Origins of ordinary things: Maps

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a map as “a diagram or other visual representation that shows the relative position of the parts of something.”

The word “map” originates from “Mappa Mundi” which is a Medieval Latin phrase that means “map of the world.” This is to say that maps have been in use for a very long time. According to Quora, a knowledge exchange platform, as early as 25,000 BC there were cave paintings and rock carvings of landscape features such as hills, rivers and valleys for navigational purposes.

According to Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia, by 14,500 BC people were mapping out part of the night sky. This is evidenced by drawings in the Lascaux caves of South France.

By 700BC, Babylonians were creating advanced maps with labelled features on clay tablets. In fact, Babylonians are credited with making the first world map that was a symbolic representation of earth. This is according to ThoughtCo, an online information resource.

Still, Anaximander, an ancient Greek philosopher born in Miletus in 610 BC, was the first person to draw a map that showed certain parts of the earth and as such, could be used for navigation. Anaximander’s maps were drawn using exploration knowledge and mathematical calculations. He is therefore considered as one of the earliest cartographers.

Another important contribution to mapmaking was made by Claudius Ptolemy, a Greco-Roman mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer. According to Emporia State University, Ptolemy created a system of parallel coordinates known as latitude and longitude which could be used to accurately depict areas on earth. Maps today use the system created by Ptolemy.

History Matters, a knowledge platform, theorises that the first maps were limited to the places in which the cartographers lived or visited. This only started to change in the 1500s when Europeans began to explore different parts of the world. With the invention of modern mapping instruments such as the compass, telescope and quadrant, it became possible to depict parts of the earth more accurately.

The most advanced form of mapping began in the 18th Century. According to web-based Environmental Science, it wasn’t done for study purposes but rather, to have the upper hand during war. For this reason, cartography developed to work out detailed representations of areas of interest so that those who wished to attack or defend themselves could do it more effectively.

In the 20th Century, sophisticated technologies such as aeroplanes were invented and they were used to take aerial portraits of the earth. Later, satellites were launched and could now be used to show large regions in detail.  Computer-based geographic information systems (GIS) have been developed in the 21st Century making it easy to navigate most parts of the world. 


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