Cartographical Claptrap!

The AEON magazine website has a long essay[1] by Kurt Hollander simply titled Middle Earth that takes as its subject not the fantasy realm of J. R. R. Tolkien but the equator, the imaginary line marking the middle of the Earth’s sphere. Unfortunately this essay is severely marred by a series of errors, myths and falsities about the history of cartography and geodesy. I have selected some of the worst here for critical analysis and correction.

Our author gets off to a flying start with the biggest geodesic myth of them all:

Medieval Christian mapmakers, familiar only with a small corner of the planet, worked within strict horizons that were fixed by the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. Their Earth was flat.

My friend Darrin Hayton (@dhayton) has written several posts on the excellent PACHS blog over the years criticising the people who still insists on propagating the myth that the Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat. Just once more for those that haven’t been listening, they didn’t. That the world was a sphere was probably first recognised by the Pythagoreans in the sixth century BCE and almost all educated people accepted this fact from at the latest the fourth century BCE up to the present.

First created in the 7th century, the Christian orbis terrarum (circle of the Earth) maps, known for visual reasons as ‘T-and-O’ maps, included only the northern hemisphere.

T and O maps actually have their roots in Greek geography and cartography and only display part of the northern hemisphere because that was all that their creators knew about.

The T represented the Mediterranean ocean, which divided the Earth’s three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe — each of which was populated by the descendants of one of Noah’s three sons. Jerusalem usually appeared at the centre, on the Earth’s navel (ombilicum mundi), while Paradise (the Garden of Eden) was drawn to the east in Asia and situated at the top portion of the map. The O was the Ocean surrounding the three continents; beyond that was another ring of fire.

Given that the Greeks, the originators of the geography on which the T and O maps are based, lived in the Mediterranean Sea (not ocean!) they were of course well aware of the fact that it is not T shaped. The T on T and O maps actually represents in schematic form the Mediterranean and the Don and Nile rivers, as the dividing lines between the three known continents.

For the Catholic Church, the Equator marked the border of civilisation, beyond which no humans (at least, no followers of Christ) could exist. In The Divine Institutes (written between 303 and 311CE), the theologian Lactantius ridiculed the notion that there could be inhabitants in the antipodes ‘whose footsteps are higher than their heads’. Other authors scoffed at the idea of a place where the rain must fall up. In 748, Pope Zachary declared the idea that people could exist in the antipodes, on the ‘other side’ of the Christian world, heretical..

As has been pointed out by numerous people writing about the flat earth myth, Lactantius had almost no supporters of his theories.

This medieval argument was still rumbling on when Columbus first sailed southwest from Spain to the ‘Indies’ in 1492. Columbus, who had seen sub-Saharans in Portuguese ports in west Africa, disagreed with the Church: he claimed that the Torrid Zone was ‘not uninhabitable’.

Our author appears to be prejudiced against the Portuguese. Throughout the fifteenth century in a series of expeditions, started by Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460), a succession of Portuguese explorers had been venturing further and further down the West African coast reaching the Gulf of Guinea, which lies on the equator, in 1460. These expeditions reached a climax in 1488, four years before Columbus set sail to the Indies, when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the tip of South Africa proving that one could reach the Indian Ocean by sea and pathing the way for Vasco de Gama’s 1497 voyage to India.

Although he never actually crossed the Equator, he did go beyond the borders of European maps when he inadvertently sailed to the Americas. To navigate, Columbus used, among others, the Imago Mundi (1410), a work of cosmography written by the 15th-century French theologian Pierre d’Ailly, which included one of the few T-and-O maps with north situated at the top.

The importance of Pierre d’Ailley’s Imago Mundi for Columbus lay not in the orientation of its T and O map but in the fact that d’Ailley severely underestimated the circumference of the globe thus making Columbus’ attempt to sail westward to the Indies seem more plausible than it in reality was.

Columbus’s eventual ‘discovery’ of America stretched the horizons of the European mind. The Equator was gradually reimagined: no longer the extreme limit of humanity, a geographical hell on Earth, it became simply the middle of the Earth.

