How the World was Imagined: First Maps and Atlases

Maps have been one of the most significant human creativity for millenary. People have invented and used maps to describe, clarify, and navigate their route within the world.

The atlas of the ancient maps below contains depictions of our planet from Prehistory to the Age of Discovery and the appearance of modern geography during the early contemporary period.

3000 BCE: The Oldest 3D Map in Europe

The Saint-Bélec Slab was created about 4 thousand years ago and is considered the oldest known three-dimensional map in Europe. It was unearthed from western Brittany in 1900, moved a few times, and finally found again in a castle cellar in 2014.

Experts have analyzed it with 3D mapping surveys and likened it to a stretch of the Odet River valley in Finistère, a Brittany region.

6th century BCE: Babylonian Map of the World (Imago Mundi)

Imago Mundi - The Babylonian Map of the World

The Babylonian Map of the World (Imago Mundi) is a clay tablet comprising a labelled depiction of the known world. The circular map is focused on the Euphrates. The city of Babylon is displayed on the Euphrates, in the northern half of the plan. The Ocean surrounds Mesopotamia, and eight “regions,” depicted as trilateral sections, are displayed as extending behind the Ocean.

610 – 546 BCE: Anaximander’s Map


In the centre of the world map published by the Greek geographer, Anaximander could have been Greek city-state Delphi. The Aegean Sea was near the map’s centre and surrounded by three continents, themselves placed in the centre of the ocean and separated like islands by sea and rivers. Europe was bordered on the south by the Mediterranean Sea and was parted from Asia by the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov (Lake Maeotis), and, further east, either by the Rioni (Phasis) River. The Nile flowed south into the ocean, separating Africa (Libya) from Asia.

Anaximander most probable published this map of the world for three purposes: First, it could be applied to improve navigation within colonies around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Second, the map could be useful in convincing the Ionian city-states to unite in a federation to push the Median (ancient Iranians) threat away. Finally, the philosophical concept of a global representation of the world only for the reason of knowledge was motivation enough to create one.

550 – 476 BCE: Hecataeus of Miletus

Map Hecataeus of Miletus

Hecataeus of Miletus was an ancient Greek geographer. Hecataeus is updated the map of Anaximander, which he saw as a disc surrounded by Oceanus.

The motivation for this map may have come from his work “Ges Periodos” (“Travels round the Earth or World Survey”). The work, presented in the form of two books, is a point-to-point coastal survey. One on Europe is a periplus of the Mediterranean, describing every region in turn, moving as far north as Scythia. Another part, on Asia, is designed correspondingly to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Hecataeus explained the countries and inhabitants of the known world, the account of Egypt being especially complete. The books were followed by a map, based upon Anaximander’s map of the Earth.

276 – 194 BCE: Eratosthenes

Eratosthenes: Climatic map

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was a Greek geographer, astronomer, and mathematician. He had invented geography and made the first climatic map, separating the Earth into five climate zones: two cold zones around the poles, two temperate zones, tropics, and a zone encircling the equator.

He evented the first system of Longitude and Latitude.

150 – 130 BCE: Posidonius

Posidonius world map

Greek philosopher Posidonius suggested that the Earth was sling-shaped, broad in the middle, with tapered ends and an estimated circumference that was three-quarters of its actual size, resulting in an ‘Oikoumene’ (inhabited world) that stretched halfway around a globe.

Posidonius was measured the Earth’s circumference by relating to the location of the star Canopus. His measure of 240 thousand stadia converts to 39 thousand kilometres (24 thousand miles), near to the real circumference of 40 thousand kilometres (25 thousand miles).

64 BCE – 24 CE: Strabo

Strabo map

The Greek geographer Strabo declared to have explored broadly to bring together a tremendous volume of geographical knowledge. However, he must have gathered much of this information in the vast library at Alexandria, where he had access to many ancient texts now lost.

Creating a map of the world, Strabo had been inspired not only by Eratosthenes’ measurement of the planet but also by the idea of the four inhabited worlds, known and unknown, described by Crates.

