Humans were scratching crude maps on cave walls as far back as the Paleolithic era, but the science of cartography, or mapmaking, is only a little more than 2,000 years old. During that time, the world’s great geographers have wrestled with the problem of portraying a round globe on a flat piece of a paper, and their efforts have often had major implication for politics, art, science and exploration. From an ancient clay tablet to a 16th century projection that is still used today, explore eight of the most important maps from the early history of cartography.

The Babylonian World Map

Babylonian map of the world. (Credit: VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images)
Babylonian map of the world. (Credit: VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images)

History’s earliest known world map was scratched on clay tablets in the ancient city of Babylon sometime around 600 B.C. The star-shaped map measures just five-by-three inches and shows the world as a flat disc surrounded by an ocean, or “bitter river.” Babylon and the Euphrates River are depicted in the center as a pair of rectangles, while the neighboring cities of Assyria and Susa are shown as small, circular blobs. Outside of the disc sit a collection of triangular wedges, which depict far-off islands with mysterious labels such as “beyond the flight of birds” and “a place where the sun cannot be seen.” The accompanying cuneiform text describes these unknown lands as being populated by mythological beasts, which suggests that the map shows both real geographical features and elements of Babylonian cosmology.

Ptolemy’s Geography

Medieval reconstruction of one of Ptolemy’s maps. (Credit: Public Domain)
Medieval reconstruction of one of Ptolemy’s maps. (Credit: Public Domain)

Many elements of the science of cartography can trace their origins to the work of the Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemaeus, better known as Ptolemy. Around 150 A.D., he produced “Geography,” an eight-volume textbook that included some of the first maps to use mathematical principles. Ptolemy’s book has a few notable errors—the Indian Ocean, for example, is depicted as a sea—yet it’s still remarkable for its breadth and detail. It boasts more than 8,000 different place names as well as references to such far-flung locales as Iceland and Korea, all of which are plotted according to geometric points of latitude and longitude. Sadly, no maps drawn by Ptolemy have survived to today. His atlas seems to have disappeared for over a thousand years, and it wasn’t until the 13th century that Byzantine scholars began making projections using his coordinates.

The Peutinger Map

The Peutinger Map. (Credit: Public Domain)
The Peutinger Map. (Credit: Public Domain)

During the days when all roads led to Rome, the so-called Peutinger Map would have served as a handy guide to the Empire’s transportation network. The oddly shaped map is 22 feet long and just one foot wide, and depicts the course of more 60,000 miles of Roman roads stretching from Western Europe to the Middle East. An additional section also shows India, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia. Much like a modern travel guide, the map includes the locations of more than 500 cities along with some 3,500 other points of interest such as way stations, temples, forests, rivers and even spas. The original Peutinger map was probably completed sometime around the 4th century A.D., but the version that exists today is a 13th century copy. It is named for the German scholar Konrad Peutinger, who took ownership of it in the early 1500s.

The Tabula Rogeriana

The Tabula Rogeriana. (Credit: Public Domain)
The Tabula Rogeriana. (Credit: Public Domain)

In the 12th century A.D., the renowned Muslim scholar al-Idrisi was invited to the court of the Norman King Roger II and asked to produce a book on geography. The result was the “Tabula Rogeriania,” also known by its longer title, “A Guide to Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands.” The book featured several regional maps as well as a projection of the known world, which depicted the entirety of Eurasia and a large section of Africa. By drawing from interviews with travelers and his own wanderings through Europe, al-Idrisi also compiled extensive data on the climate, politics and culture of different regions. The Tabula Rogeriana remained among the world’s most accurate maps for several centuries, but it may appear strange at first glance—in the tradition of Islamic cartographers, al-Idrisi drew it with south positioned at the top.

The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu

The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu. (Credit: Public Domain)
The Da Ming Hun Yi Tu. (Credit: Public Domain)

One of the earliest surviving world maps from the Far East, China’s Da Ming Hun Yi Tu, or “Amalgamated Map of the Ming Empire,” was drawn on silk as early as 1389. The map spans the entire Eurasian continent from Japan to the Atlantic Ocean, and includes detailed markings of mountain ranges, rivers and administrative centers. It is particularly notable for the way in which it distorts the size of various landmasses. Mainland China sits like a monolith in the middle of the map, while Japan and Korea are both far larger than India. The African continent, meanwhile, is depicted as a relatively small peninsula with what appears to be a giant lake in its center. Despite these peculiarities, the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu is often cited as the first map to show Africa with a southern tip that could be circumnavigated.

The Cantino Planisphere

The Cantino Planisphere. (Credit: The Cantino Planisphere/Getty Images)
The Cantino Planisphere. (Credit: The Cantino Planisphere/Getty Images)

The Cantino Planisphere was once at the center of an act of cartographic theft. In 1502, an Italian duke commissioned an agent named Alberto Cantino to acquire a map of the geographic discoveries of the Kingdom of Portugal, which was notorious for closely guarding the location of the new lands found by its explorers. Cantino succeeded in his mission, and the map that he smuggled out of Portugal has since become famous. Not only does it depict Africa, India and Europe in unprecedented detail, it stands as one of the earliest known maps to show the coastlines of Portugal’s “New World” territories in South America. To the north of Brazil, the map also includes a small grouping of landmasses that appear to be Cuba, Hispaniola and part of the American East Coast.

The Waldseemüller World Map

The Waldseemüller World Map, 1507. (Credit: Heritage Images / Getty Images)
The Waldseemüller World Map, 1507. (Credit: Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Martin Waldseemüller is far from a household name, but perhaps he should be—he helped give the American continents their name. In 1507, the German cartographer produced the first map in history to depict the New World as a distinct landmass with the Pacific Ocean on its western side. In honor of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who had first posited the separate continent theory, Waldseemüller and collaborator Matthias Ringmann dubbed these new Western Hemisphere territories “America.” The Waldseemüller map has since been called “America’s birth certificate,” but it also bears the distinction of being the most expensive world map of all time. In 2003, the Library of Congress purchased the only surviving copy for a whopping $10 million.

The Mercator Projection

Mercator’s 1569 map—the first to employ his projection style. (Credit: Public Domain)
Mercator’s 1569 map—the first to employ his projection style. (Credit: Public Domain)

Once a staple of school classrooms the world over, the famed Mercator projection has also been the subject of considerable debate and controversy. The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator first designed the map style in 1569 as a way of displaying the spherical Earth on a flat, rectangular surface. With this in mind, he drew a world map with parallels of latitude that are spaced increasingly far apart as they move away from the equator. This feature made the Mercator projection invaluable to mariners, who could use it to sail in straight lines with a constant compass bearing, but it also meant that the relative size of different landmasses was hugely distorted. Greenland and other polar regions appear far larger than they actually are, while equatorial landmasses such as Africa and South America are heavily compressed. The Mercator projection nevertheless remained a fixture of atlases until the 20th century, when critics began to denounce it as inaccurate. While it’s still used as a navigational aid, it has since been largely supplanted by more modern, oval-shaped maps such as the Robinson and Winkel Tripel projections.