Maps: It’s all about perspective (and sometimes politics)

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Images of 1507 Waldseemuller map: Jim Young/Reuters,

It may betray me as a nerd, but I’ll confess: I have an
affinity for maps. Most geography majors will admit a certain childhood
fascination with maps as underlying, at least in part, their eventual decision
to specialize in the discipline. Many non-geographers are equally appreciative
of these diagrams of the world. Let’s face it:  Maps are cool. They are
visually interesting, practical, and in their ability to orient and provide
perspective—at once both grounding and mind-expanding.

So imagine my delight when MWW intern Martha sent
me the following intriguing article:

Map that named America is a puzzle for researchers:
“WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The only surviving copy of the 500-year-old
map that first used the name America goes on permanent display this month at the Library of
, but even as it prepares for its debut, the 1507 Waldseemuller
map remains a puzzle for researchers.”

Ahhh….this “map puzzle” is even better than the jigsaw
version of the United States I used to play with as a child. I’ve always been interested in the science and
history of cartography. After all, it’s one thing to create a map using the
modern technologies of satellite imagery and GIS, but imagine what it would
have been like 500 years ago??

The Mystery of the Map
As described in the Reuters article, that’s exactly what
German Monk Martin Waldseemuller was commissioned to do in 1507. The world map
eventually published in 1509 was “surprisingly accurate and modern.” In fact,
it should have been impossible.

For starters, the west coast of South America is very nearly
correct, though no Europeans are recorded to have crossed the continent prior
to 1513–at the earliest. The mapmakers’ claims to have based their rendering
on the ancient writings of Egyptian geographer Ptolemy and the late 15th century Florentine Amerigo
Vespucci are hardly convincing to contemporary researchers who believe that
these accounts in themselves could not have been sufficient to generate the
detail depicted on the 1507 map.

What’s more, later maps created by Waldseemuller would seem
to indicate a virtual reversion in discovery: A map produced in 1513 displays
part of the east coast of the Americas,
but not the west coast, and refers to the land abutting the border as “Terra
Incognita” rather than “America.”
A 1516 mariner’s map retains similar regressive conventions, and takes a step
further to reconnect North America with Asia.

Some, like Library of Congress Chief of Geography and Maps John
Herbert, have suggested that the prevailing European power politics of the
time, particularly between the seafaring nations of Spain
and Portugal,
could explain the apparent discrepancies. The 1507 map may evidence a Portugese
influence, while the later maps may reveal a Spanish influence. But the jury is
still out on the matter:

“Why did the mapmaker name the
territory America and then change his mind later? How was he able to draw South America so accurately? Why did he
put a huge ocean west of America
years before European explorers discovered the Pacific?”

While I certainly don’t have any answers to these
“conundrums,” you can bet I’ll take a stroll down to the Library of Congress when
the exhibit of this “keystone” America map opens December 13th. With a price tag of $10 million, I figure it’s
at least worth a look.

Read the full Reuters article, or check out an abridged version from National Geographic News.

Map buff?
Expand your
cartographic horizons
: Props to MWW staff member Bobby for directing me to
this awesome blog that features unique (and often bizarre) maps: Strange Maps

(Today’s “strange map” is–coincidentally–germane to both the reference cited in the current post, and my response to a reader comment about the previous feature: Curitiba, Brazil.)

For even more maps, check out the Chicago Festival of Maps, a “citywide celebration of humanity’s
greatest discoveries and the maps that record our boldest explorations.” Of
course, if you find yourself in the vicinity of the Windy City,
you should pay a personal visit to the festival. For the rest of us, there is a
wonderful online companion site with impressive visuals, historical
information, and even a blog, interactive map, and database searchable by
category. So get started on your own expedition into the world of maps!

Sarah for My Wonderful World


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2 thoughts on “Maps: It’s all about perspective (and sometimes politics)

  1. Thanks Steph! This is a unique site with some very interesting thematic and conceptual maps. For the map analysts among us, there are some good examples of selection criteria being exercised here. For example, one that stuck out was a map of domain codes of the world (e.g: .us, .uk, .in, .au). The font used for the domain codes is sized to reflect relative national populations. Personally, I would have preferred to see font sizes reflect a more ‘relevant’ variable–like overall presence of each domain code on the web, or the size of national populations using the internet. But definitely a website to check out!

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