Cartography is almost as old as human civilization. Hell, some of the drawings found in caves that date tens of thousands of years in the past depict areas around said caves, or settlements where ancient humans lived. This shows that our species like to draw maps, that we love cartography and want to map our surroundings in order to be able to navigate the lands, or just to show them to others.
But, ever since we settled down, discovered agriculture, and developed the written word, our maps gradually developed and became much more ambitious than simple cave drawings that showed where you can hunt deer, or where you saw those nasty sabretooth tigers. It’s just that once we started living in permanent settlements our gene responsible for our curiosity and love for exploration became restless so more and more explorers wanted to discover what lies beyond the horizon. So, humans started developing more and more maps. Today, there are thousands of ancient maps that depict everything from earliest cities to the whole known world. Let us check some of the oldest and most interesting ones.
Spanish cave drawing – the oldest map in history
A cave in Spain hides the oldest known map in history. While the map doesn’t show any actual settlement or a known area, it is believed that the drawing depicts a part of a landscape including mountains, rivers, and hunting areas.
Image Source: The Telegraph
Image Source: The Telegraph
The drawing itself is about 14,000 years old and was discovered in 1993 during the excavation of a cave located in Abauntz in the Navarra region of northern Spain. It is believed that the map was drawn in order to show hunters a fertile ground that contained lots of animals and also to map the area in order for others to learn about the surrounding area of the cave.
While there are cave drawings that predate this one, the Çatalhöyük Map is believed to be the oldest known map that depicts a known settlement. It was discovered inside a cave near the modern city of Konya located in Turkey. The map depicts a settlement known as Çatalhöyük, which was a thriving Neolithic town founded around 7500 BC.
Image credit: Ataman Hotel / John Swogger
The map itself is pretty crude but many believe that the mural shows the ancient city from a bird’s view and aside from the Çatalhöyük herself, the map could also depict a volcanic eruption that, according to research, happened roughly at the same time as Çatalhöyük Map was created (around 6600 BC), 8900 years ago.
While not all consider the mural as the actual map of the city, it is commonly accepted as the oldest map ever to be found depicting a known settlement.
Some believe that black and white pattern is actually showing leopard’s skin and that drawing above the black and white pattern shows a leopard and not the nearby Hasan Dağ mountain. If you ask us, it looks like a map of the settlement taken by someone who either knew the layout of the city pretty well or maybe climbed a nearby mountain in order to see the city from a top-down view.
Imago Mundi (The Babylonian World Map)
While the Çatalhöyük Map could not be a map at all, everyone agrees that Imago Mundi is the oldest known world map. It was created around 600 BC in the city of Babylon and instead of being drawn on a cave wall, the map is carved on the surface of a clay tablet. It was discovered in an Iraqi town of Sippar and it is pretty interesting.
Firstly, the map is quite small by modern standards, measuring just five-by-three inches. Next, it features a star shape and depicts the world as a flat disc surrounded by an endless ocean. It seems that the ancient belief that the Earth is flat was common among different civilizations.
The center of the map is reserved for the city of Babylon and the Euphrates river and the map also shows cities of Assyria and Susa. While these all are real-world geographical features, far away islands shown on the map are believed to be a work of fiction. If you’re interested and want to see the actual map you can do it by visiting the British Museum in London where the map is held.
If one work had to be picked as the most important work in the history of cartography, many scholars would probably choose Ptolemy’s Geography. This map was basically started cartography as we know it. You see, people drew maps before Ptolemy but he was the first human to use math and geometry in drawing a map.
Ptolemy created “Geography,” a book containing mathematical principles to be used when creating maps such as latitude and longitude. The book contains more than 8,000 different places, each one with their latitude and longitude described.
Also, Ptolemy’s Geography has lots of maps, first maps that used his mathematical mapping principles. His depiction of the known world shows Europe, Asia, and northern parts of Africa with the Indian Ocean shown as a closed sea, and far lands such as India, Korea, and Iceland also visible even though they weren’t officially “discovered” at the time.
Tabula Peutingeriana (The Peutinger Map)
This one is important because it was the first map showing a complete roadmap of the Roman Empire. The Empire was known for its interconnected road network that allowed its citizens to travel to every part of the empire on roads instead across the wilderness and Tabula Peutingeriana tried to encompass that massive network on a single parchment of paper. You can take a look at the whole map here.
A section of Tabula Peutingeriana containing Apennine Peninsula and Rome Image Source: Creative Commons
Tabula Peutingeriana was created in the 4th or 5th century and contains all the public roads of the Roman Empire spawning from the coast of Atlantic to India and Sri Lanka. This massive map covers more than 500 cities, around 3.500 points of interest and staggering 60,000 miles of roads. Every single road is divided, with each part showing a day’s travel, so travelers could know just how long it would take for them to arrive at their destination.
The map isn’t geographically accurate but that doesn’t matter because it accurately shows every single road in the Roman Empire along with the time it takes to travel across the Empire, which is a huge accomplishment. It is extremely elongated, 22 feet long and one foot wide in order to show every road of the network. Sadly, the original was lost but you can check out the copy of it created in the 13th century, which is kept at the Austrian National Library.
Tabula Rogeriana - Al-Idrisi's World Map
This one is made by Arabian cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, who traveled to Sicily on a request of the Norman King Roger II. Idrisi created the map in 1154 and it depicts the known world of the time. You can see Europe, the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and most of Asia. The map was a part of a book on geography al-Idrisi created for Roger II with the book containing detailed maps of all known regions along with descriptions of people, politics, and climate of each region shown in it.
These maps were based not only on al-Idrisi’s own knowledge and travels but also on interviews with various travelers who gave the cartographer precious information about lands he didn’t visit. While the original map uses classical Islamic projection that puts south at the top, there are modern copies that feature north at the top like the one shown below, following Western cartography style we all know and use.
The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu - Map of the Ming Empire
One of the oldest world maps made in the Far East, The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu shows the massive Ming Empire along with many other lands. As you can see, China takes the better part of the map, with sprawling land mass looking like it takes most of the known world. On the right, you can see the Korean peninsula and parts of Japan, which both are relatively big compared to mainland China.
But the map features huge distortions of western lands, with India and Africa both shown as small peninsulas with Arabic peninsula between them and Europe depicted as a tiny piece of land on the far West. The map was made in 1389 and it features hundreds of different markings showing cities, mountains, rivers, and other points of interest.
The map shown below this paragraph is a similar map of the known world drawn by Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun in 1402, the second oldest surviving world maps from the Far East. The map is called Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun or simply Kangnido and it depicts whole Korean peninsula, Japan, and the huge land of China, with similarly drawn lands of the West that are also quite out of proportion, but not as extreme as on the Ming Empire map.
Mercator's World Map
And finally, we have Mercator's World Map, the second most important work of the modern cartography. Created by Gerardus Mercator, the map shows the known world in Mercator projection, which will later become the most popular map projection in centuries to come. Even now, most popular web map services use a similar projection called Web Mercator for their interactive maps of the world. Only recently Google Maps replaced Web Mercator with a more accurate 3D version of the globe.
Back on the Mercator’s map, it features pretty accurate projections of Europe, Africa, and most of Asia. Since it originated in 1569 most of North and South America are way out of shape, with only eastern coasts of both continents featuring close resemblance to their actual shape. And of course, Australia is shown as a northern part of a large, unexplored continent because back then European explorers thought the continent was in fact just a small part of a huge southern continent called Terra Australis.