History of Maps and Cartography

Historical Map for representative purposes only - no boundaries are claimed to be accurate by NYK Daily

We live on a vast planet, and from the beginning of time, human beings have depended on maps to get around this world and have a sense of orientation. Even today, in the 21st century, maps remain indispensable in different areas of life, and we use one or several forms of a map every day. 

From Google Maps, which we use for looking for our preferred restaurants, to GPS navigational satellites orbiting the Earth that cannot work without digital maps to examining minerals using sophisticated cartographic resources – we need maps. Over time, these depictions of locations have evolved from relatively simple items to highly-advanced tools.

Here is the history of maps. 

Maps in the Pre-Historic Era

The study and practice of maps is an area of expertise known as cartography, and it indeed stretches back in time. They have been observed in human societies for thousands of years. Some of the oldest artefacts discovered by archaeologists are maps. Geographical drawings that date as far back as 14,500BCE have been discussed, showing how ancient the desire of recording locations has been with humans. 

The earliest known maps to human beings are stars. Dots observed on the walls of the Lascaux Caves in France show a section of the night sky date back 14,500 BCE. A similar dot map was also found in the Cuevas de El Castillo in Spain, depicting celestial bodies and dates from 12,000BCE. 

Carvings on rocks and paintings in caves showed that humans in pre-historic societies used simple features to depict the landscape. Some scientists think that one of the oldest known maps is a map-like representation of geographical features etched on a mammoth tusk dating back to 25,000 BCE. 

The first map of the earth was created by Indian Maharshi Veda Vyasa, the writer of Mahabharata, in 5100 BCE. Other Indian cartographic folklores also included the locations of the Pole star and constellations.

Maps in the Ancient Era

Maps dating back to the ancient era have also been discovered, and the oldest of them include the ones preserved on the iconic Babylonian clay tablets dating back to 2300 BCE. The people of ancient Babylonia (modern-day Iraq) are known for utilizing precise surveying techniques, which is how they could come up with stunningly detailed maps. These clay tablet location finders were not just factual; they also had other features like the various ancient cities’ cardinal points and parts. 

Maps from other ancient regions like Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, and China were also discovered at different sites. 

Evolution of Maps in the Middle Ages

The medieval era was a time of explosive growth and development in cartography. Starting with the detailed world map done by Greek merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes in the 6th century to the Erdapfel globe by German cartographer Martin Behaim in 1492, there was a lot of activity in the field of cartography. 

The talk of charts in the medieval era cannot be complete without mentioning Arab, Indian, and Persian cartographers’ contributions. These include scholars like Bhavabhuti, Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi, Abu Rahyan Biruni, and many others. Specifically, the 8th-century Indic scholar Bhavabhuti conceptualized paintings which indicated geographical regions.

Iberian cartography, 1400–1600

Cartography throughout the 14th century played a vital role in expanding the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula for a number of reasons. The maps developed primarily served as navigational tools for maritime folks such as sailors, explorers, and navigators – mostly upto the extension of the Crown of Aragon, which included the Kingdom of Valencia, the Kingdom of Aragon, and the Kingdom of Majorca, together with the Principality of Catalonia, all its areas with seashore on the Mediterranean Sea. The Crown of Aragon controlled the routes across the Mediterranean Sea from the Kingdom of Jerusalem to Europe, as part of the Silk Road’s commercial-trade course.

They were used to make the travel occurring easier by eliminating the unnecessary resources spent when the most practical route was not taken. After things such as wind patterns and latitude and longitude began to appear on maps. They made maritime activities such as conquest or exploration less time- and resource-consuming. Maps were also used to plan out landmasses by topographers in areas that had yet to be explored or did not have many recorded statistics. This was often a case of the the Americas’, where the Iberian empires did not start with a much-documented indication of the landmasses. 

Maps from the Modern Era to Present

In 1500, Spanish explorer and cartographer Juan de la Cosa came up with the first known cartographic representation of the Americas by a European. 

Several similar advancements continued, and some stood out. An excellent example of such is the Piri Reis map, which was created in 1513. Made by a 16th-century cartographer and admiral in the Ottoman Empire navy named Piri Reis, this map stunned everyone with its details and accuracy. It included the western coastlines of Europe and North Africa and Brazil’s coast alongside islands in the Atlantic Ocean, including the Canary Islands and the Azores. 

By 1569, Flemish cartographer and geographer Gerardus Mercator brought a new dimension to cartography with his introduction of cylindrical projection, which was soon referred to as the Mercator projection. 

With the development of maps came an increase in the exploration of the world. Explorers like Bartolomeu Dias, Pedro Reinel, Alonzo de Santa Cruz, Diogo Ribeiro, Christopher Columbus, and so many others depended greatly on them. Without these, newer regions of the world would not have been discovered. Even the colonization and enslavement of vast portions of the globe by France and Great Britain would not have been possible without maps. 

The Vertical Perspective projection was first used by the German map administrator Matthias Seutter in 1740. He placed his observer at ~12,750 km distance. This is the type of node used today by Google Earth. 

In the modern age, maps have gone beyond paper. Detecting location today is easy and the latest computer software applications are used. Big brands are now the leaders in map development. These include Google Maps, National Geographic Maps, Mapbox, Apple Maps, Waze, and the ESRI Geographic Information System (GIS). 

Collaborative mapping is now a big deal, and compact satellite navigation devices are all over the place. Satellite imagery and aerial photography alongside sophisticated electronic technology have changed cartography, and things can only get better for maps. From simple cave drawings, cartography has indeed come a long way. 

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