Map making has been an integral part of human history for thousands of years. It is believed that the human activity of graphically representing one’s perception of his world is a universally acquired skill and one that pre-dates virtually all other forms of written communication. From cave paintings to ancient maps of Babylon, Greece, and Asia, right into the 21st century, people have created and used maps as the essential tools to help them define, explain, and navigate their way through the world. Mapping represented a significant step forward in the intellectual development of human beings and it serves as a record of the advancement of knowledge of the human race, which could be passed from members of one generation to those that follow in the development of culture.
Early maps were a garbled mass of land that bear no resemblance to the actual world. As the centuries passed, maps became larger, more detailed and more accurate. Sometimes historic maps had strange things drawn on them, such as unidentified objects in the sky, “creatures” in the sea, and even land masses that were never known to exist.
6th Century BCE
The earliest surviving map of the world is one prepared by the Babylonians 600 years before the birth of Jesus. It shows Babylon surrounded by a circular landmass showing several cities such as Assyria, Urartu and others. They in turn are surrounded by a “bitter river” (Oceanus), with seven islands arranged around it so as to form a seven-pointed star. The accompanying text mentions seven outer regions beyond the encircling ocean.
The Babylonian world map is believed to be symbolic, rather than a literal representation of the world. It deliberately omits peoples such as the Persians and Egyptians, who were well known to the Babylonians. The area shown is depicted as a circular shape surrounded by water, which fits the religious image of the world in which the Babylonians believed.
5th Century BCE
Anaximander (c. 610 – 546 BCE) is credited with having created one of the first maps of the world, which was circular in form and showed the known lands of the world grouped around the Aegean Sea at the center. This was all surrounded by the ocean.
4th Century BCE
Based on Anaximander’s map of the world, Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550 – 476 BCE) a Greek historian created a new map. Accompanying the map, which he published in his two volume work entitled Ges Periodos (“Travels round the Earth” or “World Survey’), Hecataeus described the regions of the world reaching as far north as Scythia in the north and Asia on the east. Hecataeus described the countries and inhabitants of the known world, the account of Egypt being particularly comprehensive.
2nd Century BCE
The next major contribution to cartography came from Eratosthenes, one of the legendary map makers of the ancient world, born in 276 BC in Cyrene, presently situated in Libya. Eratosthenes created several maps of the world which featured the countries of Great Britain, India and Sri Lanka. Eratosthenes was also the first geographer to incorporate parallels and meridians within his cartographic depictions, attesting to his understanding of the spherical nature of the earth.
1st Century BCE
A century later, Greek philosopher Posidonius (c. 150 – 130 BCE) published a work “about the ocean and the adjacent areas”. This work was not only an overall representation of geographical questions according to current scientific knowledge, but it served to popularize his theories about the internal connections of the world, to show how all the forces had an effect on each other and how the interconnectedness applied also to human life, to the political just as to the personal spheres.
Posidonius also measured the Earth’s circumference by reference to the position of the star Canopus. His measure of 240,000 stadia translates to 24,000 miles, close to the actual circumference of 24,901 miles.
1st Century AD
Roman geographer Pomponius Mela proposed a unique map of the world on the year 43 AD. He divided the earth into five zones, of which two only were habitable. He asserted that antichthones, people inhabiting the southern temperate zone, are inaccessible to the folk of the northern temperate regions due to the unbearable heat of the intervening torrid belt. On the divisions and boundaries of Europe, Asia and Africa, he repeats Eratosthenes; like all classical geographers from Alexander the Great (except Ptolemy) he regards the Caspian Sea as an inlet of the Northern Ocean, corresponding to the Persian and Arabian (Red Sea) gulfs on the south.
2nd Century AD
In circa 150, the great mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer Ptolemy created the first map that used longitudinal and latitudinal lines. His ideas of a global coordinate system revolutionized medieval Islamic and European geographical thinking and put it upon a scientific and numerical basis.