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A regular reader of this blog (thank you) suggested I write on the topic of directional orientation in maps. Why are most maps oriented to the north? How did this practice originate? Is it necessary? Is it universal? The concept of a consistent northward orientation in all maps is neither as standardized nor as universal as it might seem at first glance. Even in modern times, it is more practical for many maps to have orientations other than north. The standard map of New York City for example, a variant of which is the classic New York Subway map, is commonly oriented to the northeast. In some non-western cultures with highly developed cartographic traditions, such as Japan, directional orientation is often not even a factor – but we will return to this at a later point.
In the west, if it can be called that, the tradition of orienting maps to the north began, as did so many things cartographic, with the 5th century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s work, the Geographica, is considered the first known geography. While the Geographica as it has come down to us today has no maps in it, it does contain detailed instructions for the construction of a map. These include a well laid out coordinate system and considerable geographic description.The world as it was known to Ptolemy would have been centered on a relatively narrow latitudinal swath of land focused around the Mediterranean. The known lands at that time would have extended from the Strait of Gibraltar eastward as far as India. The southern lands beyond the Sahara and most of northern Europe and Asia were, for all intent and purposes, unknown. Thus, in order for Ptolemy to fit his map on a long narrow scroll, it would have been oriented to either the north or the south. Some scholars argue that this alone was sufficient motivation for Ptolemy to orient his map to the north. However, upon a closer examination of Ptolemy’s work, we can see that the real reasons behind his choices are more complex.
Ptolemy was very much aware that the world was spherical and that his home in Alexandria was in the Northern Hemisphere. With this knowledge in hand Ptolemy went about assembling his coordinate system. Ptolemy realized that for his coordinate system to be consistent, he needed a mathematical formula that would enable him to map the globular world on a flat surface – a projection. While Ptolemy did not invent the idea of a projection system, he did refine it considerably. Ptolemy’s intention was that his projection “above all the semblance of the spherical surface be retained” and that “it would be well to keep lines representing the meridians straight”. What he came up with is today referred to as a conical projection, with all longitudinal lines meeting at the north pole and radiating outward towards the equator, at which point they again radiate inwards, this time towards the South Pole.
While Ptolemy could have, in theory, calculated his meridians to meet at any point on the globe, the north pole was the most practical choice. The reason behind this is as follows. First, the Ptolemaic world was a band focused on the central part of the northern hemisphere. It did not extend exceptionally far either north or south. Since the meridians on his projection converged as the map went further north, the room for detail decreased – which was fine, since he didn’t know what was there anyway – leaving the plenty of room for detail in the known central parts of the maps. Second, the Ptolemaic world was divided into various climatic zones, the inhospitable frigid zones (near the poles), the hospitable temperate zones (the northern of which occupied much of the known world), and the inhospitable torrid zone on either side of the equator. With such a zonal layout intact, Ptolemy knew his focus must be on the habitable zones of the northern hemisphere and consequently he designed his projection to reflect this. Third, as an astronomer, Ptolemy would have made regular celestial observations and therefore been familiar with the movements of the heavens around the fixed point of Polaris, the North Star. Therefore, as a matter of making his projection mathematically simpler, of encapsulating his known world, and of aligning the globe with the celestial spheres, the choice of a northward orientation would have been obvious.With the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of European civilization in to the middle ages, Ptolemy was, for all intent in purposes, forgotten. This world map, known as the Beatus Map, dates to c. 1050 and is one of the oldest surviving medieval maps. It is also a beautiful example of the mapping conventions that developed during this period. This maps offers a religious view of the cosmos and, though interesting on many levels, has little of the cartographic sophistication of Ptolemy’s Geographica. The map depicts the world as a flat disk centered on Jerusalem. Most medieval scholars believed that the Garden of Eden lie at the extreme eastern end of the world. Being closely associated with heaven, Eden the Earthly Paradise was naturally placed at the top of the map. Most other maps of the period followed suit. It was not until the Renaissance that the works of Ptolemy were rediscovered. With their coordinate system and scientific approach, Ptolemy’s maps were quickly recognized by Renaissance scholars as superior to most contemporary material. With the development of printing, Ptolemy’s maps were mass produced and, relatively speaking, widely available. These maps re-established the convention of a northward orientation. It is also around this time that the Great Age of Exploration truly gets underway and maps suddenly were given a new purpose – navigation. Early sailors tended to either hug the coast or, when entering the open sea, travel in a straight line along a directional path. Consequently, what navigators need was a map that presented the entire world on a flat plane such that any two points could be connected with a straight line. In this way, a ship need only be oriented in the correction direction, and after a period of sailing, should, in theory, arrive at the desired destination. Enter the Mercator Projection. Mercator’s projection was essentially a navigational tool that sacrificed proportion for the ability to accurately connect all points with straight lines. These lines, which appear on most navigational maps, are called rhumb lines. The use of Mercator Projections, rhumb lines, and the compass for navigation solidified the convention established by Ptolemy. Even so, not all maps were oriented to the north. Mapmakers regularly, though not frequently, oriented maps in other directions. Sometimes the decision to use an alternate orientation was based upon the need to fit a region of a certain form onto and appropriately sized sheet. Maps of the Holy Land, for example, were frequently oriented to the East. Several important maps of North America, including Blaeu’s Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova, also use unusual orientations. It is not until the 19th century that almost all new maps being made were given a northward orientation. All the above applies to European cartography. Mapmaking in other parts of the world, like Japan for example, did not use an established directional orientation. Many Japanese maps from the Edo Period, what might be considered the Golden Era of Japanese Cartography, radiate outward from the center, so that to read the map, you would simply orient it to the direction you are facing. This has some practical advantages for getting around but was most useful only on smaller scale maps and city plans. In the Meiji period (late 19th century), European cartographic norms began to exert an influence on traditional Japanese Cartography. By the turn of the century, most Japanese maps had adopted a northerly orientation.