Despite the extension of the inhabited world’s geographical horizons since the time of Eratosthenes, Strabo’s ‘Oikoumene’ was smaller. Strabo refused to accept that human life was possible so far north.

43 CE: Pomponius Mela

map from 43 AD, by Pomponius Mela

Roman geographer Pomponius Mela considered the earth’s world as a sphere circled by water and split into five climatic zones, of which only the ‘Orbis situm’ (northern temperate zone) was known inhabited.

According to Mela, the world can be split east and west into “two hemispheres.” It is not a scientific determination, but an unequal separation of the observed world approximating to Asia on the east and Europe and Africa on the west. He divided the north to south into five zones: two cold, two temperate, and one hot.

Pomponius Mela was writing before the Roman invasion of Britain and has only had an initial idea of its geography.

The Baltic is to him the Codanus Gulf, vast and dotted with large and small islands.

150 CE: Ptolemy

Ptolemy's world map

The Ptolemy world map is based on the information contained in Ptolemy‘s book Geography, written circa 150.

Outstanding additions of Ptolemy’s map is the first use of longitudinal and latitudinal lines as well as defining physical locations by astronomical observations. The concept of a global coordinate system transformed European geographical theory and caused more mathematical processing of cartography.

Ptolemy’s work presumably first came with maps, but none have been found. This map was remapped from Ptolemy’s coordinates by Byzantine monks under the direction of Maximus Planudes soon after 1295.

4th century: Tabula Peutingeriana

4th century: Tabula Peutingeriana Map

Tabula Peutingeriana is an antique road network map of the Roman Empire.

It is a somewhat schematic map, intended to give a practical overview of the road network of the Empire, as opposed to an actual depiction of geographic points.

It shows Europe (except the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula), North Africa, and the Middle East. Additionally, the map also displays India and China.

6th-century: Cosmas Indicopleustes

Cosmas Indicopleustes map

Cosmas Indicopleustes was a Greek trader, who made many journeys to India during the reign of Emperor Justinian (6th-century).

His atlas ‘Christian Topography’ contained some of the eldest and most famous maps of the world.

A significant feature of his Topographia is Cosmas’ worldview that the world is flat, and that the heavens make the form of a box with a rounded cover. He was mocking of Ptolemy and others who held that the world was globular.

636 CE: Isidoran map

Isidoran map

The Isidoran map or T and O map is an ancient world map that depicts only the one half of the spherical Earth as first explained by the 7th-century philosopher and Archbishop of Seville Isidore of Seville.

The T is the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Don (Tanais) separating the three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the O is the encircling ocean.

It was probably recognised a convenient projection of known-inhabited parts, the northern temperate half of the earth. It was then considered that no one could cross the hot equatorial clime and approach the unexplored areas on the other half of the planet.

10th century: Ibn Hawqals map

Ibn Hawqals map

Ibn Hawqal was a 10th-century Arab Muslim writer and geographer who travelled around the world. His great work, written in 977 AD, is named ‘The Face of the Earth’.

He spent the last thirty years of his life traveling to the distant parts of Asia and Africa and recording about what he observed. One travel brought him 20° south of the equator along the East African shoreline where he found large populations in areas the ancient Greek geographers had thought, from philosophy rather than knowledge, were uninhabitable.

1035 CE: Anglo-Saxon Cotton World Map

Anglo-Saxon Cotton World Map

The map is the result of the journey of Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from Rome.

The map isn’t based on the remarkable Ptolemaic coordinate system. East is at the top of the map. All the mountains are represented in green and rivers of Africa in red.

The delineation of the far East is ambitious, including India and Sri Lanka. The British Isles are represented in more detail.

Lines symbolise the boundaries of imperial provinces.

1050 CE: Beatus of Liébana’s Mappa Mundi

Beatus of Liébana’s Mappa Mundi

Saint Beatus of Liébana was a monk and geographer from the ancient Duchy of Cantabria (Nothern Spain).