In particular, Cobo has problems with the direction that mapmaking has taken. In 150AD, Ptolemy drew the first world map with north placed firmly at the top.

Earlier Greek geographers such as Eratosthenes, who also drew world maps, almost certainly also drew their maps with north at the top. Ptolemaeus is not the beginning but the culmination of Greek cartography.

This orientation has become the standard one for maps everywhere. The preeminence of north derives from the use of Polaris, also known as the North Star, as the guiding light for sailors.

This is a piece of pure fantasy on the part of out author. To quote Jerry Brotton from his excellent A History of the World in Twelve Maps, “Why north ultimately triumphed as the prime direction in the Western geographical tradition, especially considering its initial negative connotations for Christianity […], has never been fully explained. Later Greek maps and early medieval sailing charts, or portolans, were drawn using magnetic compasses, which probably established the navigational superiority of the north-south axis over an east-west one; but even so there is little reason why south could not have been adopted as the simplest point of cardinal orientation instead, and indeed Muslim mapmakers continued to draw maps with south at the top long after the adoption of the compass.”[2] I would add to this the fact that many European Renaissance maps also had south at the top.

Yet Polaris, or any other star for that matter, is not a fixed point. Because of the Sun and Moon’s gravitational attraction, the Earth actually moves like a wobbling top. This wobble, known to astronomers as the precession of the Equator, represents a cyclical shift in the Earth’s axis of rotation. It makes the stars seem to migrate across the sky at the rate of about one degree every 72 years. This gradual shift means that Polaris will eventually cease to be viewed as the North Star, and sailors will have to orient themselves by other means.

In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, the first to mass-produce Earth and star globes,

Geradus Mercator (1512 – 1594) was not the first to mass-produce Earth and star globes Johannes Schöner  (1477 – 1547) was.

devised a system for projecting the round Earth onto a flat sheet of paper.

Our author, probably unintentionally or at least I hope so, creates the impression that Mercator was the first to devise a map projection from the sphere onto a flat sheet of paper; he, of course, wasn’t. This achievement is usually credited to Eratosthenes in the third century BCE. Ptolemaeus’ Geographia (about 150 CE) outlines three different map projections.

His ‘new and augmented description of Earth corrected for the use of sailors’ made the Earth the same width at the Equator and the poles, thus distorting the size of the continents. Although Mercator created his projection (still used today in almost all world maps) for navigation purposes, his scheme led to a bloated sense of self for the northern countries, located at the top of the map, while diminishing the southern hemisphere’s sense of size and importance.

Our author is rather vague about how or why this distortion occurs. Because the distance between the parallels of longitude in the Mercator projection increases the further one moves from the equator, landmasses become distorted in area (larger than they are in reality) the further they are away from the equator. Because the major landmasses in the northern hemisphere are further removed from the equator than those in the southern hemisphere they take on an illusionary physical dominance.

Might I, not so politely, suggest to Mr Hollander that if he wishes to write about the history of cartography in the future that he indulges in some proper research of the subject before he puts finger to keyboard.

[1] I’m not sure whether I should thank or curse Richard Carter FCD (@friendsofdarwin) for drawing my attention to this essay. Whichever, he is to blame for the existence of this post.

[2] Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Allen Lane, London, 2012, p. 11


Filed under History of Cartography, History of Navigation, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

20 responses to “Cartographical Claptrap!

  1. Has the precession of the equinoxes ever been called the precession of the equator?

  2. I’ve added a link to this post in a comment on Hollander’s article. The other commenters were utterly oblivious to his howlers.

  3. Baerista

    One could add that there was a whole series of medieval authors who acknowledged the existence of antipodes and habitable regions south of the equator centuries before Columbus. Albert the Great and William of Conches come to mind, but there were others.

    • Tim O'Neill

      And there were medieval European travellers as far south as Sumatra and Java as early as the Thirteenth Century. They were well aware they were well south of the equator.