To recap, the convention of orienting maps to the north comes down to us from Ptolemy, for whom it was a practical choice given the style in which his maps were made, the extant of the world he attempted to cover, and the nature of his projection. While briefly abandoned in the middle ages, the northerly convention was re-established during the renaissance and reaffirmed with the advent of navigational cartography in the 16th century.
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With the holiday season fast approaching the subject of gift-giving is increasingly in everyone’s mind. Most have that impossible-to-buy-for relative, friend, or colleague for whom an authentic antique map is the ideal gift. Rare and antique map dealers, such as ourselves, typically see a huge surge in business with each holiday season. Those who are “in the know” often they feel as if rare and antique maps are the “ultimate gifting secret”. Rare maps are almost always favored gifts, they have meaning for both the gifted and giver, they are highly versatile decorative objects , and they are precious artworks that can be treasured for generations.
According to one colleague and friend, giving an antique map as a Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa gift sends a clear message to the recipient that “someone has thought about you, about what you care about, about your interests, and about your personal history”. The enormous diversity of rare cartographic material available means that a perfect antique map gift can be identified for nearly anyone. The giving of an antique map therefore sends the message that considerable thought and consideration was dedicated to the gift’s selection. The receipt of such a gift means that the giver understands the interests and values of the recipient.
Unlike most genres of fine art and antique collectibles, authentic rare and antique maps are obtainable and affordable to almost anyone. In few other areas are authentic historic objects of such significance available at such an approachable price point. While the most valuable and rare antique maps can cost thousands of dollars, many entry level maps of considerable historic and decorative interest are available from excellent online and brick-and-mortar galleries for as little as 100 dollars.
A rare map gift is a statement rich in thought and meaning. When receiving a rare map as a gift, the gifted is immediately aware that they have been blessed with an object of substance. In addition to an antique map’s decorative and historic interest, it is also an object of value that will only become more precious over time. Rare maps generally increase in value by about 10-15% or more each year.
• Authentic rare and antique maps are ideal gifts for nearly anyone with an interest in history, an attachment to a special place, an interest in a specific era, or a love of travel.
• Antique maps can fit into any decorative scheme from minimalist to Victorian, primitive to modern.
• Antique maps are excellent affordable investments that can be expected to significantly increase in value over the coming years.
• Antique maps are available in such a diversity of styles, prices, and subjects that there is a perfect map for nearly everyone.
• Antique maps can be purchased quickly and easily online at galleries like ours, http://www.geographicus.com.
Our best advice for anyone considering the purchase of an antique map as a gift this holiday season is to act quickly. Unlike mass produced articles, most antique maps are unique and available only in the most limited quantities. More of then than not, we have but one of each map in stock, so when its gone, its gone.
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About a week ago a client told me she was from Cibola. Now, as a map dealer, Cibola I am well aware of. It appears on most early maps of the American southwest. It was sought after by Coronado, Marcos, and other early conquistadors. By most reports it was never found and is today considered to have been an apocryphal destination associated with the 8th century Spanish legend of the “Seven Cities of Gold”. Of course, now I was confronted with another puzzle, for there it was on the map, the modern map, Cibola County, New Mexico. I had always been meaning to do a post on Cibola – I find legends of the golden cities of the American southwest particularly interesting, and this event was enough to prompt me to further research.
The legend of Cibola emerged in Europe long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, during the Moorish invasion of Spain. It was said that when the Moors invaded Porto in the early 8th century, the city’s seven bishops took all of their wealth and fled to sea. They landed on an island in the Atlantic called “Antilla”. There, each of the seven bishops established a city. The island of Antilla actually appears on many early portolan charts of the Atlantic. It is a rectangular island, usually but not always set on a north south axis, with seven deep bays, each of which holds a magnificent city.When Columbus began exploring the Americas, many naturally assumed that one or several of the islands he encountered might be the legendary Antilla. Some geographers, noting that the shape of Porto Rico resembles the shape of Antilla on early maps, associated the two islands. Of course, in time, the name Antilla became Antilles, and is still in use today to refer to the West India Islands. Nonetheless, at the time, explorers were a little disappointed that none of the Caribbean islands yielded Antilla’s most striking and well known commodity – riches.
The closest any early Conquistador came to discovering mineral wealth in the West India Islands was most likely Columbus who, landing on Hispaniola, found natives wearing golden earrings and other minor adornments. The indigenous peoples of Hispaniola, the Taino, claimed that his wealth came from rich mines far inland in the mountainous valley of Cibao. Columbus sent several expeditions to conquer Cibao, but the gold he expected to find never materialized. Today Cibao is a poor agricultural region in the Dominican Republic. Cibao is important to us because it is the first identifiable usage of a term that resembles “Cibola” in association with a land of gold.
