Map Happenings

Mapping Industry Tidbits, Activity and Musings

12 Map Happenings That Rocked Our World: Part 1

The First Map

Now, before we get started, let me set the record straight. I am no historian, and certainly no map historian. My degree was in computer science. For the most part history classes did not get my full attention, although there were one or two exceptions.1

As a result I generally know diddly squat about history, so you’re just going to have to put up with that. 

However, as I got thinking about the key Map Happenings that rocked our world, it became quickly obvious that the very first one had to be about the invention of the first map. So a dive into ancient history was unavoidable.

So, the question is, who started all this nonsense? 

As you can imagine it turns out to be a somewhat difficult question to answer. There’s lots of information on the topic of early maps and, as as you’d expect, many differing opinions as well as quite a few disputes. We’ll get to all that in a moment. 

The main problem is that these historical records don’t answer the question — there’s absolutely no way we can know who created the first map. 

So let’s look at this in a different way.  

If you think about any map let’s answer the fundamental question of what it is trying to achieve. I think the answer to this question is simple: it’s trying to communicate information. More importantly I think it’s trying to communicate information by providing an abstraction of the real world. So if we can all agree on this for a moment, let’s now think about it in the context of the human race. When did humans first become able to understand the concept of an abstraction? 

If you can answer that question then it’s quite likely that around the same time some rather smart chap or chapess happened to take a stick, draw some lines in the dirt, and proceed to explain to their mates where to some find some juicy goodies. That, I believe, was the likely dawn of the first map. 

To find out the answer as to when this might have occurred let me draw your attention to a rather good article from 2002 in the New York Times: “When Humans Became Human”, written by John Noble Wilford. In it he provides a brief overview of human history starting 2.5 million years ago and covers the various intellectual debates about the dawn of human creativity. 

One point of view is that there was some sudden genetic advance and that in turn caused creativity to appear suddenly2. This is proposed in a book “The Dawn of Human Culture” by Dr. Richard G. Klein, a Stanford archaeologist:

In [Dr. Klein’s] view, 40,000 years ago was the turning point in human creativity, when modern Homo sapiens arrived in Europe and left the first unambiguous artifacts of abstract and symbolic thought. They were making more advanced tools, burying their dead with ceremony and expressing a new kind of self-awareness with beads and pendants for body ornamentation and in finely wrought figurines of the female form. As time passed, they projected on cave walls something of their lives and minds in splendid paintings of deer, horses and wild bulls.

It was around this time that the first known paintings were created, the oldest of which was a cave painting of a pig from some 45,000 years ago.

In my mind paintings are like maps and require abstract thought — although one could argue that maps require a little more abstract thought than a painting. I’m willing to bet that the first map was created somewhere around the same time as the first paintings. 

But if we don’t know exactly when the first map was created or who created it, the question then becomes: “What do we know about early maps?”

The first known map might be the Çatalhöyük3 cave painting from 6,200BC near Konya in Turkey. It was discovered by James Mellaart in 1963. It is thought to depict a volcanic eruption around a Neolithic village:

Çatalhöyük Cave Painting – Konya, Turkey – around 6200BC
Credit: Keith Clarke, UCSB

Here’s what the painting is thought to represent:

The Çatalhöyük Cave Painting is thought to depict an erupting volcano above the village
Credit: Grant Cox, Art As Media

As is common with ancient artifacts there is some controversy.  Is it a map, or is it just a painting? Some think it might just be a drawing of a leopard skin. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest listening to this three minute article from National Public Radio.

A second contender for the first known map is a particular Babylonian clay tablet from around 2500BC. This was found in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ga-Sur which is near Kirkuk in Iraq. According to the Mughal Library this clay tablet has been generally accepted as “the earliest known map”. It was unearthed in 1930:

Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (7.6 x 6.8 cm / 3” x 2.5”), most authorities place the the date of this map-tablet from the dynasty of Sargon of Akkad (2,300-2,500 B.C.); although, again, there is the conflicting date offered by the distinguished Leo Bagrow of the Agade Period (3,800 B.C.). The surface of the tablet is inscribed with a map of a district bounded by two ranges of hills and bisected by a water-course. This particular tablet is drawn with cuneiform characters and stylized symbols impressed, or scratched, on the clay. Inscriptions identify some features and places. In the center the area of a plot of land is specified as 354 iku [about 12 hectares], and its owner is named Azala.

Babylonian Clay Tablet 
Ga-Sur near Kirkuk, Iraq – 3800BC – 2300BC
Credit: Mughal Library

A third contender for the earliest known map is the Turin Papyrus Map which is an ancient Egyptian map, and according to Wikipedia is generally considered the oldest surviving map of topological interest from the ancient world. It depicts gold mines in Egypt’s eastern desert and was drawn about 1150BC, and so it is actually the earliest known geologic map. If you’d like to learn more I’d suggest reading this article from National Geographic. The map is on display at the Egyptian museum in Turin:

The Turin Papyrus Map – Egypt – around 1150BC
Depicts Gold Mines in the Eastern Desert 
Credit: World History Encyclopedia

The oldest surviving map of the world is likely the Imago Mundi which is on display at the British Museum in London. It depicts the Mesopotamian world with Babylon in the center and dates from 700BC to 500BC. Contrary to American geography, Babylon was actually about 50 miles / 80 km south of Baghdad and is not located on Long Island.

The Imago Mundi – Babylon  (Iraq) – 700BC – 500 BC
Considered the Oldest Known Map of the World
Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

So there you have it:

  • First map: likely a scratch in the dirt, probably about 45,000 years ago
  • Earliest known map, candidate 1: Çatalhöyük cave painting in Turkey from around 6,200BC
  • Earliest known map, candidate 2: Babylonian clay tablet from Iraq, created around 3800BC – 2500BC
  • Earliest known geologic map: Turin Papyrus Map from Egypt, created around 1150BC
  • Earliest known map of the world: Imago Mundi from Iraq, created around 700BC to 500BC

There is just one more thing …

If you’re into old maps and happen to be in the San Francisco Bay Area I suggest you visit the David Rumsay Map Center at Stanford University which opened in 2016. Since the early 1980s David Rumsay has collected more than 150,000 rare maps from the 16th through 21st centuries. The Center contains maps and atlases in addition to interactive, high-resolution screens for viewing digital cartography. Sadly I’ve yet to visit myself, but I hear it’s tremendous. You can also see some of David’s collection by visiting his own web site.

So that’s this week’s Map Happening. I hope you enjoyed it. 

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode. 

1 There were two exceptions that I found quite gripping:

Exception 1: the British burning the White House in 1814.

Exception 2: the Second Battle of Canton, fought by the British and Chinese in 1841. The battle was triggered by a severe trade imbalance between the British and the Chinese. The British were importing tons of tea, silk and porcelain from China. To equal this trade the British exported opium to China. According to Wikipedia: 

The number of people using the drug in China grew rapidly, to the point that the trade imbalance shifted in [Britain’s] favor. In 1839 matters came to a head when Chinese official, Lin Zexu, tried to end the opium trade altogether by destroying a large amount of opium in Canton. In response to Zexu’s actions, in January 1841 the Royal Navy bombarded Chinese positions near Canton and landed troops ashore in several locations. Local officials surrendered and signed peace treaties with the British.

2 An alternate point of view is expressed by Professor Ian Hodder, also from Stanford, but from the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology. He wrote a book called “Consciousness, Creativity, and Self at the Dawn of Settled Life”.  In his book Professor Hodder test the claims of cognitive revolution and argues that when the data are examined there is little evidence for it. 

3 Pronounced “cha-tal hay OOK”

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