Have you ever gotten directions from a friend, to a place you’ve never been? Of course you have; everyone has. Which means that we’ve all been given, at some point or another, a crudely drawn map, intended to guide us along the landscape to our desired destination.
Now imagine trying to make an accurate map of an entire coast line. Or of entire continents. Or the whole world! It’s a pretty massive undertaking. The map maker doesn’t even have the benefit of ever having travelled those coastlines and country boundaries. He or she is flying blind. So how do they do it?
As discussed previously, mapmaking – or cartography – is a millennium old art. People have been trying to create a visual representation of the areas in which they travel since before the 7th millennium BCE. The oldest surviving maps are the Babylonian World Maps of the 9th century BCE, and, while beautiful, they aren’t exactly known for their accuracy (according to these maps the world consists of only Babylon on the Euphrates and Assyria). But as time went on, mapmakers got better at creating consistently accurate drawings of their surroundings. They developed universal systems for measuring distances, plotting directions, and estimating the shape of coastlines and continents. Those systems are as complicated as they are useful.
But it’s not like every map ever made is truly an original work. Most maps, especially charts out of antiquity, are reproductions or expansions of earlier maps. Experience with a given chart would determine just how accurate it was, and once the most accurate among the available charts was found, it would then be used as the standard for the area it described. From there, cartographers could copy it and use it as a component in a larger chart that included the region it depicted.
There are some famous charts, namely the Piri Re’is and the Dulcert 1339 map. In both cases these are portolan charts, meaning they are nautical maps that use compass bearings as the foundation of their measurement system. The Piri Re’is chart is widely considered to be the most accurate portolan chart of the 16th century. It’s a military world map that was created by an Ottoman admiral and cartographer, after whom the chart was named. It is unique in that it is the earliest chart to show accurate depictions of the coastlines of Africa, as well as the positions of several Caribbean islands, such as the Canary Islands. It also shows an astonishingly accurate depiction of the east coast of South America, even going so far as to position the new world correctly with reference to the west coast of Africa.
It’s also thought unique for another rather compelling reason…it apparently shows an accurate depiction of the coast of Queen Maud Land. What is Queen Maud Land, you ask? Well, Queen Maud Land is the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. Now, this wouldn’t be as wondrous as it is, were it not for the fact that the Antarctica Peninsula hadn’t been discovered or explored until 1820 at the earliest. And for the fact that the coastline depicted is currently under a few hundred feet of ice.
So, um…how did an Ottoman admiral know about it, much less accurately draw it on a map in 1513, just twenty-one years following Christopher Columbus’ bumbling discovery of the Americas?
According to scholars, the Dulcert 1339 portolan chart (mentioned above) – which is an early Medieval chart of the Mediterranean ocean and surrounding lands, and which is thought to have been created by a classical Italian cartographer named Angelino Dulcert (known alternately as Angelino de Dalorto and/or Angelino de Dulceto) – seems to show a reasonably accurate representation of Australia, of all things. To remind you, Australia wasn’t discovered, according to our history textbooks, until 1606, but yet, the landmass of Australia was included in this map, drawn by an Italian, and in other early European maps three hundred years before that.
How is that possible?
There are those, namely the famous Finnish-Swedish historian of cartography Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who believe that these early maps are not of the medieval period at all, but are copies of charts from much, much older cartographic traditions. He analysed the mathematics of these maps, and others, and came to the conclusion that their content, accuracy, and structure was notably superior to the charts of classical scholars such as Ptolemy and Eratosthenes, but that they employed the same elements in their construction.
Nordenskiöld isn’t alone though, as you might imagine. From his work has sprung strong argument, from people such as Arlington Mallery and Charles Hapgood, that these maps are evidence of an advanced culture having circumnavigated the globe long before Ferdinand Magellan. Of course, with such a fantastical claim comes the scorn of the academic community, and their criticisms are not without merit (especially when you include Erik von Daniken as an ally of Hapgood and Mallery), but none yet have fully refuted Hapgood’s nor Nordenskiöld’s analyses.
So is there a middle ground? Can we not accept that there is more to these maps than modern cartographers want to admit, while not yet asserting that they prove the case for a pre-historic civilization? As mentioned, maps from antiquity are almost always copies of earlier maps, enhanced and expanded, correcting the mistakes of previous generations. Piri Re’is and Dulcert 1339 are no exception…the question is from what older maps did the Ottoman and Italian cartographers copy their greatest works?
 Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Facsimile-Atlas to the Early History of Cartography with Reproductions of the Most Important Maps Printed in the XV and XVI Centuries, trans. Johan Adolf Ekelöf (Stockholm, 1889; reprinted, New York: Dover, 1973).
 Charles H. Hapgood. Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. Illinois 1997, Adventures Unlimited Press (Originally 1966).