The next major proponent in this story is Estebanico or Estevanico. Estebanico was described by a contemporary as a “black Arab from Azamoor”. Azamoor was coastal city in northwestern Morocco. It was conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and used as a staging point for the collection and resale of African slaves. As a “black Arab from Azamoor” we can make a few assumptions regarding Estebanico. He would have been highly educated, have spoken fluent Arabic and Latin as well as Spanish and Portugese, and have been raised Muslim but forcibly converted to Christianity before being sold in Spain. All of these factors would come to play an important part in Estebanico’s future and in the future of the Americas.
Eventually Estebanico was acquired at the Seville slave market by the wealthy Spanish seaman Captain Andres Dorantes. In 1528 Dorantes, and consequently Estebanico, became part of Panfilo de Narvaez’s ill fated expedition to colonize the New World. Narvaez had just received a land grant that consisted of a substantial territory in what is today northern Mexico and Texas. His colonization expedition sailed from Cuba with the intention of crossing the Gulf of Mexico directly and landing near the mouth of the Rio de los Palmas (Rio Soto la Marina). Unfortunately, the ships instead misjudged the power of the Gulf Stream current and were pushed off course towards northwestern Florida, where they landed. What followed is one of the most mysterious, dramatic, and epic tales in the course of American history. The colonists, struggling to survive, made their way across much of North America, in doing so becoming the first Europeans to encounter many of the indigenous groups in habiting the interior of North America. Eventually a small handful of survivors, including the chronicler of the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes and Estebanico made it back to Mexico.
As they made their way across the continent, the group established itself among the indigenous populations of North America as slaves, merchants, and eventually mystical healers. Estebanico, with his gift for languages and natural affable manner, generally acted as the spokesman for the group and as an intermediary between the indigenous Americans and the Spanish. Not only did this position afford Estebanico considerable personal freedom, it also elevated him to a highly revered position in both communities.Many of the American Indian groups the natives encountered in modern day Mexico, Texas and New Mexico were hunter gatherers who moved from place to place, following the seasons and food supply. From time to time, however, they did hear of larger stable populations who had abundant wealth and built cities, far to the north. This will later have a significant impact on our story.
When the group finally returned to Mexico, they carried with them dramatic tales of their epic journey. The Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza seized on tales of large and wealthy cities far to the north and sent the Franciscan monk Marcos de Niza to investigate this claim. Marcos was accompanied by Estebanico, who was pressed to serve as the expedition’s guide.
Heading north, Estebanico and Marcos developed a strained relationship over the leadership of the expedition. Estebanico rarely obeyed Marcos and often ranged well ahead of the party. Among the Native America, Estebanico fell into the same role he had performed so admirably and for so long – intermediary and healer. Marcos’s account comments with disgust that Estebanico acquired great stores turquoise and other wealth as well as many [native] women. Ultimately, Estebanico was rarely seen, ranging far ahead and communicating with the friar only via messages attached to crosses. Once such message said that Estebanico had heard word of a great civilization of seven cities, each with multistory buildings, where people wore fine cotton clothing. Estebanico called this place Cibola.This is the first historic usage of the word Cibola. While we cannot know for certain where the word came from we can make some guesses. We know that the term “Cibola” was not previously known to either the Zuni, whose pueblos they were about to discover, or to the Spanish. For the origins of this term we must look to Estebanico. Estebanico, who had spent time in Cuba and Hispaniola before setting sail for the mainland with Narvarez, must certainly have been aware of the futile gold mining efforts in Cibao. He was also the only person on the expedition fluent in Arabic. The closest word we could find to Cibola, is the Arabic term “Subola” – meaning the path or way. Estebanico may have combined Cibao and “subola”, or simply used the term “subola” to tell Marcos that this was the “way”. Or, he may have been playing a joke on the Spanish in a bid for freedom. The next report we get suggests that Estebanico encountered the Zuni pueblo and was immediately killed by the natives. There is no further report of Estebanico and from this point forward he is never heard from again – nor is his body found. We can only wonder if, after years traveling the southwest with Cabaza de Vaca, after becoming fluent in a number of American Indian languages, after being revered as a powerful healer, Estebanico decided that returning to the conquistador world as a slave was nowhere near as appealing as living lavishly among the American Indians tribes? Perhaps “Cibola” was nothing more than Estebanico’s joke on Marcos and his “death” at Zuni hands a clever subterfuge that would allow him to leave behind the European world forever – most likely we will never know.
Upon hearing of Estebanico’s death, Marcos claimed to have pressed on to see the city of Cibola himself. What Marcos actually saw is impossible to tell. The Zuni in the region were known to occupy six or seven well spaced pueblos. It has been suggested that Marcos entered the valley at sunset, when the sun’s position over the valley creates the dramatic effect of highlighting the adobe walls such that they looked like gold. More likely Marcos, hearing that Estebanico was killed, decided to flee rather than risk the same fate himself. Whatever may or may not have happened, Marcos returned to Mexico with dramatic claims that he discovered a magnificent city of gold with wide paved boulevards and other wonders.
Fresh from the conquest of the Aztec capital at Mexico, this did not seem too far-fetched to the Spanish conquistadors. A young bravo with dreams of becoming the next Cortez or Pizarro leveraged his wealth and family connections to be given charge the expedition to conquer Cibola. That young man, Hernando Coronado, would proceed to leave a bloody trail of slaughter and death across much of the American southwest. His wanton violence and the European diseases his troop carried devastated the once significant American Indian populations in the region to the point where they never recovered.
