as a boundary between the two. Hecatæus is the first known writer who thought that the Caspian flows into the circumference ocean—an idea that persisted long into the Hellenic period. He was particularly informative on the Black Sea, adding many geographic places that already were known to Greeks through the colonization process. To the north of the Danube, according to Hecatæus, were the Rhipæan (gusty) Mountains, beyond which lived the Hyperboreans—peoples of the far north. Hecatæus depicted the origin of the Nile River at the southern circumference ocean. His view of the Nile seems to have been that it came from the southern circumference ocean. This assumption helped Hecatæus solve the mystery of the annual flooding of the Nile. He believed that the waves of the ocean were a primary cause of this occurrence (Tozer, 63). It is worth mentioning that a similar map based upon one designed by Hecataeus was intended to aid political decision-making. According to Herodotus, it was engraved upon a bronze tablet and was carried to Sparta by Aristagoras during the revolt of the Ionian cities against Persian rule from 499 to 494 BCE.

Anaximenes of Miletus (6th century BCE), who studied under Anaximander, rejected the views of his teacher regarding the shape of the earth and instead, he visualized the earth as a rectangular form supported by compressed air.

Pythagoras of Samos (c.?560–480 BCE) speculated about the notion of a spherical earth with a central fire at its core. He is also credited with the introduction of a model that divides a spherical earth into five zones: one hot, two temperate, and two cold—northern and southern.[citation needed] It seems likely that he illustrated his division in the form of a map, however, no evidence of this has survived to the present.

Scylax, a sailor, made a record of his Mediterranean voyages in c.?515 BCE. This is the earliest known set of Greek periploi, or sailing instructions, which became the basis for many future mapmakers, especially in the medieval period.[13]

The way in which the geographical knowledge of the Greeks advanced from the previous assumptions of the Earth's shape was through Herodotus and his conceptual view of the world. This map also did not survive and many have speculated that it was never produced. A possible reconstruction of his map is displayed below.

Herodotus traveled very extensively, collecting information and documenting his findings in his books on Europe, Asia, and Libya. He also combined his knowledge with what he learned from the people he met. Herodotus wrote his Histories in the mid-400s BCE. Although his work was dedicated to the story of long struggle of the Greeks with the Persian Empire, Herodotus also included everything he knew about the geography, history, and peoples of the world. Thus, his work provides a detailed picture of the known world of the 5th century BCE.

Herodotus rejected the prevailing view of most 5th century maps that the earth is a circular plate surrounded by Ocean. In his work he describes the earth as an irregular shape with oceans surrounding only Asia and Africa. He introduces names such as the Atlantic Sea and the Erythrean Sea. He also divided the world into three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. He depicted the boundary of Europe as the line from the Pillars of Hercules through the Bosporus and the area between Caspian Sea and Indus River. He regarded the Nile as the boundary between Asia and Africa. He speculated that the extent of Europe was much greater than was assumed at the time and left Europe's shape to be determined by future research.

In the case of Africa, he believed that, except for the small stretch of land in the vicinity of Suez, the continent was in fact surrounded by water. However, he definitely disagreed with his predecessors and contemporaries about its presumed circular shape. He based his theory on the story of Pharaoh Necho II, the ruler of Egypt between 609 and 594 BCE, who had sent Phoenicians to circumnavigate Africa. Apparently, it took them three years, but they certainly did prove his idea. He speculated that the Nile River started as far west as the Ister River in Europe and cut Africa through the middle. He was the first writer to assume that the Caspian Sea was separated from other seas and he recognised northern Scythia as one of the coldest inhabited lands in the world.

Similar to his predecessors, Herodotus also made mistakes. He accepted a clear distinction between the civilized Greeks in the centre of the earth and the barbarians on the world's edges. In his Histories we can see very clearly that he believed that the world became stranger and stranger when one traveled away from Greece, until one reached the ends of the earth, where humans behaved as savages.

Spherical Earth and Meridians
Whereas a number of previous Greek philosophers presumed the earth to be spherical, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) is the one to be credited with proving the Earth's sphericity. Those arguments may be summarized as follows:

  • The lunar eclipse is always circular
  • Ships seem to sink as they move away from view and pass the horizon
  • Some stars can be seen only from certain parts of the Earth.

