Speculative Polar Cartography – Then and Now

Co-published with http://www.realclimate.org.

The curious mismapping of Greenland’s ice sheet cover by the venerable Times Atlas recently has excited a lot of outraged commentary. But few people noted that this follows an old tradition of speculative cartography of the polar regions. ‘Modern’ mapmakers as early as the 16th century combined real facts and scientific knowledge with fundamental misinterpretations of that knowledge to create speculative mapping of the world’s unknown shores – and nowhere was this more prevalent than at the poles.

Mercator's 1606 Map of the North Pole

Mercator's 1606 Map of the North Pole

Early cartographers had a particularly difficult time mapping the Polar Regions. Factually, they based their maps on reports from mariners who dared sail the dangerous waters. This was supplemented by information from earlier maps, speculations based upon their personal theories of geography, religious beliefs, and the fiscal and political ambitions of their patrons.

The earliest specific map of the North Pole is Gerard Mercator’s 1595 Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio (‘Northern Lands Described’, shown here is the 1606 edition). Mercator interprets a lost work known as the Inventio Fortunata (“The Fortunate Discovery”), which, though we don’t know for certain, supposedly refers to early journeys to Iceland and the Faeroes in the 14th century. Complementing and interpreting the Inventio, Mercator added real geographic knowledge collected by explorers Martin Frobisher (1535-1594) and John Davis (1550-1605) (amongst others). Mercator used the Inventio description of lands and peoples, Frobisher and Davis’s reports on currents, ice extent, and other elements, to compose this masterpiece of cartographic speculation.

At the North Pole Mercator placed a great mountain, the Rupes Nigra (“Black Rock”) around which flows a mighty whirlpool (hence the strong currents recorded by Davis and Frobisher). From here four powerful rivers flow inward dividing a supposed Arctic continent into four distinct lands. Mercator referenced the Inventio to populate these lands with pygmies, Amazons, and other anomalies. Between Asia and America Mercator added another great sea mountain to which he ascribes magnetic properties. This mountain evolved from a pet theory devised by Mercator to explain magnetic variation. It is also noteworthy that the seas all around the poles are open and navigable – it is very likely Mercator had in mind the interests of royal patrons eager for a Northwest or Northeast Passage.

Buache's 1763 Map of the Antarctic

Buache's 1763 Map of the Antarctic

Two hundred and fifty years later, in 1763, the French geographer Phillipe Buache (1700-1773), issued another wonderful attempt to address the problematic Polar Regions. Buache drew this map to expound upon his own theory of water basins wherein he hypothesized that the Antarctic contained two distinct land masses separated by a frozen sea. From the frequency of icebergs seen by early explorers such as Halley and Bouvet, Buache presumed that there must be a semi-frozen sea at the South Pole. This sea, which he argued (correctly) could only be fed by mountains in the surrounding polar lands, disgorged ice into the southern seas. He thus maps “Land yet undiscovered” and “Frozen Sea as Supposed”, “Supposed Chain of Mountains” as well as other speculations in order to conform not only to his own theories but to accepted mappings of this region by venerable cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Kaerius and Orteilus, Buache also joins New Zealand to the Antarctic mainland and adds an expansive reservoir he names “Siberia”. Buache was highly influential in his time and aspects of his geographical speculation found their way into numerous maps of the period.

Maps such as these abound in early cartography and most, no matter how misguided, are genuine attempts to rectify the known and unknown. Some, like the maps above and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland, are derived from real scientific knowledge, but exhibit either a misunderstanding of geography or an erroneous hypothesis. These often lead to fictitious interpretations of factual data. Such errors do have ramifications. In the early days of polar exploration such maps often inspired to ill-fated nautical expeditions in search of pygmies, polar seas, and new lands. In modern times, such speculative mappings, both early and contemporary, have been used by some to disprove global warming, advocate for the continent of Atlantis, and prove that space aliens mapped the earth in antiquity and in

Senator Allen Quist, Finaeus, Terra Australis in Global Climate Change

1531 Finaeus Map of the World

1531 Finaeus Map of the World

We found it appalling, deeply disturbing, and extremely amusing to discover that GOP senator and two time Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Allen Quist has cited the Oronce Finé map of 1531 as proof that global warming is cyclical and consequently not problematic. While the idea that a policy maker’s environmental voting record may have been influenced by scientific presumptions based on a speculative map that went out of date 400 years ago is profoundly distressing, we find it interesting to delve into this claim a little more deeply. Quist’s misreading of the Finé, or as it is more commonly known Fineaus, map is a result of a failure in due diligence compounded by a profound lack of understanding regarding cartography in general and antiquarian cartography in specific, a gross misreading of this specific map, and a misunderstanding of climate change.

The map in question is indeed, without a doubt, a cartographic masterpiece. Finé was a French mathematician and scholar active in the early 16th century. Cartographically he is best known for introducing the cordiform projection, recognizable for its distinctive heart shape. Finé’s map is a combination of information gleaned from contemporary explorations, including the voyage of Magellan, as well as from existing geographical publications. His cartographic work as a whole attempts to reconcile contemporary geographical findings and scientific speculation with accepted Ptolemaic geographies. As such, the Finé map combines both observed and speculative cartographic elements.