Coronodo took Marcos north, following in Estebanico’s footsteps to the Zuni pueblo where Marcos claimed to have seen a great city. Of Estebanico there was no trace. The Zuni pueblo held little of what Coronado sought. There were no deposits of gold, no great cities, no mighty civilizations to conquer. To the nomadic hunter gatherers encountered by Cabeza de Vaca and Estebanico, the Zuni valley with is six or seven multistory pueblos must have seemed a great city – much as it was described. To Coronado, whose men expected to find a repeat of the glories of Tenochtitlan, the site must have been a profound disappointment. Coronado, discouraged but not defeated, decided to try for another legendary city described by the some of the American Indian groups he encountered – Quivara.
As time passed and Coronado was forgotten, the legend of the city of gold seen by Marcos remained alive. The Seven Cities of Gold from Spanish legend and the six Zuni pueblos of New Mexico merged to become a new legend – the Seven Cities of Cibola. Cibola appears on countless early maps of the Americans roughly in the same place it is today. In the early 19th century, following exploration of the region by Humboldt, Fremont, and others, the name Cibola largely disappeared from maps before being resurrected as a county name in New Mexico’s statehood period.
Babcock, W. H., Legendary Islands of the Atlantic, 1922.
Crone, G. R. “The Origin of the Name Antillia” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 91, No. 3 (Mar., 1938), pp. 260-262.
Skelton, R. A, Explorers’ Maps: Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery.
Portinaro, P., The Cartography of North America: 1500-1800, 1999.
Clissold, S., The Seven Cities of Cíbola, (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1961).
Resendez, Andres, A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca.
Horwitz, T., A Voyage Long and Strange, 2008.
Kennedy, R. G., Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization, (New York, Free Press), 1994.
Lepore, J., Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents, (Oxford University Press), 2000.
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The Mountains of the Moon are one of the most consistent and enduring apocryphal elements in the history of cartography. Cartographers mapped the Mountains of the Moon and two or three associated lakes as the source of the Nile River from the 14th to the early 19th century. We always found it remarkable that this one feature was consistently mapped in the otherwise blank or speculative interior of Africa. From whence did it come?
The source of the Nile River has been a matter of speculation for thousands of years. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was probably the first to compile and record the various theories of the river’s origins. According to Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile had its source in two great mountains within which were eternal springs. From here one branch was said to flow north, dividing Egypt, and another south into Nubia and Ethiopia. The priests of Sais, from whom Herodotus extracted this theory, believe the mountains to lie somewhere between Thebes and Elephantine (Aswan). Cleary, even in Herodotus’ day, the Nile had been explored well into Nubia and this was generally known to be false.
Herodotus also mentions several other theories, one of which we shall mention here. It was believed by some that the Nile River’s annual inundation was caused by snowfall at its source. Herodotus spurned this theory based upon the well known fact that, as one travels south towards the equator it becomes excessively hot. In Herodotus’ day it was believed that the temperatures in the Torrid Zone, as it was called, where so severe and the beasts that dwelt there so ferocious, that the region was all but impassable. How, Herodotus asked, could there be snows in such a place? Despite being wholeheartedly dismissed by Herodotus, this theory is very close to the truth.Before moving forward with the next major figure in this story, it is perhaps prudent to describe the actual course of the Nile River. Traveling against the Nile’s current, one would head directly south for many thousands of miles, passing through Egypt and Sudan before coming to a divide near the modern city of Khartoum or ancient Meroe. Following the eastern branch of the river, the Blue Nile, one would travel in a southeasterly direction into modern day Ethiopia, where the river makes a dramatic bend of some 100 miles to the point where it flows southwards from Lake Tana. North of Tana are the spectacular Simian Mountains. One of the highest ranges in Africa, the Simians are one of the few places on the continent to receive significant and regular snowfall. A modern traveler to the Simians may be disappointed with the snow – global warming – but inscriptions dating to the 6th century (the Adulite inscription) record how military campaigns marching through the region were knee deep in snowfall.
The other branch of the Nile, the White Nile, splits off to the southwest. Following this branch will eventually lead to Lake Victoria. Victoria is at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains. The Rwenzori, which means “maker of rain” in local dialects, are a small but dramatic range just to the northwest of Lake Victoria. These mountains, like the Simians, experience regular and significant snowfall. They also hold several significant glaciers. Today these are among the most endangered glacial formations on the planet. This region is also one of last surviving habitats for the rare endangered Mountain Gorilla.Back to our story. The next major compiler of information on the interior of Africa was the 2nd century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. The influence of Ptolemy on the cartographic tradition cannot be understated and lasted well into the modern era. Ptolemy’s Geographica consisted of several books accompanied by maps. Unfortunately Ptolemy’s original maps are lost to us today though mediaeval copies do exist. Ptolemy compiled his geography of Africa based on the writings of Marinus of Tyre. Marinus recorded that around 50 CE the Greek trader Diogenes traveled inland from Rhapta (coastal city in what is today Tanzania) for 25 days before encountering two great lakes and a snowy range of mountains where the Nile draws its source (Lane-Poole 1950: 4).
Though there is some debate on this subject, it seems very clear that Diogenes, traveling directly west from the coast, came upon either Lake Nyassa or Lake Victoria (or both). The nearby snowcapped mountains could only be the Rwenzori range. Others have suggested that Diogenes may have spotted Kilimanjaro, however, this is unlikely given the absence of a major lake in the region as well as that that Diogenes described a range rather than a solitary mountain. In any case, via Marinus’s writings, the travels of the Greek merchant Diogenes found their way into to Ptolemy’s canonical Geographica and we see the first appearance of the Mountains of the Moon.