  4. clare

    Good grief. Reading this and weeping at the nonsense people write. Thanks Thony for putting him right.

  5. The problem is that thousands of times more people will have seen the claptrap than your correction. I’m realising this is a problem in my own areas of knowledge, thanks to one researcher who makes similarly egregious errors. Blogs are a start, but unlike the climate change arguments online, there are fewer channels for dissemination or people willing to link to articles. Certainly linking back to the article is a start, though.

    I wish there was a way of having a proper correctional dialogue with people who write rubbish in magazines.

  6. I must say, that there are indeed some errors of historical data in the article, it should be revised. However, the intension is to present a proposal with regard to the geographic orientation, and I would like to have specific views on the proposal. I am sorry for my English, I’m Ecuadorian and my language is the Spanish.


    Geographical orientation: An integrative geographical perspective

    The present study expounds upon the theoretical bases of such an integrated geographical visualization of the world, offering theoretical and scientific support for this re-orientation.

    The Issue of Perspective:

    Visual perspectives of the Earth:

    We will briefly analyze three visual perspectives of the earth in order to differentiate the positions of the earth with respect to the sky, cartography, globes, topographic cards, and other types of models.

    The spacial perspective: In outer space there exist no cardinal directions. Therefore, we might imagine observing the earth from any angle whatsoever.

    The heliocentric perspective: From the sun, we can imagine observing the earth with an inclination of 23°26’29”, which is the inclination of our planet with respect to the plane of its orbit in the solar

    Terrestrial perspective: This refers to the perspective that we have of our surroundings from any point on earth’s surface, on which we orient ourselves according to the cardinal directions.

    The geographical perspectives in history:

    Before the Middle Ages arrived in Europe, the ancient cultures were accustomed to observing the world from different perspectives. For example, there exists evidence that the Egyptians developed maps with south as the principal reference. The majority of Arab maps during the rise of Islamic powers in the Middle East (c. VII to XIV) placed south as the uppermost direction (Wikipedia, 2009). For the Maya of Mexico, east was the principal cardinal direction (Shele and Freidel, 1999). North has been used predominantly as the principal direction for navigation (Mexía, 1542).


    The use of North as the principal direction has predominated until today because of the navigation and cartography needed a fixed reference point in the sky and the North Star of the Litte Dipper served as just that.

    However, this did not represent a fixed point in the northern sky given that the earth moves due to the axial precesion (Bakulin, P., E. Kononovich, and V. Moroz, 1987), which completes a cycle around the northern pole every 25,875 years. Therefore, about 4 thousand years ago the northern reference in the northern sky was Thuban, the alpha star of the Draconis constellation. Currently, it is the North Star and it will become Errai, the lambda star of the constellation Cephei.

    North, an unsustainable geographic reference:

    “North” comes from the old English word “noro,” which in turn derives from the proto-Indoeuropean word “ner,” meaning “left,” given that north is left for an observer who faces the sun in the morning (Wikipedia, 2009).

    The use of north as a geographic reference is nothing more than a historical custom that arose due to need in early navigation and cartography. However, there do not exist technical reasons to justify scientifically the use of north as the principal directional reference. In addition, if we direct our view to the north, we will lose sight of the southern sky.
    The same would happen with the south, where we would lose sight of the north. These are biased and incomplete geographic perspectives.

    Using north as the principal reference is not only unsustainable due to a lack of technical and scientific arguments, it is also a historical construct that has generated confusion for all everyone who uses maps or globes given that north is used as the superior reference. This breaks with a natural comprehension of the earth’s movements with respect to the stars. Thus, it becomes more difficult to understand the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies. Everyone who uses north as a reference suffers from an absurd confusion by breaking with the natural perspective of our surroundings. Our relationship with nature falls apart and the understanding of the seasons, the weather, the wind, calenders, and time become enigmas for the vast majority of humankind.