This map was drawn as a picture to Beatus’s work at the Abbey of Saint-Sever in Aquitaine, on the request of Gregori de Montaner.

1072 CE: Mahmud al-Kashgari’s Map

Mahmud al-Kashgari's Map

Mahmud al-Kashgari created the first known map of the areas populated by Turkic peoples.

The world map was turned with east on top, centered on the ancient city of Balasagun (Kyrgyzstan), showing the Caspian Sea to the north, and Iraq, Armenia, Yemen, and Egypt to the west, China and Japan to the east, Hindustan and Kashmir to the south. Blue lines symbolize rivers, red lines for mountains. The world on his map is presented as surrounded by the ocean.

1154 CE: Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana

Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana Map

Tabula Rogeriana or ‘The Map of Roger’ is a world map designed by the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. Arab geographer worked on the explanations and illustrations of the map for 15 years at the court of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily.
Muhammad al-Idrisi believed that the earth has a spherical shape. It estimated the circumference to be 37 thousand kilometres (22.9 thousand mi), an error of less than 10 per cent.

It remained the most reliable world map for the next three centuries. The map was used by many travellers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama for their journeys in America and India.

1235 CE: The Ebstor Map

The Ebstorf Map

The Ebstorf Map is a Medieval European map of the world made by Gervase of Ebstor.

This map was found in a monastery in Ebstorf (Germany), in 1843. It was a huge map (3.6×3.6m /12x12ft), painted on 30 goatskins stitched together.

The Christ was represented at the map. Rome is pictured as a lion, and the graph shows an apparent interest in the distribution of dioceses.

There was writing around the map, which added information about animals, the creation of the world, explanations of terms.

The original was destroyed in 1943, during the Allied bombardment of Hanover in WWII. There remains a set of black-and-white photos of the real map, taken in 1891, and some color copies of it were made before it was destroyed.

1300 CE: Hereford Mappa Mundi

Hereford Mappa Mundi

The Hereford Mappa Mundi is the most extensive medieval map still known to exist.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi hung, with little interest, for many years on a wall of a choir aisle in the Hereford Cathedral in Hereford.

The map is signed by Richard de Bello, a member of Lafford in Lincoln Cathedral.

Jerusalem is pictured in the middle of the circle; east is on top, showing the Garden of Eden in a ring at the corner of the world. Great Britain is represented at the northwestern edge (bottom left). The labels for Africa and Europe are changed, with Europe scribed in red and gold as Africa.

1321 CE: Pietro Vesconte’s world map

Pietro Vesconte’s world map

Pietro Vesconte was a Genoese geographer and mapmaker. He was a pioneer of the portolan chart.

He inspired Italian and Catalan mapmaking during the 14th and 15th centuries. He has been the first professional cartographer to sign and date his map usually.

His portolan charts are amongst the earliest to map the Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions carefully. He also created progressively more precise depictions of the coast of northern Europe.

In his world map of 1321, he brought his skill as a maker of nautical charts; the map offered a before unheard of precision to the Mappa Mundi genre.

1340 CE: Marino Sanuto world map

1340CE: Copy of Pietro Vesconte's map

An ancient world map designed within 1328 and 1343.

Like other medieval European maps (Mappae Mundi), this map is orientated with East at the top of the plan and centered on Jerusalem.

This map is more probable a copy of Pietro Vesconte’s plan, which accompanied Marino Sanudo’s book and atlas inviting for a new crusade.

Marino Sanuto was a Venetian politician and geographer. He is famously known for his permanent efforts to renew the crusading enthusiasm and movement.

1375 CE: Catalan World Atlas

Catalan World Atlas

The Catalan Atlas represented as the most famous map of the medieval period in the Catalan language.

It was created by the Majorcan cartographic school, probably by a Jewish book illustrator Cresques Abraham.

He was a map-maker and manufacturer of clocks, compasses, and other nautical tools.

Atlas was in the royal library of France in the period of King Charles V.

The Catalan Atlas originally consisted of six sheets designed in multiple colors (including gold and silver) and folded vertically.