With such a provocative name, the “Mountains of the Moon”, one must wonder from whence it was derived. There is some speculation (in fact the only we’ve come across) that this is a transliteration into Greek of the Amharic name for the mountains near Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile, called to this day, the Simians. In Amharic, “Simian Mountains” translates as “Northern Mountains”. However, a liberal transliteration of the word “Simian” into Greek might come up with “Selene” – the Moon Goddess.
How, one wonders, did the Simian Mountains get confused with the Rwenzori Mountains thousands of miles away? One must remember that Ptolemy was piecing together very sparse second and third hand accounts of merchant voyages, military campaigns, ancient Egyptian records, etc. The southernmost inland city in Africa in Ptolemy’s Geography is Axum in Ethiopia. Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains were still a significant distance further south. Nor are Ptolemy’s coordinates necessarily accurate with regard to latitude. Nor would Ptolemy, more familiar with the great mountain ranges of Europe and Asia, have been familiar with the small but dramatic mountain ranges of Africa. It is not hard to imagine how, from this perspective, two mountain ranges, relatively close, both associated with lakes, and both associated with the source of the Nile, might be assumed to be one and the same. It is thus likely the he simply applied the known name, Simian-Selene, to all mountains associated with the Nile’s source.
In the 4th Century CE, Ethiopia converted to Coptic Christianity. From this critical point onward, regular communication between the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Coptic centers in Egypt provided the first accurate maps of Ethiopia. Consequently, by the time cartographers in the Middle Ages began translating Ptolemy’s surviving texts and interpreting them into maps, the source of the Blue Nile was known. Though Ptolemy does not specifically note the presence of Lake Tana, it is mapped in even the earliest medieval interpretations of Ptolemy’s work. Thus by the time the first European maps of Africa were being drawn, the mystery of the Blue Nile’s source been solved.
Which left the more mysterious White Nile. Drawing from Ptolemy, cartographers repositioned the Mountains of the Moon and their lakes further south – where they remained until the 19th century. In the late 18th century many cartographers, including such luminaries as Anville and De L’Isle, chose to remove either the Mountains of the Moon, the Lakes of the Nile, or both from their maps of the region. It was not until the exploration of John Speke and Henry Morton Stanley in the mid 19th century until these lakes ultimately reappeared and Ptolemy’s not so apocryphal geography of the Nile was proven eerily correct.
G.W.B. Huntingford, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 175 (London: the Hakluyt Society, 1980).
Ralph Ehrenberg, Mapping the World : An Illustrated History of Cartography (National Geographic, 2005)
William Desborough Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and The Nile . . . (London, 1854).
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Liakhov’s first inkling that there might be a land north of the Siberian coast came from caribou tracks leading northward across the Arctic ice sheet. Navigating his sled on the trajectory of these tracks, he discovered the unusual coastline that was later named after him. The most interesting and distinctive feature of Liakhov Island it is massive mammoth ivory deposits. Liakhov discovered such enormous quantities of fossilized ivory on these islands that he was led to speculate that many of the islands were formed entirely of the stuff. Further it is said that this ivory, due to the permafrost, was of such fine quality that it matched and even surpassed the elephant ivories of Africa.Though we do not know for certain why so much mammoth ivory rests on the island, the most common route of speculation follows. About 35,000 years earlier, during the last great glaciation, this island was little more than a hill on the vast Arctic plain. Mammoth, rhinoceros, musk-oxen and other mega-herbivores roamed widely across the plain. As the glacial period came to an end, ice melt caused a global increase in sea level, thus turning the once great Arctic plains into an even greater Arctic sea. As the mammoth and other mega-herbivores fled to ever higher ground, they eventually found themselves stranded with limited sustenance and began to die off at an alarming rate. We know that the sea in this region has as many or more mammoth ivory deposits than the island itself. Liakhov and other subsequent explorers of the island group noted that, following Arctic storms, the shores were always littered with bones and ivory. Over thousands of years, these storms deposited layer after layer of ivory creating the impression, noted by Liakov and others, that the islands were actually composed of ivory. Of course, there are problems with this theory – most notably that the catastrophic nature of the event described is incompatible in regard to time frame with most contemporary theories of glacial regression.
To Liakhov and most who followed him to New Siberia the significance of this find was the staggering economic value of the ivory deposits. On his first trip, Liakhov returned to the mainland with 10,000 tons of mammoth ivory. Subsequent traders would score even larger payloads, some in excess of 30,000 tons. Within a few years of Liakhov’s discovery over 200,000 tons of ivory had been removed from the island. Even in the 1880s, after 100 years of providing the bulk of the world’s supply of ivory, travelers to the region noted no apparent diminishment of fossil ivory.
In 19th century, Europeans had a fascination with these islands and they figured prominently in two Jules Verne novels, Waif of the Cynthia (1885) and César Cascabel (1890). The story of Liakhov Island’s ivory deposits is also popular with creationists, who believe that it proves a Biblical rather than evolutionary timeline – though it our opinion the exact rational on this is inconsistent and confused. Today, Liakhov Island is the site of a Russian weather station.
Whitley, D.G., 1910, “The Ivory Islands of the Arctic Ocean”, Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute. vol. XLII, pp. 35-57.
