Saturday, December 29, 2007

Waldseemüller Map

Tuesday December 4, 06:31 PM
Map that named America is still a puzzle

The only surviving copy of the 500 year old map that first used the name America continues to be a puzzle for researchers.

The 1507 Waldseemuller map is due to go on permanent display this month at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Researchers want to know why the mapmaker named the territory America and then changed his mind, how he was able to draw South America so accurately and why did he put a huge ocean west of America years before European explorers discovered the Pacific?

"That's the kind of conundrum, the question, that is still out there," said John Hebert, chief of the geography and map division of the Library of Congress.

The 12 sheets that make up the map, purchased from German Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg for $US10 million ($A11.4 million) in 2003, have been mounted in a huge 1.85 metre by 2.95 metre display case machined from a single block of aluminum.

The case will be flooded with inert argon gas to prevent deterioration when it goes on public display on December 13.

Researchers are hopeful that putting the rarely shown map on permanent display for the first time since it was discovered in the Waldburg-Wolfegg castle archives in 1901 may stimulate interest in finding out more about the documents used to produce it.

The map was created by the German monk Martin Waldseemuller.

Thirteen years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere, the Duke of Lorraine brought Waldseemuller and a group of scholars together at a monastery in Saint-Die in France to create a new map of the world.

The result, published two years later, is stunningly accurate and surprisingly modern.

"The actual shape of South America is correct," said Hebert.

"The width of South America at certain key points is correct within 70 miles (100 km) of accuracy."

Given what Europeans are believed to have known about the world at the time, it should not have been possible for the mapmakers to produce it, he said.

The map gives a reasonably correct depiction of the west coast of South America. But according to history, Vasco Nunez de Balboa did not reach the Pacific by land until 1513, and Ferdinand Magellan did not round the southern tip of the continent until 1520.

"So this is a rather compelling map to say, 'How did they come to that conclusion,'" Hebert said.

The mapmakers say they based it on the 1,300-year-old works of the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as well as letters Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci wrote describing his voyages to the new world. But Hebert said there must have been something more.

"From the writings of Vespucci you couldn't have prepared the map," Hebert said.

"There had to be something cartographic with it."

Waldseemuller made it clear he was naming the new land after Vespucci, describing how he came up with the name America based on the navigator's first name.

But he soon had misgivings about what he had done. An atlas Waldseemuller produced six years later shows only part of the east coast of the Americas, and refers to it as Terra Incognita - unknown land.

"America has gone out of his lexicon," Hebert said. "(No) place in the atlas - in the text or in the maps - does the name America appear."

His 1516 mariner's map, on the same scale as the 1507 map, steps back even further, showing only parts of the new continents and reconnecting the north to Asia. South America is labelled Terra Nova - New World - and North America is labelled Terra de Cuba - Land of Cuba.

"Essentially he's reconnecting North America to the Asian mainland, suggesting a continual world of land mass rather than separated by those bodies of water that separate us from Europe and Asia," Hebert said.

Why the rollback? No one knows.
I don't understand how this map can be displayed in the Library of Congress and how the story can be reported on all the major news services worldwide (AAP, AFP, BBC, National Geographic) without someone (a reputable geographer, maybe?) offering an explanation to resolve the mystery. There are only a few good hypotheses that I can think of.
  • The map is a fraud and was not made at the date which is claimed for it. This seems unlikely if it has been decided to display it in the Library of Congress.
  • The map used sources from the Aztecs, possibly a document which they had acquired from an earlier, higher (mathematically) civilization (Mayan or another lesser-known one). All but a handful of documents from the Aztecs have been destroyed, but we know they had universal male education, probably making them one of the most literate civilizations on the earth at that time, along with the Japanese.
  • The map was produced from Egyptian sources. In this scenario, Columbus and other explorers may have had knowledge of the maps even before they went on their voyages, which were then undertaken to confirm the knowledge revealed from the long-lost Egyptian documents. Egypt had many different eras over the millennia of its existence, and cartography and navigation could have reached a high level during one of these periods, only to be subsequently lost in a famine-driven revolution and purge of the priestly/educated class.
  • The map was reproduced from a map by a much earlier civilization from before the last ice age.
  • Extraterrestrial input. The map was beyond human technology and came from a non-human intelligence.
The Piri Reis map is another map that needs explanation. I think the most likely explanation lies in the fact that human civilization over the last tens or hundreds of thousands of years has been very poorly recorded. If the human species has been fundamentally human since we began using fire, tools, making art and digging graves, that leaves perhaps a million years of human history, of which only a few thousand years, less than one percent that has been fairly well recorded. There seems to be a mental block to recognizing other cultures, imagining the vastness of time and space in human history, and a kind of taboo on imaging that human civilization has had ups and downs in the past, and has fallen at times in the past, just as it is taboo to suggest that future human civilization will have lower populations and lower levels of technology than we have now.

The inability to explain this seems to be an ego problem. It is the same kind of arrogance that finds it incredible that chimps have better memory and visual skills than humans. Look, we are just hairless tail-less fire-monkeys. We have fire, mathematics, and language. For anything else there is probably another species that is better at it. I think Kurt Vonnegut said we were animals that did multiplication or something like that. Put another way, we have symbols and tools. Tools are extensions of our hands which birds, dolphins, and elephants were not so lucky to have. We do barn-raisings better than chimpanzees. Otherwise we are just a slightly more successful animal that has dominated the planet surface for 1% as long as the dinosaurs did.

Update 2008-02-11: The ultimate source of information about the Waldseemüller Map seems to be Library of Congress cartographer John Hessler, who maintains a blog on his research, WarpingHistory.

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