Quist cites Finé’s depiction of the continent of Terra Australis in the Southern Hemisphere as proof that global warming is cyclical. His hypothesis is based upon the false presumptions that Finé is in fact depicting Antarctica, that it is geographically correct assuming a lack of ice cover, and that the map itself is based on known facts. In our modern era of GPS, satellite photos, sonar, and other advanced geomapping tools, most look at a map as an object of indisputable truth. If you want a site where you can bget variety of stock photography check out eyeem.com. However, the actuality, especially regarding antiquarian cartography is very different. In fact, it might be compared with our mapping of outer space today. Few are shocked when astronomers speculate on the existence of black holes, pulsars, dark matter, and other stellar phenomena that are not directly observable, and yet, this is exactly the kind of guesswork that early cartographers such Finé were forced to engage in. When Finé drew his important map, the world was largely unknown. His job was to fill in the details wherever possible and use scientific speculation to work over the rest.

And so Finé’s map depicts Terra Australis. Terra Australis was not a new concept in Finé’s day. Indeed, it is based on the ancient Greek philosophical musings of Plato and is mentioned in the geographies of Ptolemy. It was all about balance. Terra Australis, which we deal with in some depth in an earlier blog post, was supposed to be a massive landmass in the Southern Hemisphere that counterbalanced the mass of Europe and Asia in the Northern Hemisphere. While the idea of Terra Australis was firmly entrenched in the 15th century, the first to actually claim to have discovered it was Magellan, who believed that Tierra del Fuego was the northern most point of the Great Southern Continent. This notion was disproved by the circumnavigation of Drake, which went south of Tierra del Fuego in 1577. Finé’s map was issued between these two important circumnavigations. When he writes of Terra Australis, “recently discovered but not yet completely explored”, Finé is specifically referring to Magellan’s erroneous notion that he discovered the speculative Southern Continent in Tierra del Fuego.

The presumption, by Quist and numerous pseudo-historians, that Finé’s map actually represents Antarctica is entirely false. Some, including Quist, claim that fine accurately maps Antarctica as it would have appeared without ice. The is only case if we spin the entire continent on its axis by about 30 degrees as well as enlarge it by about 250%. Finé’s form of Antarctica is based on antiquarian philosophy, obscure references in the works of Marco Polo, the presumed discovery of the Southern Continent by Magellan, and blatant guesswork. The presence of an actual landmass in roughly the same location as the Great Southern continent is nothing more than coincidence.

We also know from indisputable evidence extracted from ice cores on Antarctica that the continent itself has not been free at any point in the historical era. And of course, global warming is cyclical, but the dramatic changes we are seeing today are, short of a global climatic disaster such as an asteroid impact or major volcanic eruption, unprecedented.

While, in this case, Quist is guilty in little more than a lack of due diligence, the misunderstanding of the Terra Australis continent and the misinterpretation of its common appearance on early maps, is a common error. Modern day pseudo-scientists and pseudo-historians have cited the various mappings of Terra Australis, from Finé in the 16th century to Bauche in the 18th, as proof of anything from the existence of Atlantis, to the intervention of space Aliens, to the presence of time travelers, to God. It is thus disappointing in an elected official, though hardly surprising that yet another misinformed individual has jumped to yet another misinformed conclusion.

REF: http://minnesotaindependent.com/39870/gops-quist-says-antique-map-disproves-global-warming

Baraku Villages in Old Japanese Maps – and Google Earth

c. 1850 Map of Edo or Tokyo

c. 1850 Map of Edo or Tokyo

Google has recently been the subject of a major backlash from the Japanese government, Burakumin equal rights groups, and the Japanese Press regarding its addition of a collection of rare 18th and 19th century Japanese maps of Tokyo or Edo to the Google Earth service. The Burakumin are a social minority group labeled as “outcasts” under old Japanese caste system. This system, which dates to the early days of the feudal shogun era, identified the Burakumin as “untouchable” due to their employment in death related professions such as gravediggers, undertakers, embalmers and leather workers. Burakumin were believed to have been “tainted by death” and thus unlucky. Though the caste system was legally abolished in 1871, Japan is a deeply traditional society and discrimination remains an issue to this day. The remarkable Japanese family registry or Koseki makes it easy for companies and individuals to track families back over 100 years, thus identifying the modern descendents of the Buraku. Today many large and prominent Japanese corporations actively discriminate against the descendents of Burakumin. Further, residents known to reside in old Buraku districts in the massive Tokyo urban zone are similarly discriminated against.

When Google added a collection of stunning woodblock maps from the Berkley Collection to its Google Earth project by overlaying them with modern satellite views, the locations of several previously unremarked Buraku villages came to light. Some are located in high profile and wealthy central neighborhoods, such as the “Eta” village just a few blocks from the Asakusa district. Residents fear that the satellite overlays and relative availability on this information on Google Earth will enflame a new wave discriminatory activities against the Buraku.

Berkley, Google, and prominent map collector David Rumsey, whose combined efforts are responsible for the Google Earth images, responded by editing out many of the references to Buraku villages, but publicly stated that they would be willing to reinstate them as historical documents. Personally, I agree, these maps are historically important and reflect a reality of life in feudal Japan. Modern discrimination against Buraku villages and those who are descended from the Burakumin is a contemporary issue and must consequently be dealt with in contemporary ways. Hiding or obscuring history does little to solve or resolve modern prejudices.

Over the years we have had the privilege of owning many stunning Japanese woodblock maps of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, Kyoto, and many other important Japanese cities. These maps are masterful constructions of unparalleled beauty and should available for everyone to appreciate.

Related Maps:


REF: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20090505a1.html