The History of Cartography

Cartography - From Lines on Clay to Computerized Mapping

Tourists looking at a map

Burak Karademir / Getty Images

Cartography is defined as the science and art of making maps or graphical representations 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. Today, maps can show a plethora of information. Technology such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allows maps to be made relatively easily with computers.

Early Maps and Cartography

Some of the earliest known maps date back to 16,500 BCE and show the night sky rather than the Earth. Ancient cave paintings and rock carvings also depict landscape features like hills and mountains. Archaeologists believe that these paintings were used both to navigate the areas they showed and to portray the areas that people visited.

Maps were 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, created in 600 BCE, is considered to be the earliest map of the world. It is unique because it is a symbolic representation of the Earth.

The Greeks: First Paper Maps

Ancient Greeks created the earliest paper maps that were used for navigation, and to depict certain areas of the Earth. 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 were based on explorer observations and mathematical calculations.

The ancient Greek maps are important to the history of 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 as divided into two continents—Asia and Europe. These ideas came largely out of Homer’s works as well as other early Greek literature.

Latitude and Longitude

Many Greek philosophers considered the Earth to be spherical, and this knowledge 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 system became the basis for today’s maps, and his atlas "Geographia" is considered to be 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 fourth century BCE and were drawn on wooden blocks or 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. These are considered some of the world’s oldest economic maps.

China Furthers Cartography

Cartography continued to develop in China throughout its various dynasties, and in 605 CE an early map using a grid system was created by Pei Ju of the Sui Dynasty. In 801 CE, 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 meters) by 33 feet (10 meters) and used a grid system with a highly accurate scale.

Atlas Produced

In 1579, the Guang Yutu atlas was produced; it 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. Chinese maps from the 16th and 17th centuries continued to develop in sophistication and clearly showed regions that were newly being explored. By the middle of the 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

European early medieval maps were mainly symbolic, similar to those that came out of Greece. Beginning in the 13th century, the Majorcan Cartographic School was developed. This "school" was a collaboration of mostly Jewish cartographers, cosmographers, navigators, and navigational instrument-makers. The Majorcan Cartographic School invented the Normal Portolan Chart—a nautical mile chart that used gridded compass lines for navigation.

Age of Exploration

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. The cartographers 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.

First Maps of the Americas

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 together with Africa and Eurasia. In 1527, Diogo Ribeiro, a Portuguese cartographer, designed the first scientific world map called the Pádron 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 based on mathematics and was one of the most accurate for worldwide 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.

Worldwide Maps

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

Modern Cartography

Modern cartography began with the advent of a variety of technological advancements. 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 to survey government lands.

Aerial Photographs and Satellite Images

In the 20th century, the use of airplanes to take aerial photographs changed the types of data that could be used to create maps. Satellite imagery has since become a major source of data and is used to show large areas in great detail. Finally, Geographic Information Systems (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.

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Briney, Amanda. "The History of Cartography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). The History of Cartography. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "The History of Cartography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).