A Brief History of Cartography

October 17, 2019 | Articles

The earliest known human maps may not be maps of geography; they may be the star maps found in European cave drawings (at Lascaux, c. 14,500 BCE and Cuevas de el Castillo, c. 12,000 BCE). If history is the written record of humanity, then it could be argued that such maps are the oldest historical records.

Maps closely followed the rise of civilization and history, serving political, commercial, military, and even spiritual/religious interests. While the first writing dates to about 3000 BCE, a Babylonian clay tablet map, dated to the 24th or 25th century BCE, found near contemporary Kirkuk (Iraq), may be the oldest surviving map. The Egyptian “Turin Papyrus Map” (so-called for the Italian city of Turin, whose museum holds the map) is dated from c. 1150 BCE Egypt. 

Anaximander of Miletus (c. 611–546 BCE) was the first Ancient Greek to make a map of the world, but his map is known only indirectly, for example through the map of Hecataeus of Miletus (550–475 BCE), based on that of Anaximander.  


Possible rendering of Anaximander’s world map.

In Asia, the earliest extant Chinese maps are on wood blocks dating to the fourth century BCE. The oldest reference to a map in Chinese history comes in the story of the 227 BCE attempt to assassinate the ruler of the State of Qin (who would become Qin Shi Huang): the assassin was ceremonially presents Qin a map showing lands that were submitting to him, but has a dagger concealed in the rolled map. The map itself was the symbol of Qin’s power over that land.

Through the Middle Ages, the Muslim world, which stretched east to the Indus River and west to the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa, drew from and developed the cartographic traditions of both Europe and Asia. The Islamic Golden Age was an era of scholarship that gave history great mathematicians and astronomers. Though its cartography is not as well recorded, it was sophisticated. The Abassid Caliph al-Ma’Mum (r. 813-833) was a noted patron of cartographers. In the 10th century, the Balkhī school produced what might be some of the first atlases, containing a map of the world and 20 regional maps. 

In the Mediterranean basin, where trade ships had been plying the waters for centuries, the roots of European map making can be found. The oldest surviving nautical chart, the Carta Pisana portolan chart, dates from the end of the 13th century. An important Majorcan school of cartography was active from the 13th through the 15th centuries, and produced the important Catalan Atlas of 1375, a map that included the first “compass rose,” a device that would become a ubiquitous feature on later maps. 

With the 15th century, the center of map-making moved to the Iberian nations that initiated the European Age of Exploration—Spain and Portugal—and drew on the traditions of the Iberian and Western Mediterranean Moors to develop their own maps. Iberian map makers were responsible for a number of cartographic “firsts.”

Another important center of map-making was Germany, the birthplace of modern printing. In the time of its cartographic ascendancy, perhaps the most notable artifact of the German school is the 1507 Universalis Cosmographia of Martin Waldseemüller, on which Waldseemüller acknowledged the explorations of explorer Amerigo Vespucci by using the word “America” to name the lands across the Atlantic Ocean. In the middle of the century, Sebastian Münster’s Geographia and Cosmographia were in publication through many editions in multiple languages from about 1540 to 1580. The Cosmographia included maps and also many city views. Though the maps and views were woodcut prints, the titles on them were made with movable type, allowing different editions or states of the same map with the titles in different languages.

Universalis Cosmographia, Martin Waldseemüller, 1507.

The trading nations of the Italian Peninsula, rich with trade, and in the midst of the artistic explosion we now refer to as the Renaissance, also had important cartographic centers, especially Venice and Rome.

A superb bird’s-eye-view of Venice, finely-engraved and exceptionally adorned.

In the later years of the 16th century, a new map-making center arose in the Netherlands, which would dominate cartography for much of the 17th century. The cities of the Netherlands—Antwerp, in particular—were great traders whose fleets challenged for domination of the seas until the English became ascendant in the 18th century.  As traders and mariners, it is natural that they would also be cartographers. One of the most famous was Abraham Ortelius, whose 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is often recognized as the first modern-style atlas. And if there is a cartographer whose name you know, it is quite likely that of Gerard Mercator, whose most famous map projection—the Mercator projection—is still commonly used. Mercator first used the projection in 1569, just one year before Ortelius’s atlas.

One of the most famous world maps ever made, “Typus Orbis Terrarum” featured in the world’s first atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

For nearly a century, the Dutch would dominate cartography, until the rise of French cartographic schools funded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister to Louis XIV. Louis was actively pursuing French colonial ventures, and the work of cartographer Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville (1600-1667, who had been granted the title Géographe Ordinaire du Roi by Louis XIII, and then by Louis XIV), especially his 1658 atlas, inspired Colbert to start a cartographic school. Sanson’s contribution to cartography is memorialized by sinusoidal projection named for him.

Gorgeous and extremely rare second state of Sanson’s landmark map of North America.

And then it seems hardly surprising that England, the greatest maritime nation of the 18th and 19th centuries would become a center of cartography.

Large, detailed sea chart of the West Coast of North America with added notations and sighting information.

Since the 19th century, cartographic tools and techniques have become sufficiently widely available that all nations could map with equal ease and accuracy. Finally, with the development of flight and then spaceflight and orbital satellites, cartography can now rely on direct images produced from the same perspectives that early map-makers only could imagine.