Fujita, K., and D.B. Cook, 1990, “The Arctic continental margin of eastern Siberia, in A. Grantz, L. Johnson, and J. F. Sweeney, eds.”, pp. 289-304, The Arctic Ocean Region. Geology of North America, vol L, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado.
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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. 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.
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Around 1300 or 1400 a prince of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe conquered a territory to the north and established the Kingdom of Mutapa. Within the next fifty years years Mutapa had attained ascendancy, asserting control over much of southeastern Africa. The ancient capital at Great Zimbabwe was abandoned in favor of a more northerly capital with easier access to the Indian Ocean trade routes via the Zambezi River. Arab merchants, seeing a trade opportunity, established posts on the coast and inland along the Zambezi River at Sena and on the Solafa River at Solafa where the gold of Zimbabwe could be traded for luxury goods from India and China.Such was the state of the Empire of Mutapa, or as the Portuguese called it Monomotapa, when the explorer Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1490s. Tome Lopes, who accompanied De Gama on his 1502 voyage to India, wrote an important narrative of the journey that was widely read back in Portugal. Impressed with the abandoned ruins of Great Zimbabwe and convinced that they could not possibly be the product of an African people, Lopes was the first to identify Mutapa with the Biblical land of Ophir and King Solomon’s Mines. Even Milton jumped on the idea in his epic poem Paradise Lost, where he also associated Monomotapa and Ophir. Back in Portugal, the reports of De Gama and Lopes led to covetous expectations for the region. In 1505, a joint military and trading venture had taken control of the Arab trading centers of Sofala and Sena. The association of Monomotapa with Ophir also lead to an dramatic overestimation of the wealth to be found in the Zimbabwe hills. Within fifty years, on the opposite side of the world, Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires. Gold and wealth had begun to flow into Spain by the galleon. Dom Sebastian of Portugal, seeking to match Spain’s conquests in America with his own conquests in Africa, sent Francisco Barreto to Monomotapa to take over the kingdom’s legendary gold mines. Barreto’s push inland was initially successful with a number of important military victories to his credit. However, before he could push further inland toward the coveted mines, he was forced to return to Mozambique in order to answer slanders made against him by a rival, Antonio Pereira Brandao. This delay proved disastrous, for most of Barreto’s soldiers had in the meantime become sick and many ultimately died of malaria and other tropical diseases common to the region. Barreto himself also fell ill and died at Sena in 1573. It was left to Vasco Fernandez Homen, Barreto’s deputy and successor, to finally push inland via Solafa. When Homen finally reached in mines he sought at Manica, he discovered their output to be much poorer than expected. By this time they had been exploited for several hundred years and King Solomon’s Mines were close to running dry. As for the Portuguese in Africa, they did not attempt another military conquest of the region, but did maintain their trading centers. By the end of the 17th century, the Kingdom of Mutapa had destabilized from within and was facing pressure from the Rozwi empire to the north. Ultimately, they were forced to turn to the Portuguese for military support and paid for it with vassalage. Despite support from Portugal, control of Mutapa changed hands several times vacillating between independence, Rozwi dominion, and the Portuguese vassalage.
In 1885 H. Rider Haggard revived interested in King Solomon’s Mines with the publication of his genre defining novel of the same name. Its publishers in London, Cassel and Company, touted King Solomon’s Mines as “The Most Amazing Book Ever Written.” Today it is considered to be the first novel of the “Lost World” genre.
Oliver, Roland & Anthony Atmore (1975). Medieval Africa 1250-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 738. ISBN 0-52120-413-5.
Owomoyela, Oyekan (2002). Culture and customs of Zimbabwe. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 163. ISBN 0-31331-583-3.
Stewart, John (1989). African States and Rulers. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.. pp. 395. ISBN 0-89950-390-X.
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The earliest inkling of Terra Australis emerged more as a philosophical construct than a geographical one. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that all of creation was in balance maintained an essential symmetry. Hence, the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere, called Arktos referencing the Greek term for the constellation Ursa Major, must inevitably be balanced by a southern continent, Anti-Arktos. Later the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy included the Terra Australis in his own work though he did specifically note that it was inaccessible due to an interstitial “torrid zone” occupied by “monstrosities”.By the late Roman times and in the Middle Ages, the concept of Terra Australis evolved into both a religious and scientific construct. From a religious perspective it was associated with the Biblical lands of Ophir and Tarshish, from whence Solomon acquired the gold with which he built the Temple. From a scientific perspective, the influential 5th century Roman philosopher Ambrosius Macrobius includes what is possibly the first representation of the southern continent in his work In Somnium Scipionis Expositio. Macrobius divided the world into various “zones” and embraced Aristotelian and Ptolemaic theories that the mass of Asia and Europe had to be counter-balanced by a similar mass in the Southern Hemisphere. Terra Australis next appears in the journals of Marco Polo – which were widely read throughout 14th and 15th century Europe. Polo describes two islands some 700 miles southwest of Java which themselves lead to a rich mainland abundant in gold, brezil wood, elephants, birds and dogs. European scholars immediately associated the islands and lands mentioned by Polo with the Biblical land of Ophir and Tarshish. While it is difficult to say what specific lands Polo was actually referring to (some argue Madagascar, others Australia, and still others that Polo’s geographical descriptions were fabricated), many 15th and 16th century navigators, including Columbus and Magellan, were inspired by his text.