    Other problems that we face by using the north as our superior referent include the ambiguity generated by historical conventions with distorting consequences in socio-cultural, geo-political, and even class terms due to the fact that the majority of people understand the north as being upwards, better, developed, and wealthy and the south as being downwards, inferior, and under-developed. In the area of development work, “south” refers to a group of countries with lower per capita incomes. In this sense, it has become synonymous with “poor countries” (Wikipedia, 2009).


    The etimology of the word “south” can be traced to the origin of the hindu name Surya, which means sun due to the fact that this star indicates the southern cardinal point when it is observed to the north of the Tropic of Cancer (Wikipedia,2009).

    The south is one of the four cardinal points located over the horizon, diametrically opposed to the north. It is 90° from the east. Thus it is denominated as a cardinal point, direction, and inferior type of country or region according to eurocentric convention.


    East is a spacial orientation; the position of a point, place, object, or person over the earth’s surface with respect to a reference system. The term “orientation” comes from the Latin word for “east,” “oriens, -entis”, which in turn comes from the verb “oriri,” meaning “to appear” and which designates the place where the sun appears, as opposed to the west, which comes from the Latin verb “occidere,” meaning “to fall,” indicating the place where the sun sets.(Encarta, 2008; Arnal, Mariano, 2009; Wikipedia, 2009).


    Again, the west indicates that which opposes the east.

    East as the integrative geographic reference.
    If we want to orient ourselves, we must direct ourselves to the east, as the Latin meaning of east indicates. This is the technical and scientifically sustainable reference or geographical direction due to the fact that it is the direction in which the earth rotates. It is, in effect, the direction in which the heavenly bodies, stars, planets, moon, and sun appear to us.

    From a theoretical-scientific framework, this is the integrative reference given that it is the direction in which we observe the heavens in its entirety. In addition, in order to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies, we must understand their true movements, though they may not be perceivable by the naked eye. The only way to understand these movements is from the momentum in which the heavenly bodies appear in order to study their transition in space. It is for this simple reason that the east is justified technically and scientifically to orient our maps and globes. This position negates the use of west, north, or south as the geographic reference point to understand nature or orient maps and globes.

    A properly oriented view ought to be applied to the study, calculation, and measurement of horizontal coordinates, topographies, and heavenly bodies, in addition to the use of geographical projections, with the objective of integrating our knowledge of nature and giving scientific support to the production of geographic information in general.


    2009 El Almanaque, Internet.

    Editorial MIR, Moscú.

    2008 Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation.
    Reservados todos los derechos.

    Fondo de Cultura Económica, México.

    Mexía, Pedro
    1542 “Silva de varia lección”, Tomo II- Cap XX, Ed. Cátedra Letras hispánicas.

    • Your attempt to justify east instead of north as the standard principle direction of orientation, as it was in the European Middle Ages, it should be noted for religious reasons not geographical ones, leaves out one rather important geodesic fact and an equally important geophysical one.

      The earth is an oblate spheroid that rotates on an axis. This axis is orientated north south making this orientation a fairly logical choice as principle orientation for maps etc.

      This oblate spheroid is also a magnate, the poles of which currently coincide very roughly with the north south axis poles. This means that the principle instrument of navigation since the High Middle Ages, the magnetic compass, is also orientated along a north south axis again making this orientation a logical one for maps etc.

      Now I would totally agree with anybody who argued that the choice of north over south as a principle orientation point is purely arbitrary and is in fact a product of history, as the first people to produce modern maps lived and worked in the northern hemisphere.

      Trying to argue, as I think you do, with the daily path of the sun also, in my opinion leads, to a north south orientation. If we stand on the earth and try to contemplate sunrise and sunset simultaneously then we would stand either facing north or south with sunrise on one side and sunset on the other again leading to a north south orientation.

      • If you want to correctly use the word “Orientation”, only since its root and etymological meaning, the only possibility of orientation is towards the Orient (East), obviously. The use of the word orientation, in the case of referring to the cardinal points of the North or South or West, is badly used.

