If you need a map today, just take out your smartphone, open Google Maps, Apple Maps, or any other digital map app you have, and you will have the whole world in the palm of your hand. Literally the whole world, along with an incredible amount of information about it. Do you need a cool fast food joint? Want to visit a music show in the city you’re currently at? Need to refresh your looks by visiting a hairdresser? You have all necessary info in most map and navigation apps, all that needs to be done is entering the app and then searching for the stuff you need.

With the GPS system, we can now find ways through areas completely unknown to us. We can traverse the seas, climb over mountains and roam through the wild with the help of one electronic device, with the help of satellites in the sky. It is easy, for us, but in the past maps probably were some of the most cherished and vital tools humanity had to access to. They gave our ancestors a way to document their journeys, to leave a record of the lands they visited, and to enable others to revisit them. And mapping was exceedingly important; it ought to be in times without high definition aerial photos and satellite surveys available to everyone, in times when almost any long journey was a journey into the unknown, in times where explorers were heroes of entire nations.

First Maps

Although most of us think Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the father of geography and the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth (to a surprising accuracy), was the first one to give mankind tools to map their world, early maps appeared long before Ancient Greek culture.

And they weren’t depicting land; they contained stars. In prehistoric times before the written word, humans didn’t really need land maps. We lived mostly in nomadic tribes, roaming around and settling in a particular area briefly before venturing forth, and we just didn’t have needs for maps of the land.

Sure, there were adventurers back then, and they roamed the land discovering new areas, new forests, new places on which their tribes could settle. Those adventurers probably drew earliest maps ever , dating back to 25,000 BC. Those “maps” were rather simple, showing hills, rivers, valleys, and have been found in today’s Czech Republic. There were other, similar depictions of forests, hills, ancient routes, and other geographical elements, found in caves around Europe, and those are the oldest maps humanity seen to this day.

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On the other hand, the skies were a great unknown, a mysterious realm dotted with strange flickering lights. Our immense curiosity about the peculiar lands above us probably triggered a need to depict them, need to map them and group them and show them to others.

The first map of the sky is very old. It dates back to 16,500 BC, showing three bright stars known today as Vega, Deneb, and Altair. Similar drawings were found in Spain, showing dots believed to be stars on cave walls. It is simple; humanity lived a simple life, a nomadic life in times before civilization and they didn’t have the need to depict lands they traveled through because there was a slim chance their tribe would visit those lands again.

Mapping techniques were super simple back them. People would just depict what they saw and measured length by walking. Maps were simple pictorial representations of the areas and maps weren’t accurate and rich in detail as modern maps are.

But then, humanity discovered agriculture and first permanent settlements were found. And we need maps of those settlements.

Babylon And Ancient Greece

Once the first civilizations were founded, people needed maps since we began to live in permanent settlements. In ancient Sumer, where the first urban civilization has been established, humans needed maps in order to depict cities and other, smaller, settlements.

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Summers made maps of their cities, and those maps used similar crude mapping techniques. Distances were measured in steps, and maps stayed highly pictorial. Babylonians drew maps on clay tablets and back then maps were considered works of art and not something common folk used to navigate around like we do in modern times.

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The first map of the world was made in Babylonia, and it showed the known world along with oceans, rivers, cities, and lands around Babylonia. It wasn’t accurate, or true to life, but it gave the humanity the first map of the known world.

Babylonians used some advanced mapping techniques, like using boats to travel along the coast and map coastlines, but without means to calculate latitude and longitude all those maps were inaccurate and crude compared to those that were made in Ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece was highly developed civilization. The Greeks gave us democracy, the foundations of medicine, mathematics, geography, and other sciences. And one of the most important persons, who gave us basic principles of modern mapping, was Ptolemy.

He introduced the first coordinate system based on latitude and longitude, which were based on the observations of Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who concluded the Earth has a spherical shape. Ptolemy has written the world’s first atlas called Geographia, which contained thousands of maps of many areas of the then-known world. And they were all based on his coordinate system.

alt Ptolemy's map of the known world

Latitudes and longitudes gave maps much-needed accuracy and finally introduced mathematical principles to mapping. From them on, mathematics and the coordinate system became the basis of each and every map.

China And Middle Ages

While Ancient Greeks gave us a modern coordinate system which is the basis of all modern maps, Chinese also managed to develop a similar system and incorporate it into their maps. They made a grid system and used it to construct a map of China along with nearby states that were huge. It was 9.1 m by 10 m and showed the Chinese kingdom along with neighbouring barbarian states.

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Chinese people also used ships to map the coastline, and distance was measured in steps. Those maps were more precise than those of ancient Babylon because, with the help of the grid system, Chinese scientists could show accurate distances.

On the other hand, during middle Ages, cartography (as with most other sciences) stagnated in Europe. Maps were crude, mainly symbolic, and they didn’t use Ptolemy’s coordinate systems.

Back then, most maps depicted cities and were drawn by simple means. The person responsible for making the map would usually climb to a nearby vantage point and them they would just draw the city as they would see it.

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Because of this most maps drawn during the middle Ages looked more like paintings than proper maps. They would usually depict cities from an isometric perspective and weren’t used for navigation.

But then Europe stepped into the renaissance, and the age of discovery and cartography just exploded.

Renaissance And The Age Of Discovery

Europe was home to many kingdoms and that economic struggle gives way to discovery. Many countries wanted to find new lands, usually by sea, and that demanded accurate maps that could be used for navigation.

During these times we got Mercator map projection which allowed us to use the coordinate system on rectangular pieces of paper, transforming the Earth’s spherical shape into a plain rectangular projection that could be drawn as a classic map.

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Also, by then we managed to construct accurate instruments that could be used to calculate longitude and latitude by measuring the angle of the Sun, giving us means to map open sea areas and to accurately calculate distances between two coasts.

While coastal regions started to gain modern shapes, those maps couldn’t accurately show inland areas because we couldn’t just fly over the land. Because of that, most maps from then feature accurate coastlines and not so accurate inlands.

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As European explorers discovered more and more lands, scientists started to found geological surveys that would ultimately be responsible for mapping the whole world. Explorers would be hired for expeditions and they would chart the unknown lands with the help of cartographers.

Those expeditions would ultimately map the whole America, Africa, Oceania, and Asia. With the help of modern instruments, those maps were more and more accurate, but we didn’t managed to accomplish the highest degree of accuracy until we discovered flight.

Modern Times

Once airplanes conquer the air, cartography gained the form known today. Cartographers used aerial images to draw maps, and along with coordinate system, meridians, and aerial photos we finally managed to construct highly accurate maps of the whole world.

But, there were still some regions that couldn’t be mapped by planes, like polar ones. Those were accurately mapped only after expeditions to the North and South Pole, when brave men managed to map even the most distant lands on our planet.