1389 CE: Da Ming Hun Yi Tu world map

Da Ming Hun Yi Tu world map

The Da Ming Hunyi Tu (“Composite Map of the Ming Empire”) is an extended Chinese map. It was created in color on thick silk. The original text was inscribed in Classical Chinese.

It is one of the earliest surviving maps from East Asia. It represents Eurasia, putting China in the center and extending northward to Mongolia, southward to Java, eastward to central Japan, and westward to Europe The map is presenting the East African coast as an island

1402 CE: Kangnido world map

Kangnido world map

The Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Ji Do (“Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals.”) is a world map designed in Korea, produced by Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun.

The Korean Kangnido, like Chinese Da Ming Hun Yi Tu, is one of the oldest surviving world maps from East Asia. Surviving copies of both maps had later updates.

“Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals” reflects the Korean and geographic information of China throughout the Mongol Empire when geographical details on Western lands became accessible through Islamic geographers.

It represents the Old World’s overall form, from Europe and Africa in the west to Japan in the east.

1411–1415 CE: The De Virga world map

The De Virga world map

The map disappeared, together with its proprietors, a Jewish family from Heidelberg, at the end of the 1930s.

The map is turned to the North, with a wind rose centered in Central Asia, probably the watchtower of Ulugh Beg in the Mongol city of Samarkand (Now it’s Uzbekistan), or the western coast of the Caspian sea. The wind rose separates the map into eight areas.

The De Virga world map was created in Venice by Albertinus de Virga. The seas of the plan were colored in white, although the Red Sea is painted in red. The continents were depicted in yellow. The mountains and rivers are in brown; the lakes are in blue.

1436 CE: The Bianco world map

The Bianco world map

The Bianco World Map is a map designed by Andrea Bianco, a Venetian sailor, and mapmaker.

This map was a part of a naval atlas, including 10 sheets made of vellum. These vellum sheets were earlier held in an 18th-century cover, but the modern keeper, Venetian library Biblioteca Marciana, parted the leaves for an individual exhibition.

Some assume Bianco’s plans were the first to depict the seashore of Florida precisely, as a macro-peninsula is added to a big island marked Antillia.

1457 СЕ: The Genoese map

The Genoese map

The Genoese map depended mainly on the traveller’s report to Asia Niccolo da Conti, rather than the common source of Marco Polo. The world map with reasonably right proportions given to each continent represents a three-mast craft in the Indian Ocean.

Sea monstrosities show the mapmaker’s curiosity in unusual phenomena, which is throughout in evidence on the world map. It is illustrative of the scientific vision of the early modern era, which was inspired by curiosity and took a great interest in miracles.

This map was done in vibrant color and was not created mainly used for anything but display.

The Genoese map presently belongs to the Italian government, and it can be found in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence.

1459 CE: Fra Mauro world map

Fra Mauro world map

This map was drawn on parchment by the Italian mapmaker Fra Mauro. It covers Europe, Asia, Africa, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The world map is turned with south at the top.

It needed many years to finish and was incredibly costly to create. The Fra Mauro map includes hundreds of detailed pictures and more than 3 thousand explanatory texts. It was the most comprehensive and complete depiction of the world that had been created up until that time. As such, this world map is acknowledged one of the most influential works in the history of cartography.

It marks the end of Bible-based geography and the start of containing a more scientific process of creating maps, setting precision ahead of theological dogmas.

The Fra Mauro map is regularly on exhibit in the museum Museo Correr in Venice in Italy.

1490 CE: Martellus world map

Martellus world map

Henricus Martellus Germanus is mapmaker from Nuremberg who lived and worked in Florence.

He created a world map which is notably similar to the terrestrial earth designed by Martin Behaim around 1492. Both geographical maps display new adaptions of the actual Ptolemaic model, revealing a corridor south of Africa and producing a tremendous new peninsula east of the Golden Chersonese (Malaysia). Both probably derive from maps designed about 1485 in Lisbon by Bartolomeo Columbus.

