The History of Cartography

Cartography - From Lines on Clay to Computerized Mapping

Tourists looking at a map


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Cartography is defined as the science and art of making maps or graphical representations/images showing spatial concepts at various scales. Maps convey geographic information about a place and can be useful in understanding topography, weather and culture depending upon the type of map. 

Early forms of cartography were practiced on clay tablets and cave walls. As technology and exploration expanded maps were drawn on paper and depicted the areas that various explorers traveled. Today maps can show a plethora of information and the advent of technology such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allows maps to be made relatively easily with computers.

This article provides a summary of the history of cartography and map-making. References to in depth academic studies on the development of cartography are included at the end.

Early Maps and Cartography

Some of the earliest known maps date back to 16,500 B.C.E. and show the night sky instead of the Earth. In addition, ancient cave paintings and rock carvings depict landscape features like hills and mountains and archaeologists believe that these paintings were used to navigate the areas they showed and to portray the areas that the people visited. 

Maps were also created in ancient Babylonia (mostly on clay tablets) and it is believed that they were drawn with very accurate surveying techniques. These maps showed topographical features like hills and valleys but also had labeled features. The Babylonian World Map is considered the earliest map of the world but it is unique because it is a symbolic representation of the Earth. It dates back to 600 B.C.E.

The earliest paper maps that were identified by cartographers as maps used for navigation and to depict certain areas of the Earth were those created by the early Greeks. Anaximander was the first of the ancient Greeks to draw a map of the known world and as such he is considered to be one of the first cartographers. Hecataeus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, and Ptolemy were other well-known Greek map makers. The maps they drew came from explorer observations and mathematical calculations. 

The Greek maps are important to cartography because they often showed Greece as being at the center of the world and surrounded by an ocean. Other early Greek maps show the world being divided into two continents – Asia and Europe. These ideas came largely out of Homer’s works as well as other early Greek literature.

Many Greek philosophers considered the Earth to be spherical and this also influenced their cartography. Ptolemy, for instance, created maps by using a coordinate system with parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude to accurately show areas of the Earth as he knew it. This became the basis for today’s maps and his atlas Geographia is an early example of modern cartography.

In addition to the ancient Greek maps, early examples of cartography also come out of China. These maps date to the 4th century B.C.E and were drawn on wooden blocks. Other early Chinese maps were produced on silk. Early Chinese maps from the Qin State show various territories with landscape features such as the Jialing River system as well as roads and are considered some of the world’s oldest economic maps (

Cartography continued to develop in China throughout its various dynasties and in 605 an early map using a grid system was created by Pei Ju of the Sui Dynasty. In 801 the Hai Nei Hua Yi Tu (Map of both Chinese and Barbarian Peoples within the (Four) Seas) was created by the Tang Dynasty to show China as well as its Central Asian colonies. The map was 30 feet (9.1 m) by 33 feet (10 m) and used a grid system with a highly accurate scale. 

In 1579 the Guang Yutu atlas was produced and contained over 40 maps that used a grid system and showed major landmarks like roads and mountains as well as the borders of different political areas. 16th and 17th century Chinese maps continued to develop to clearly show regions under exploration. By the mid-20th century, China developed an Institute of Geography that was responsible for official cartography. It emphasized fieldwork in the production of maps focused on physical and economic geography.

European Cartography

Like Greece and China (as well as other areas throughout the rest of the world) the development of cartography was significant in Europe as well. Early medieval maps were mainly symbolic like those that came out of Greece. Beginning in the 13th century the Majorcan Cartographic School was developed and consisted of a Jewish collaboration of cartographers, cosmographers and navigators/navigational instrument makers. The Majorcan Cartographic School invented the Normal Portolan Chart – a nautical mile chart that used gridded compass lines for navigation. 

Cartography developed further in Europe during the Age of Exploration as cartographers, merchants, and explorers created maps showing the new areas of the world that they visited. They also developed detailed nautical charts and maps that were used for navigation. In the 15th century, Nicholas Germanus invented the Donis map projection with equidistant parallels and meridians that converged toward the poles. 

In the early 1500s, the first maps of the Americas were produced by the Spanish cartographer and explorer, Juan de la Cosa, who sailed with Christopher Columbus. In addition to maps of the Americas, he created some of the first maps that showed the Americas along with Africa and Eurasia. In 1527 Diogo Ribeiro, a Portuguese cartographer designed the first scientific world map called the Padron Real. This map was important because it very accurately showed the coasts of Central and South America and showed the extent of the Pacific Ocean. 

In the mid-1500s Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish cartographer, invented the Mercator map projection. This projection was mathematically based and was one of the most accurate for world-wide navigation that was available at the time. The Mercator projection eventually became the most widely used map projection and was a standard taught in cartography.

Throughout the rest of the 1500s and into the 1600’s and 1700’s further European exploration resulted in the creation of maps showing various parts of the world that had not been mapped before. In addition, cartographic techniques continued to grow in their accuracy.

Modern Cartography

Modern cartography began as various technological advancements were made. The invention of tools like the compass, telescope, the sextant, quadrant and printing press all allowed for maps to be made more easily and accurately. New technologies also led to the development of different map projections that more precisely showed the world. For example, in 1772 the Lambert conformal conic was created and in 1805 the Albers equal area-conic projection was developed. In the 17th and 18th centuries the United States Geological Survey and the National Geodetic survey used new tools to map trails and survey government lands.

In the 20th century, the use of planes to take aerial photographs changed the types of data that could be used to create maps. Satellite imagery has since been added to the list of data and can aid in showing large areas in great detail. Finally, Geographic Information Systems or GIS, is a relatively new technology that is changing cartography today because it allows for many different types of maps using various types of data to be easily created and manipulated with computers.