        The use of magnetism is excluded in the subject, since the magnetisma never provide true North. It is true that historically the use of magnetism was usual, but we are talking about another subject. My intension is to provide technical support to a cardinal point. In this case, is the East.

        Trying to be more punctual, in order to focus on an axiom. It is with regard to the point of sunrise in the mathematical horizon, in the equinoxes. the same one corresponds(fits) to a fixed point for our eyes like terrestrial observers. Any other position of the Sun along the intersolstice angle, is variable, in accordance with the Theory of Milánkovitch, where the intersolstice has a change of more than two grades in forty thousand years aproximately.

        And the only way we can understand the apparent as the true movement of the celestial bodies, is when they appears until it dissapeears, for that reason the West is not a functional point, for this proposal.

        Your last comment reinforces my proposal with logic, since it shows that neither the North nor the South, we will define a prevailing direction, therefore an direction that can help us to observe from North to South, it is precisely the East.

      • If you want to correctly use the word “Orientation”, only since its root and etymological meaning, the only possibility of orientation is towards the Orient (East), obviously. The use of the word orientation, in the case of referring to the cardinal points of the North or South or West, is badly used.

        The original etymology of a word is not necessarily its correct use and in the case of orientation its current correct usage no longer coincides with its original etymology.

      • It strikes me that you start from the preconceived idea that maps should have an eastern orientation then proceed to find arguments to justify your choice. You ignore or dismiss with spurious arguments that justify any other cartographical orientation.

        The only real argument that you offer for your choice is observation of celestial bodies because of their east west orbits dismissing their western disappearance again with a spurious argument. In fact the archaeo-astronomical evidence clearly points to the fact that the setting of celestial objects in the west has played a much more important role in history, for various reasons, than the rising in the east.

      • By no means it is possible to deny that most of ancient places were aligned towards the west, and the most part of them, were aligned toward the sunset of the solstice of June, as well as it is not possible to deny either that in the last 2000 years the humanity has used to the North like its modality.
        My proposal is specially geographical, of technical character. This trying to provide to a specific point of the use of cardinal directions, a techinal support for the use of geographical perspectives.

        On the other hand, it is obvious that we must use the sky, since no geographical environment, it will provide us signs, which could give the real directios of the cardinal points. As I, explain before, the use of magnetism is not applied for the determination of the real points of the compass. Therefore only the sky can provide us with exact points, where we can determine the real directios of the cardinal points.

        And definitely I am trying to provide a support that the East is the direction of the front, since it is the direction of the cardinal points that can provide us with fixed references.

        This discussion, has been one of most interesting that I have had, until you had to use to an offensive manner with the use of pejorative terms, qualifying to my arguments like spurious. Nevertheless, be or do not be spurious, I have had the couraje of presenting axioms.

        I am sorry very much that you have seen forced to use these terms, which to me personally, disapont me. It is the typical position of an academician who feels, annoyed, offended, and lost. I regret very much, that you have not been capable of discussing me with punctual and concrete remarks, my proposal.

        And I would like to finish with a phrase that fix very well to this case. ‘The most common things in live, are, at the same time, the least clear thing for persons who hang on with dogmas.

  7. Baerista

    “Everyone who uses north as a reference suffers from an absurd confusion by breaking with the natural perspective of our surroundings. Our relationship with nature falls apart and the understanding of the seasons, the weather, the wind, calenders, and time become enigmas for the vast majority of humankind.”

    Do people who use north also eat babies and vote Republican?

  8. It’s astounding how persistent the flat earth is–every year I am faced with a new crop of undergraduates who have been indoctrinated.

  9. Ian Paul Wragg

    Thony said “Yes, I think it’s a myth we’re stuck with. It has become ingrained in the Western cultural fabric and there doesn’t seem to be detergent strong enough to wash it out again”.

    It does not help when popular documentaries like Michael Mosley’s make claims that da Vinci was making all sorts of scientific discoveries while at the same time most scholars believed that the earth was flat.

  10. Pingback: Monday Links from the Science Park vol. CLXXIX

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