The only surviving original world map was rediscovered in the 1960s and granted to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

1492 CE: Behaim’s Erdapfel globe

Erdapfel globe

The Erdapfel is the oldest preserving physical globe created by Martin Behaim. It is created of a layered linen ball in two halves, strengthened with timber and covered with a map painted by Georg Glockendon.

The world map was painted on paper, which was glued on a parchment layer throughout the globe.

The Americas are not included, because Columbus returned to Spain no earlier than March 1493. The globe displays an expanded Eurasia and an empty ocean separating Europe and Asia. The mythological Saint Brendan’s Island is added. Japan (Cipangu) is biggish and well south of its actual place.

Nowadays, the Erdapfel moved from the Vienna University of Technology to the German National Museum.

1502 CE: Cantino world map

Cantino world map

The map of Juan de la Cosa is a Spanish Mappa Mundi drawn on parchment. Writing on the world map tells it was created by the Cantabrian mapmaker and sailor Juan de la Cosa in 1500 in the Andalusian port city of El Puerto de Santa María. Its luxurious design signs that it was ordered by some influential members of the Catholic Monarchs.

The Cantino world map is the earliest acknowledged image of the Americas. World map includes a body of water to the north of Cuba, inside a landmass, an image of the undiscovered Gulf of Mexico. This only cartographic work made by a witness of the first journeys of Christopher Columbus to the Indies that have been preserved.

The man can be found in the Naval Museum of Madrid in Spain.

1505 CE: Caverio map

The Caverio map

The Caverio Map is a map created by Nicolay de Caveri on parchment by hand and painted.

The world map is signed with “Nicolay de Caveri Januensis”. It was presumably either created in Lisbon by the Genoese Canveri, or represented by him in Genoa from a Portuguese map pretty similar to the Cantino map. The Cantino world map kept in Genoa to the end of 1502 and probably the following several years when Caveri could have used it as the basis of his plan or partially borrowed from the Cantino for the parts of Greenland, Newfoundland, and Brazil shoreline.

The Caverio map kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

1507 CE: Ruysch World Map

Ruysch World Map

Johannes Ruysch was an explorer and mapmaker from the Netherlands. The Ruysch world map uses Ptolemy’s first projection. The world map including explorations of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and Marco Polo.

Newfoundland is depicted joined to Asia, as John Cabot thought.
Greenland, in turn, is connected to Newfoundland, and not Europe as newer maps had shown.

The Ruysch map includes the findings the Portuguese had made along the African shoreline. The world map displays Africa as a peninsula circled by oceans. The horn of Africa depicted is at almost the exact latitude.

Ruysch’s map has details about Asia based on data collected by travellers like Marco Polo, as well as Greco-Roman sources. Ignorant of the presence of the Pacific Ocean he, like Christopher Columbus, saw Americas as the eastern part of Asia.

1507 CE: Waldseemüller wall map

Waldseemüller wall map poster

The Waldseemüller world map is a printed wall map of the world by German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller. It is the first map to use the name “America.” This world map poster represents the American continents in two pieces. It consists of twelve sections printed from woodcuts.

The map uses a revised Ptolemaic map projection with rounded meridians to represent Earth’s whole surface.

Until that time, most mapmakers thought that the lands explored by Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci were parts of Asia. But Waldseemüller supposed that the newly discovered lands could not be part of Asia, because according to Amerigo Vespucci, the savages of America did not have the slightest idea about India. Thus, it means that there must be an ocean separating them from India.

1513 CE: Piri Reis map

Piri Reis map

The Piri Reis world map was compiled by the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis. About one-third of the map survives; it presents the western shorelines of Europe, North Africa, and South America with unbiased precision.

Piri Reis declared that he had used a map of Christopher Columbus, Arab sources, and Indian maps obtained from the Portuguese. More lately, the world map has focused on requirements for the pre-modern exploration of the Antarctic shoreline.

The Piri Reis world map kept at the Library of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul (Turkey).