    A vital contribution to mapping the reality of the world came with a scientific estimate of the circumference of the earth. This event has been described as the first scientific attempt to give geographical studies a mathematical basis. The man credited for this achievement was Eratosthenes (275–195 BCE). As described by George Sarton, historian of science, “there was among them [Eratosthenes's contemporaries] a man of genius but as he was working in a new field they were too stupid to recognize him” (Noble, 27). His work, including On the Measurement of the Earth and Geographica, has only survived in the writings of later philosophers such as Cleomedes and Strabo. He was a devoted geographer who set out to reform and perfect the map of the world. Eratosthenes argued that accurate mapping, even if in two dimensions only, depends upon the establishment of accurate linear measurements. He was the first to calculate the circumference of the Earth (within 0.5 percent accuracy) by calculating the heights of shadows on different parts of the Egypt at a given time. The first in Alexandria, the other further up the Nile, in the Ancient Egyptian city of Swenet (known in Greek as Syene) where reports of a well into which the sun shone only on the summer solstice, long existed. Proximity to the Tropic of Cancer being the dynamics creating the effect. He had the distance between the two shadows calculated and then their height. From this he determined the difference in angle between the two points and calculated how large a circle would be made by adding in the rest of the degrees to 360. His great achievement in the field of cartography was the use of a new technique of charting with meridians, his imaginary north–south lines, and parallels, his imaginary west–east lines.[14] These axis lines were placed over the map of the earth with their origin in the city of Rhodes and divided the world into sectors. Then, Eratosthenes used these earth partitions to reference places on the map. He also was the first person to divide Earth correctly into five climatic regions: a torrid zone across the middle, two frigid zones at extreme north and south, and two temperate bands in between.[citation needed] He was also the first person to use the word "geography".

    Claudius Ptolemy (90–168 CE) thought that, with the aid of astronomy and mathematics, the earth could be mapped very accurately. Ptolemy revolutionized the depiction of the spherical earth on a map by using perspective projection, and suggested precise methods for fixing the position of geographic features on its surface using a coordinate system with parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude.[5][15]

    Ptolemy's eight-volume atlas Geographia is a prototype of modern mapping and GIS. It included an index of place-names, with the latitude and longitude of each place to guide the search, scale, conventional signs with legends, and the practice of orienting maps so that north is at the top and east to the right of the map—an almost universal custom today.

    Yet with all his important innovations, however, Ptolemy was not infallible. His most important error was a miscalculation of the circumference of the earth. He believed that Eurasia covered 180° of the globe, which convinced Christopher Columbus to sail across the Atlantic to look for a simpler and faster way to travel to India. Had Columbus known that the true figure was much greater, it is conceivable that he would never have set out on his momentous voyage.


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  • 4. http://www.infis.org/0000009a440fb2e03/0000009a4507dc512.html
  • 5. a b c d e f g Tutorials in the History of Cartography - Overview
  • 6. C. Choi (2009) "A Pocket Guide to Prehistoric Spain", New Scientist 203 (2720), 8 Aug: 8-9
  • 7. Utrilla 'et al' (2009) "A palaeolithic map from 13,660 calBP: engraved stone blocks from the Late Magdalenian in Abauntz Cave (Navarra, Spain)" Journal of Human Evolution 57 (2): 99-111
  • 8. http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/Ancientimages/100B.jpeg
  • 9. http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/195777
  • 10. The History of Cartography Book Series
  • 11. Oriental Institute Www Homepage
  • 12. http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/Ancientimages/106A.GIF
  • 13. a b c Slide #219 Monograph
  • 14. http://www.henry-davis.com/MAPS/Ancientimages/112B.jpg
  • 15. http://geology.cwru.edu/~huwig/catalog/slides/769.G.2.jpg
  • 16. BBC News article "Ancient Roman road map unveiled
  • 17. a b c Hsu, 90.
  • 18. a b c d e Hsu, 93.
  • 19. a b c Hsu, 91.
  • 20. a b c Hsu, 92.

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