When Magellan began his voyage, the goal was not to circumnavigate the world, but rather to discover a southwestern route to India and the Moluccas. Nonetheless, one must image that the gold of Tarshish, Ophir, and the associated southern continent must have been on his mind. When Magellan navigated the Straits of Magellan between Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia he fully believed that he had discovered the northernmost headlands of Terra Australis. Many early maps subsequently labeled this land, and the southern continent attached to it Magellanica. Frances Drake’s 1577 circumnavigation of the globe a few years later proved conclusively that Tierra del Fuego was not in fact attached to a southern continent, but the search of this land would go on.
The next major exploration in the region was accomplished by the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana. Mendana set sail from Callao, Peru in 1567 with the intention of discovering both the rich lands of the southern continent and the Biblical islands of gold, Ophir and Tarshish. Nearly a year later Mendana chanced upon a significant Polynesian Island group. These islands were subsequently identified with Ophir and Tarshish and named after King Solomon. Perplexingly, when Mendana attempted to return to the Solomon Islands, in 1595, this time with Pedro de Quiros as his pilot, he was unable to find the islands he once discovered. Mendana contracted malaria and died shortly thereafter leaving the fleet in the hands of his wife, Isabel Barreto who, becoming the world’s first female admiral, eventually returned it to Peru.Perhaps the most significant proponent of the southern continent theory was the late 16th and early 17th century Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quir, or as he is more commonly known Quiros. Quiros was a religious zealot and passionate advocate of the southern continent theory. After serving as a pilot on Mendana’s second expedition, Quiros petitioned the Spanish crown for his own commission to explore and convert the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands. He set out in 1567 and, though he roughly followed Mendana’s path, was unable to locate the Solomon Islands. He did however land on Vanuatu’s Sanma Island which, believing himself to have discovered the Southern Continent, he named Australis de Espiritu Santo. Not long afterward Quiros returned to Europe where he published his voyages, proclaiming to the world that he had, indeed, discovered Terra Australis. Unfortunately, Quiros died shortly after returning to Peru and was never able to return to the Pacific Islands. Nonetheless, Quiros’ claims and fame had a significant impact on the mapping of the region. Numerous early maps depict the “Terra de Quiros,” “Quir Land,” or “Terre de Quir” with indefinite southern and western borders thus suggesting that it could indeed be part of the Terra Australis mainland. Later many early maps depicting the tentative borders of Australia refer to it as “St. Espiritu” or some variation, again alluding to Quiros’ discovery of Vanuatu. Some, well in to the 20th century, claimed that Quiros had discovered Australia, but this was merely a confusion of the term “Australis” originally applied to Vanuatu. In nearly 200 subsequent years, no other European would encounter Samna. As for the southern continent, or Terra Australis, others would continue to search for it well into the 18th century. The French explorer, Lozier Bouvet was heavily influenced by the work of Quiros. When he spotted the remote Antarctic island, which he named Cap de la Circoncision and which is now named Bouvet Island in 1739, he believed that he had at last rediscovered Terra Australis Espirtu Santo and the southern continent. Numerous maps published Europe following Bouvet’s voyage support this claim.
It fell to Cook’s voyages at the end of the 18th century to finally disprove the notion of a great southern continent. Cook was also first to correctly identify Quiros’ land of Terra Australis Espirtu Santo as Vanuatu’s Sanma Island. Nearly 60 years following Cook findings in the area, the first confirmed sightings of the Antarctic mainland were accomplished in 1819 and 1829 by William Smith and James Bransfield, respectively. Of course, though they both occupy the same geographic space, Antarctica and Terra Australis are in fact two very different places.
Camino, M. M., Producing the Pacific: Maps and Narratives of Spanish Exploration (1567-1606), New York, 2005.
Suarez, T., Early Mapping of the Pacific, 2004.
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The idea of a great inland sea occupying a vast part of the American west and opening into the Pacific attained the height of its popularity in the middle part of the 18th century under the patronage of the influential French cartographers Guillaume de l’Isle and Phillipe Buache. Under Buache and De l’Isle’s influence the Sea of the West, Mer de L’Ouest, or Baye de l’Ouest reached its fullest expression and commonly appeared on maps from about 1740 to 1790.
The source of Sea of the West, however, precedes both Buache and De l’Isle by several hundred years. The idea of a Sea of the West is intimately related to the hope of either a Northwest Passage or a River passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Such a passage was actively sought after almost from the earliest days of American Exploration. The idea had at its core the commercial interests of British and French traders who, unlike the Spanish, had no easy access to the Pacific and the rich trade with Asia.In it most embryonic form, the Sea of the West can be associated with Verrazano’s sea. This great sea, pictured here in Munster’s classic 1540 map of the Americas, was identified by the Italian navigator Verrazano. Sailing along North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1524, Verrazano saw the sound on the eastern side of the isthmus and postulated that it must be the Pacific.
. . . where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which, from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay …
This concept was taken up by various cartographers back in Europe and, subsequently, a great indentation along the western coast of America starting just north of California was a common characteristic of many early maps of the continent. Even in the 1670s, when John Lederer made his famous explorations of Virginia and North Carolina, most colonial settlers believed that the western sea was only about 10 or 15 days inland from the coast.