1520 CE: Pietro Coppo World Map

Pietro Coppo World Map

Pietro Coppo was a Venetian geographer who made a detailed depiction of the whole world known in the sixteenth century, accompanied by a geographical atlas of 22 maps. It was the first attempt to publish a printed atlas.

These maps included the contour of the Americas’ shoreline, a top military secret at the period.

The two saved copies of the maps are held in Bologna and Paris.

1527 CE: Diogo Ribeiro map

Diogo Ribeiro world map

Diogo Ribeiro was a Portuguese geographer who worked most of his career in Spain.

Diogo Ribeiro’s most famous work was official and secret Spanish world map ‘Padrón Real’. The world map is inspired by the knowledge received as the Magellan-Elcano journey around the globe.

Diogo Ribeiro’s map outlines the shorelines of Central and South America very accurately. It displays the entire eastern coastline of the Americas but of the west shore only the area from Guatemala to Ecuador.

The nonexistence of any vast continent south of Asia is proof that there had been no exploration of Australia and Antarctica at that time.

The Diogo’s map displays, for the first time, the actual size of the Pacific Ocean.

The world map also shows the boundary of the Treaty of Tordesillas.

1569 CE: Mercator map of the world

Mercator map of the world

Gerardus Mercator was a sixteenth-century geographer and mapmaker from the County of Flanders (Now the Netherlands). He is most famous for designing the world map based on a new projection that represented sailing routes of permanent bearing as direct lines. This innovation is still used in marine charts.

The Mercator world map of 1569 is titled “New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for use in navigation.”

Mercator’s 1569 map was an extended planisphere, a projection of the globe onto the plane. It was published in eighteen separate layers from copper plates engraved by Gerardus Mercator himself.

1578 CE: Mercator’s edition of Ptolemy map

1578 Mercator's edition of Ptolemy map

It is Mercator’s 1578 edition of Ptolemy’s map of the second century. Geography required 13 years of researching original resources and cleaning up the data. All to regally present an antiquated, though, venerated text. Here is the oikumene on Ptolemy’s second more complicated conical projection. The map was published on the website of the Harvard Map Collection.

1570 CE: “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum”

Map: Theatre of the Orb of the World

“Theatrum Orbis Terrarum” or “Theatre of the Orb of the World” is deemed the first real modern atlas. Written by Abraham Ortelius and published initially on 20 May 1570 in Antwerp, it consisted of a set of maps and supporting text for which copper typography plates were specially stamped.

The Abraham Ortelius atlas is seldom referred to as the summary of 16th-century cartography. The edition of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is often acknowledged as the official start of the Golden Age of Netherlandish cartography. It is the world map from this atlas.

1621 CE: Mao Kun Map

Mao Kun map

The Mao Kun map is the unusual Chinese map to precisely map Southern Asia, Persia, Middle East, and East Africa. The map was first printed in 1628 in the martial treatise Wubei Zhi. The text to the map in Wubei Zhi suggests that the Mao Kun plans are based on Chinese explorer and diplomat Zheng He‘s documents (The Mao Kun map is also known as Zheng He’s Navigation Map). He’s companies, implying that the map dates back to at least the 15th Century.

The Mao Kun map is a long strip map visualizing the sea voyage from the Ming capital in Nanjing to Africa’s East Coast. You can find an incredible interactive Mao Kun Map here.

1630 CE: “Nova totius Terrarum Orbis”

World Map Nova totius Terrarum Orbis

Henricus Hondius II was a Dutch mapmaker and publisher. He was the son of famous cartographer Joducus Hondius, whose portrait published at the bottom left. The map also includes pictures of Gerardus Mercator, Claudius Ptolemy, and Julius Caesar.

Northeastern Canada has been remapped considerably from early maps and now comprises Baffin Island. California is presented here as an island. The Mississippi River and the Great Lakes are pictured on the continent as well.

The mythical landmass “Unknown Southern Land” is depicted at the bottom of the map.

The Dutch attendance in Southeast Asia at this time was notable, which is undoubtedly observed on this world map through its splendid detail of this part of the Asian continent.

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