Early maps proved difficult to follow

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MEDIEVAL WORLDVIEW: European diagrams from the Middle Ages showed the world as a 'T' in an 'O.' At the top was Asia, with Europe and Africa located below. The three continents were shown separated by water, and circled by it as well.
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WIND ROSE: This detail from a map made circa 1639 of Santiago Bay, Cuba, shows a decorative wind rose. The compass rose on maps today is a combination of the old wind rose and the modern compass.

How would you like traveling with a map showing things out of proportion and inaccurately placed? That’s the kind of map our ancestors used – when they had maps at all.

Maps are a reflection of mapmakers and the times in which they live. Drawing an accurate map requires knowledge of the world – something ancient mapmakers had in limited supply. What information they had wasn’t always shared, so each mapmaker drew maps based on personal knowledge or experience. What they didn’t know, they often made up.

The most important location – usually their hometown – was drawn in large size and generally placed in the center of the map. Faraway cities were often drawn as tiny, randomly placed specks, if they were included at all.

First stabs at accuracy

The first accurate maps were sea charts. Although distance was important, direction was critical. The heavens were divided into four quarters, and the four primary winds were believed to blow from those quarters. The winds came to be used to determine direction, and were represented as ‘wind roses.’

A wind rose simply showed the direction of the prevailing winds for a location. They were constructed by drawing a circle with the winds radiating out from it. The compass rose on maps today is a combination of the old wind rose and the modern compass.

The word map comes from the Latin word mappa, which originally meant ‘signal cloth.’ Military directions were drawn on the signal cloths, and eventually the drawings themselves were called mappa. Another Latin word, mundi, which meant world, was combined with mappa, to form mappemundi. That was shortened to ‘map’ in modern usage.

Although maps have been made for thousands of years, the oldest existing map is one made in Babylon more than 4,000 years ago. It’s a local map, drawn on a clay tablet. The Babylonians also drew the first map of the whole world about 2,600 years ago.

Enter the Greeks

It was about then that Pythagoras, a Greek, began making calculations that proved the earth was a sphere. Aristotle refined those calculations about 300 years later, in 350 B.C. Another Greek, Eratosthenes, was the first to calculate an accurate measurement of the circumference of the earth.

By about 200 B.C., mapmakers had begun to include lines for latitude and longitude. At first there were only seven of each kind, and they weren’t drawn with equal distances between them. It was not until the second century A.D. that Ptolemy, an astronomer, drew maps with the latitude and longitude lines separated by even distances.

Losing their direction

Much of the Greek knowledge was lost to the Europeans during the Middle Ages, although Eastern countries, primarily Arabia, retained it. The Europeans reverted to the belief that the world was flat. Most of the European maps are now called ‘T in O’ maps. The ‘T’ of the map was a T-shaped body of water. Only three landmasses were recognized in these maps, with Asia at the top of the ‘T,’ Europe at left, and Africa to the right. An ‘O,’ or ring, of water circled the landmasses. Jerusalem was normally at the center.

It has only been recently that maps have placed north at the top. For many centuries, east was considered the most important direction – mainly because that was the direction from which the sun rose – and so it was usually placed at the top. As the Orient was to the east, turning a map to the east to determine direction was called ‘orienting.’ This expression remains in use, although the direction has changed from east to north.

The Theater of the World, the first modern book of maps, was published in 1570. In 1595, Flemish geographer and mapmaker Gerardus Mercator published a collection of maps with an illustration of the mythical Atlas holding up the world. Since then, collections of maps have been known as atlases.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that places began to be reliably located on maps. Accurately drawn coastlines appeared in the 18th century. As exploration continued in the 19th century, the interiors of the landmasses began to be filled in. Few unmapped places exist today.