Nonetheless, Verrazano’s Sea was largely discredited in the late 18th century when prominent cartographers like Ortelius, Mercator, Hondius, and Blaeu removed it from their maps. It was not until the 17th century that it began to reappear on maps though reformatted to a reduced size and moved farther west.The next serious first hand evidence of the Sea of the West appears in the account of Juan de Fuca’s voyage along the western coast of America published by Samuel Purchas in his 1625 book Purchas His Pilgrimes. The veracity of de Fuca’s account has been the subject of significant debate over the last 100 years or so. Most argue that de Fuca’s account was fabricated by the Englishman Michael Lok to promote his own ideas of a Northwest Passage. However, we find a grain of truth in the narrative. De Fuca was supposedly a Greek Captain active in the Americas in the late 1500s. Colonial records to indicate that such a figure did in fact exist and was an active pilot in New Spain from about 1585 to 1600. De Fuca’s account does ring somewhat of truth if we assume that he actually sailed into the strait now named after him:
…until he came to the Latitude of fortie seven degrees, and that there finding that the land trended North and north-east with a broad inlet of sea, between 47 and 48 degrees of Latitude; he entered thereinto, sayling therein more than twenty days, and found that Land trending sometime North-west and North-east, and North, and also East and South-eastward, and very much broader Sea than was at the said entrance, and that he passed by divers lands in that sayling…
Regardless of any actual veracity De Fuca’s account may or may not have, what is important for our purposes is the effect this report had on European cartographers who widely trusted it. In accounting for De Fuca’s 20 days of sailing, European cartographers, began mapping a large open inlet extending well into the continent – though perhaps not so far as the 16th century Verazanno’s Sea.The next incarnations of the Sea of the West – and perhaps it fullest realization – came through the work of the aforementioned Guillaume de l’Isle and his brother in law Philippe Buache. In the early 17th century it became increasingly important for French and English settlers along the northeastern coasts of North America to find a passage to the Pacific in order to compete with the Spanish for the lucrative East India trade. Both nations sent out several expeditions both by sea and by river. By this time, most agreed that an Arctic route was unfeasible and instead turned their attention to the lake and river systems of the continent. Some believed they would find a river system extending westward from the Hudson Bay along the passage mapped out by Juan de Fuca. Others postulated a more southerly route through the Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnepeg. Still others believed that a route could be found by following the Missouri River.
Such was the competition to get to the Pacific that, when De l’Isle and Buache “discovered” the Sea of the West, they chose to keep it a secret for the benefit of France and never published it in any of their works. It was left up to the competing map publisher Nolin to abscond with a copy of De l’Isle’s map and publish the first Buachian “Sea of the West” map. De l’Isle subsequently filed a law suit against Nolin for copyright infringement,
Il (Nolin) a represente une Mer a l’Occident de la Louisiane, qu’il appelle Mer de l’Ouest. Cette mer estoit une de mes decouvertes, mais comme il n’est pas toujours a propos de publier ce que l’on scait, ou que 1 ‘on croit sqavoir, je n’ai pas fait graver cette Mer sur les ouvrages quej’ai rendus publics, ne voulant pas que les Etrangers profitassent de cette decouverte quelle qu’elle pft estre, avant que l’on eut reconnu dans ce Royaume si l’on en pourroit tirer quelque avantage..
Even so, the damage was done and the Sea of the West began to appear on a number of influential maps of the period.
Of course, one wonders at De l’Isle and Buache’s sources. On this we have some certain evidence and a great deal of speculation. Reports from American Indians of a salt sea far to the west were hardly uncommon in the 18th century. De l’Isle would have had access to numerous missionary reports that were, at the time, streaming into Paris from the new world. At the very least, he would have had access to the narrative of Lahonton (who heard about the Great Salt Lake from his American Indian Guides), Juan de Fuca’s legend, the De Fonte letter, the influential though possibly fabricated tale of the American Indian traveler Moncacht-Ape, as well as the explorations of Pierre de La Verendrye.With so many sources and such a history, one might be tempted to ask why De l’Isle and Buache claim to have “discovered” the Sea of the West. The stems from the a cartographic approach embraced by Buache. Cartographers had the difficult job of piecing together legends, missionary reports, astronomical observations, and nautical references into a cohesive whole. It was their job to present the known world in a comprehensible manner. Even with reports from navigators and missionaries coming in from all over the world – much was unknown and much else was unreliable. In these instances cartographers resorted to a number of different strategies. Some filled the space with sketches, drawings, text or cartouches. Others simply left unknown areas blank. Some coped the speculations of other cartographers. By early 18th century, a new movement had evolved in France to address these problems. Though undefined at the time, today it is called “theoretical cartography”. Buache was the leading theoretical cartographer of his day. Theoretical cartography attempted to used known geographic patterns and scientific theories to fill in blank spaces when little else was known. The Mer de la Ouest is the perfect example Though a salt water inlet from the Pacific had long been speculated upon and hoped for, Buache and De l’Isle embraced the theory because it supported both the ambitions of the French crown in the New World and the theoretical geographic theory that Buache was developing.
The Sea of the West remained on map until the end of the 18th century. The late 18th century explorations of James Cook and George Vancouver finally defeated the theoretical cartographers.
Lucie Lagarde, “Le Passage du Nord-Ouest et la Mer de l’Ouest dans la Cartographie Française du 18e Siècle, Contribution à l’Etude de l’Oeuvre des Delisle et Buache, Imago Mundi, Vol. 41 (1989), pp. 19-43.
Hayes, Derek, Historical atlas of the Pacific Northwest, p. 18-27.
Petty, C. M., When France was King of Cartography, p. 113 – 164.
Kellog, L. P., The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest.
Winsor, Justin, The Mississippi Basin: The Struggle in America Between England and France 1697 – 1763.
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