We Are All Ancient Mapmakers


In the first half of the sixth century B.C., a Greek man named Anaximander, born in Turkey, sketched the world in a way no one had previously thought to do. It featured a circle, divided into three equal parts. He labeled those parts Europe, Asia, and Libya, and separated them by the great waterways of the Nile, the Phasis river, and the Mediterranean. To call it a map would perhaps be a bit overgenerous. It was really more of a schematic. But it nonetheless represented a crucial innovation. Anaximander had rendered the world in a way that no person had ever seen it before: from above.

Cody Kommers | NAUTILUS

Anaximander’s sketch wasn’t especially useful as a cartographic instrument, and it also came with some peculiar conceptual baggage. He believed the earth sat atop a column, following the architectural sensibilities of the day. It was Plato, several hundred years later, who proposed the idea of a spherical earth. He had no strong, principled reason to do this; the guy just liked spheres. But though they were fascinated by the shape of the earth, neither Plato nor Anaximander, nor even Aristotle, can count among their accolades credit for creating the first scientific map of the world. That distinction falls to a North African man by the name of Eratosthenes.

Eratosthenes is best known today as the founder of the field of geography. He coined the term in his magnum opus, Geographika, published during his tenure as the head librarian at Alexandria, sometime between 240 and 220 B.C. It was three books in length and covered topics ranging from climate zones to the geological history of the planet to the customs of different populations. What Eratosthenes offered in this book was a perspective informed by data. Any prior works that touched on these topics had been conceived in much the same way as Anaximander’s schematic: a vague suspicion about what was out there, unconstrained by any commitment to describing its actuality.

ERATOSTHENES’ WORLD MAP: Based in part on Alexander the Great’s travel logs, and his own mathematics, Eratosthenes calculated that Earth’s land masses were divided into four quadrants. Courtesy of FCIT

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