We don’t think much today about the world-altering power that maps once held. You probably have a detailed cartographic guide of almost every point on the planet within arms’ reach right now, and in most places, the GPS on your phone can nail your location on that mape within a few feet. But throughout history, maps—accurate, error-filled, intentionally misleading—have had a profound impact. And even today how we draw the world continues to shape our understanding of it—and have real consequences. Here’s a selection from the Atlas Obscura archives of stories that illustrate the power of maps.
by Jessica Leigh Hester
When plotting out their maps of North America, many 18th-century European cartographers relied on accounts that drifted across their desks. These were a collage of nautical references, local lore, missionary dispatches, and more. Since it wasn’t always possible to fact-check these observations, maps by even the most conscientious cartographers could be sprinkled with errors—often strategic myths of oceans, lakes, and rivers.
by Jen Banbury
Today in sub-Saharan Africa, only one third of all borders have been “delimited”—the formal term meaning that they are properly fixed: that the countries on both sides have agreed to the exact physical location of the border, that the coordinates of that physical line have been thoroughly and accurately documented. How did Cameroon and Nigeria create a modern map of an ambiguous border determined by 19th-century colonial powers? A lot of careful planning and hard work. Read about how a modern border comes to be.
by Erin Mullaley
A band of pirates in the North Atlantic met their demise in 1614 in large part due to a devastating attack by a Dutch fleet guided by a leeskarte—a set of navigational instructions revealing the pirates’ locations, as well as shoreline features and cultural landmarks from the time. “It is a type of ‘treasure map’ informing on the heritage within the landscape at the time, which could potentially help us identify other pirate-related locations,” says one archaeologist.
by Cara Giaimo
Meet Christopher Clayton Hutton, the British journalist, film marketer, and pilot who masterminded the “escape kits” that helped some 750 Allied prisoners of war reach freedom during World War II. The key was a map “so thin that it would take up next to no room when folded.”
by Eleanor Cummins
For more than a century, the British were able to boast that the sun never set on their enormous empire. But in the mid-19th century, colonists ruling over the Indian subcontinent became painfully aware they had little idea what the empire actually contained, from the number of rivers to the number of people. More pressingly, they knew even less of what lay beyond their border—and the Himalayas. They likely never would have discovered the secrets of South Asia if not for the help of Nain Singh.
by Frank Jacobs, Big Think
If you know one thing about 12th-century Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, it is that he is the author of a wonky world map—a disc, suggesting a belief in a flat Earth, with barely recognizable continents—which is often included in modern atlases as a prime example of medieval map-making skill. But al-Idrisi, who probably didn’t create that much maligned-map, did produce the most accurate known map of the Earth available in the 1100s.
by Suzanne OConnell, The Conversation
Despite all the deep-sea expeditions and samples taken from the seabed over the past 100 years, humans still know very little about the ocean’s deepest reaches. And much of what we do understand can be credited to Marie Tharp, a geologist and oceanographer who changed the way people imagine two-thirds of the world. Beginning in 1957, Tharp and her research partner, Bruce Heezen, began publishing the first comprehensive maps that showed the main features of the ocean bottom—mountains, valleys, trenches, and more.
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