Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

Artifacts #1: The First Map of Africa

The map is the work of Sebastian Munster (1489-1552), a professor of Hebrew at the University of Basel. This is mid-16th century, so going on 60 years after Europeans first rounded the Cape of Good Hope to Asia, though the Portuguese had been exploring the western coast of Africa a good deal longer.

This is a fascinating period in the history of European map-making since were then being strung together through an odd partnership between university academics and printers in Europe on the one hand and explorers and traders on the other, the former still partly hung up on ancient ideas on the shape and outlines of the world as well as theories about where certain things must be and the latter with real observational data about what they'd seen.

Not surprisingly, North Africa is fairly accurate and the key rivers in West Africa bear at least some resemblance to their true locations. Things get a good deal iffier about Central Africa and the scale of Subsaharan Africa. And there's a pretty serious Ethiopia fail. It's right over the one-eyed giants who live in Nigeria. When you consider the limited observational knowledge, extremely poor ability to measure distance, obstacles to communications and the fact that the key sea-faring powers treated all this information as state secrets, the degree of accuracy is fairly remarkable.

Still more remarkable is this Abraham Ortelius map from only 30 years later. Published at Antwerp in 1584.

Princeton University. Historic Maps Collection.

As you can see, on a quick look this could almost be a modern map of Africa, though many things are distorted, not least the scale of the Red Sea relative to the rest of the continent.