A Brief History Of Maps

Thousands of years before satellites and GPS, the humble map was used to make sense of the world. These prized possessions allowed humans to navigate, facilitate trade, conquer foreign lands, and shape geographical narratives of power and influence. Behind those maps were history’s greatest cartographers (map makers) who developed mathematical methods to advance one of the world’s most important tools. From scrolls to smart phones, the history of cartography (map making) provides a timeline of how humans understood the world over the centuries.

The fascination and interest for the world we inhabit has been inherent to human nature since prehistoric times. Some of the cave paintings and other representations on bones and artifacts, which used to be viewed as mere artistic representations, have turned out to be, according to the latest investigations, maps of hunting areas, streams, routes, and even maps of the stars. Let’s investigate some of these maps.

The World’s First Maps

There is no clear winner for the title of the world’s earliest map. Some historians argue that the first map dates back to 25000 BCE, a mammoth tusk with markings that some archaeologists believe depict the landscape of the area in which it was discovered. Others have connected rock art paintings in France with constellations, arguing these depictions from 17000 BCC are the earliest known star maps. But credit for the first surviving map of the “entire” world goes to the Babylonians. In 600 BCE the Babylonians produced a “world map” known as Imago Mundi with Babylon at the center, surrounded by nearby regions and an expansive ocean. The map is a symbolic representation of how the Babylonians saw the world, not a realistic one, as areas known to the Babylonians at the time were deliberately omitted. Around the same time, several world maps emerged from Greece thanks to major scientific advances, but they were often based on speculation and had no measure of scale.


The Greeks and Romans continued to refine the art of mapmaking, culminating with the work of Claudius Ptolemaeus (in English, Ptolemy). Plotemy was a geographer, mathematician, and astronomer who lived in Roman Egypt. In about 150 AD, he famously published a scientific treatise titled Geographia (in English, Geography). This contained thousands of references and maps of various parts of the world, with longitude and latitude lines. This system revolutionized European geographic thinking by imposing mathematical rules to the composition of maps. Ptolemy’s original maps were never found, having presumably been lost over the years, but his work was descriptive enough that cartographers were able to recreate his observations in 1300 AD, and create the Ptolemy map. Plotemy’s idea of using a latitude and longitude system had a significant impact on the work of later cartographers.

Advances Through the Middle Ages

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, advances in cartography were largely halted until years later when Muslim scholars started using the knowledge, notes, and writings of the explorers and merchants during their travels aross the Muslim world. There were advances in more accurate definitions of the measuring units, plus great efforts in trying to describe and define the calculations of the circumference of the earth.

In 1154 AD, geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi produced the Tabula Rogeriana (The Recreation for Him Who Wishes to Travel Through the Countries), the most advanced map of the period. Yet, the Tabula Roberina isn’t just a map of the world, it’s an extensively researched geographical text that covers natural features, ethnic and cultural groups, socioeconomic features, and other characteristics of every area he mapped. The work was created for King Roger II of Sicily. Al-Idrisi drew upon his own extensive travels as well as interviews with explorers and draftsmen paid to travel and map their routes in order to create the maps in the Tabula Rogeriana. These maps describe the world as a sphere and break it up into seventy different rectangular sections, each of which is discussed in exacting detail in the remainder of the Tabula.

Medieval Maps

“Mappa mundi” is a generic term for medieval, European, world maps. The “Hereford Mappa Mundi” is notable for being the largest medieval map still in existence, as well as one of the most elaborately drawn and colored. The illustration of the map itself is circular with Jerusalem placed at the center of the map, the garden of Eden in a ring of fire near the top of the map, and the whole thing oriented with east at the top. One odd feature of the Hereford map is that Europe is mislabeled as Africa and vice versa.

Age of Exploration

During the age of exploration, Iberian travelers and cartographers explored new regions for the first time and gathered information on their journeys. In the early 1500s, these expeditions, combined with mathematical principles revived from Ptolemy’s works, gave cartographers the knowledge they needed to produce nautical maps with greater accuracy.

Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cosa traveled with Christopher Columbus and produced the first map depicting both North and South America. (However, it only contained accurate depictions of the coastlines as inland travel was scarce.)

In 1569, the Dutchman Gerardus Mercator invented the Mercator map (also called the Mercator projection map). This was a map designed to help sailors. By stretching the lands and the seas north and south of the equator, he made it much easier to use. We still use the Mercator map today and the only problem with it is we get a disproportionate sense of country sizes. Countries further from the equator such as Canada and Australia appear larger, while countries nearer the equator (for example in Africa) appear smaller than they actually are.

The Mercator map greatly aided navigation; travelers could draw a straight line to any point on the map and use the direction to plan their journeys accurately. Thanks to this map, travel became simpler and navigators were able to map the interior of continents, fostering a greater understanding of the world.

The Industrial Revolution

In 1835, the British mapped every square yard of the United Kingdom to create the British Ordnance Survey Map. Karl Baedeker, a German entrepreneur, created city maps of Europe for tourists. Maps also became mixed in with advertising; if your business made it onto a map that would literally put you “on the map.” In the United States, mapmakers would sell map space to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, they couldn’t just drop multiple pins in the same location as they do now on Google Maps.

Maps also began taking on other purposes. Charles Booth created a “moral map” of London which was designed to show how the locations where people were born and brought up could be directly linked to their odds of becoming rich or poor in later life. Unfortunately, this backfired on him when it started being used by the banks to blacklist people from poorer areas.

During the latter part of the 19th century, railroads expanded rapidly throughout the world, making travel faster, cheaper, and more and more accessible to more and more people. Cartographers put more of their energy and effort in producing up-to-date maps, showing the latest extensions to the railroad network. During this time, maps normally eliminated any decorative features and became almost entirely factual.

The Modern Day

During the wars of the 20th century, maps became more important than ever in military strategy, so much so that Winston Churchill had a whole Map Room facility constantly in use by the Army, Navy, and Air Force during the Second World War. The Soviet Union’s chief cartographer in 1988 even admitted the government deliberately falsified maps in strategy during the Cold War, moving roads, rivers, and important landmarks.

Modern satellite systems primarily determine current maps. However, surveying techniques also aid contemporary cartographers in mapping areas with high precision.

GPS (or Global Position Systems) allows cartographers to track and map everyday trends include things like:

  • Traffic
  • Common pathways and average time traveled
  • Climatic conditions
  • Ocean Currents

Another primary change that GPS gives us is the ability to find our location within a map. Using a device, such as most smartphones or computers, you can use GPS to figure out exactly where you are, the best route for where you are going, and how long it will take you to get there.

Technology advances so fast, that it’s hard to predict what is going to be the next step in the development of cartography. No doubt, though, that computer technology was the big revolution in the history of cartography and the start of a new era in the art and science of map making.

Historic maps give us a snapshot in time of a world that was very different. Cartography is an ever evolving art, and it is important to remember the perspective of those that have come before us. At Fire & Pine, we have a beautiful collection of historical maps which will be sure to add some history to your room and a sense of style to your wall space.