The earliest known map is a matter of some debate, both because the term “map” isn’t well-defined and because some artifacts that might be maps might actually be something else. A wall painting that might depict the ancient Anatolian city of Çatalhöyük (previously known as Catal Huyuk or Çatal Hüyük) has been dated to the late 7th millennium BCE. Among the prehistoric alpine rock carvings of Mount Bego (F) and Valcamonica (I), dated to the 4th millennium BCE, geometric patterns consisting of dotted rectangles and lines are widely interpreted in archaeological literature as a depiction of cultivated plots. Other known maps of the ancient world include the Minoan “House of the Admiral” wall painting from c. 1600 BCE, showing a seaside community in an oblique perspective and an engraved map of the holy Babylonian city of Nippur, from the Kassite period (14th – 12th centuries BCE). The oldest surviving world maps are from 9th century BCE Babylonia. One shows Babylon on the Euphrates, surrounded by Assyria, Urartu and several cities, all, in turn, surrounded by a “bitter river” (Oceanus). Another depicts Babylon as being north of the world center.
The ancient Greeks and Romans created maps since Anaximander in the 6th century BCE. In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy wrote his treatise on cartography, Geographia. This contained Ptolemy’s world map – the world then known to Western society (Ecumene). As early as the 8th century, Arab scholars were translating the works of the Greek geographers into Arabic.
In ancient China, geographical literature dates to the 5th century BCE. The oldest extant Chinese maps come from the State of Qin, dated back to the 4th century BCE, during the Warring States period. In the book of the Xin Yi Xiang Fa Yao, published in 1092 by the Chinese scientist Su Song, a star map on the equidistant cylindrical projection. Although this method of charting seems to have existed in China even prior to this publication and scientist, the greatest significance of the star maps by Su Song is that they represent the oldest existent star maps in printed form.
Early forms of cartography of India included depictions of the pole star and surrounding constellations. These charts may have been used for navigation.
Mappa mundi are the Medieval European maps of the world. Approximately 1,100 mappae mundi are known to have survived from the Middle Ages. Of these, some 900 are found illustrating manuscripts and the remainder exist as stand-alone documents.
The Tabula Rogeriana, drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi for Roger II of Sicily in 1154
The Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi produced his medieval atlas Tabula Rogeriana in 1154. He incorporated the knowledge of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East, gathered by Arab merchants and explorers with the information inherited from the classical geographers to create the most accurate map of the world up until his time. It remained the most accurate world map for the next three centuries.
Europa regina in Sebastian Münster’s “Cosmographia”, 1570
In the Age of Exploration, from the 15th century to the 17th century, European cartographers both copied earlier maps (some of which had been passed down for centuries) and drew their own based on explorers’ observations and new surveying techniques. The invention of the magnetic compass, telescope and sextant enabled increasing accuracy. In 1492, Martin Behaim, a German cartographer, made the oldest extant globe of the Earth.
Johannes Werner refined and promoted the Werner projection. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a globular world map and a large 12-panel world wall map (Universalis Cosmographia) bearing the first use of the name “America”. Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero was the author of the first known planisphere with a graduated Equator (1527). Italian cartographer Battista Agnese produced at least 71 manuscript atlases of sea charts.
Due to the sheer physical difficulties inherent in cartography, map-makers frequently lifted material from earlier works without giving credit to the original cartographer. For example, one of the most famous early maps of North America is unofficially known as the “Beaver Map”, published in 1715 by Herman Moll. This map is an exact reproduction of a 1698 work by Nicolas de Fer. De Fer in turn had copied images that were first printed in books by Louis Hennepin, published in 1697, and François Du Creux, in 1664. By the 18th century, map-makers started to give credit to the original engraver by printing the phrase “After [the original cartographer]” on the work.