Buckle up and take a look at these perplexing old world maps. Here are maps made by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, the first map that depicts the New World, the first one that uses the name ‘America,’ one of the first to show Australia… Oh! and a map of Virginia drawn by Pocahontas’ friend, Captain John Smith.
These 37 old world maps will blow your mind:
1. Anaximander, Greek. 6th century BC
(Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol/Public domain)
This is how the Greeks had viewed the world for centuries.
2. Hecataeus, Greek. 5th century BC
(Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol/Public domain)
Then someone realized the three landmasses were connected. Bravo!
3. Eratosthenes, Greek. 3rd century BC
The islands of Britain and Ireland now appear on the far left.
Due to Alexander the Great’s conquests in Asia, much has been learned about the geography of that continent.
In ‘Libya’ (Africa), the powerful kingdoms of Carthage, Egypt, and Nubia are marked.
4. Pomponius Mela, Roman. 43 BC
The Romans have been conquering their neighbors and naming the coasts of the Mediterranean.
In Europe, they have named Hispania (Spain), Gallia (France and surrounding countries), Germania, and Italy.
On the map, Asia has many more names too, like Syria and Armenia.
And the Romans have begun calling the third continent ‘Africa.’
Check out next: 36 Paintings From Pompeii That Will Captivate You
5. Ptolemy, Greek. AD 150
Ptolemy divides Libya (Africa) into three regions.
The unnamed upper one corresponds to North Africa and includes countries well-known to the Europeans, like Egypt. The second division is called ‘Libia Interior,’
and the third, ‘Ethiopia Interior.’
‘Ethiopia,’ in Greek, simply means something like ‘land of the blacks.’ It is the generic name that Greeks and Romans gave to the unknown territories south of the Sahara.
6. St. Isidore of Seville, Spain. 12th century
The east is on top. (Photo: St. Isidore/Public domain)
A religious world map.
It divides the world into Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Jerusalem is at the center. The Garden of Eden is in far Asia -near the top cross-, and the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar) are on the opposite side, near the lower cross, between Europe and Africa.
Variations of this map, called a ‘Diagrammatic T-O world map,’ were popular during the Middle Ages.
7. Al Idrissi, Moroccan. 1154
The geographer who made this map was African, so Africa appears on top.
This map was the most advanced of its time.
8. Fra Mauro, Italian. 1459
Africa is on top again.
The map has many details such as rivers and city names.
Also, northern Europe is now drawn in, and Africa is getting bigger.
9. Henricus Martellus, German. 1490
There are two tails here. One is on the top of Europe and probably represents the Nordic countries.
The other is on the right of the map, in Asia, and goes down into the ocean. This is the first map that includes this ‘Asian dragon tail.’
And although it does not exist, it will keep showing up in the maps for the next 30 years or so.
10. Juan de la Cosa, Spanish. 1500
The New World has been discovered!
The New World is that green, oversized landmass on top.
This is the oldest surviving map that shows the New World.
The map has the west on top, so Europe, Asia, and Africa are on the bottom. If you look carefully, you can make out their faded outlines. Africa’s shape is quite accurate thanks to the recent discoveries of Portuguese explorers.
In the New World, the green landmass on the left is upper South America (Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil). The right landmass is probably North America (Canada).
Between them are two smaller islands: Hispaniola and the other might be Cuba. Those islands were among the first territories explored and settled by Christopher Columbus.
The man who drew this map, Juan de la Cosa, sailed with Columbus in his first two, perhaps three, trips to the New World. Juan would make seven trips in total. He explored Cuba and the northern coast of South America himself. Juan believed Cuba was an island while Columbus thought it was Asia.
These early maps were a secret closely guarded by Spain, the country that had financed these voyages. Spain didn’t want competition in the New World. (More on this map)
11. Portuguese map. 1502
This top secret map was stolen and smuggled out of Portugal.
The map emphasizes the territories explored by Portugal. The coast of Africa is accurate and includes recently discovered Madagascar (that island next to the bottom right of Africa).
In the New World, the coast of present-day Brazil is mapped out (bottom left), along with the Caribbean islands. That green, small landmass above the islands (far left) is likely Cuba, or pehaps Canada, since Florida had not been explored yet.
The green line that goes top to bottom and divides Brazil marks a treaty between Portugal and Spain.
The two superpowers had been exploring the world, and so they wouldn’t clash claiming lands, they signed this treaty. It stated that anything discovered west of that meridian belonged to Spain, and anything discovered east of it, to Portugal.
12. Johannes Ruysch, Dutch. 1507
When Columbus disembarked in the New World, he thought he was in Asia. The confusion lasted for decades.
Here, Asia is on top. On the right, it is connected with Europe and Africa, as one would expect. But on the left, it is connected with the recently discovered territories of North America.
Meanwhile, South America is that big mass on the bottom left, and it alone is labeled ‘New World.’
13. Martin Waldseemuller, German. 1507
This is the first time the name ‘America’ appears on a map.
Spain and Columbus were not seeing eye to eye, so the crown dispatched Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci to the new lands. Amerigo explored eastern South America and determined it was a new continent and not Asia.
All the way in Germany, mapmaker Waldseemuller read Vespucci’s account. So, on this map, Waldseemuller draws the New World as a separate continent and names it ‘America’ in honor of Vespucci. He places the name in South America, in present-day Brazil.
14. Lopo Homem-Reineis, Portugal. 1519
And back to the idea that everything is connected.
The name ‘Brazil’ is already in use for what is indeed present-day Brazil.
Another map from the same Miller atlas just seen above. Europe and Africa are on the right, with some interesting drawings. The New World is on the left.
Four red banners label the Americas. The one on the upper left, where the bears are roaming, is called Terra Binenes, aka Florida. The Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon has just been exploring it.
The second banner reads Ante Yillas, so it is referring to the islands. Beneath it, Natives are depicted doing their thing in Central America. The words in South America’s banner have faded.
And the fourth banner is on the center top of the map and it shows Greenland or Canada. It is labeled ‘Corte Regalis Lands’ after the Portuguese captain that explored those territories, Gaspar Corte Real.
In another map that appears in this same atlas, there is a legend warning prospective tourists that the Natives of Brazil are ‘wild and very cruel.’
15. Johannes Schoner, German. 1520
A view from the Pacific Ocean. Asia’s geography (the landmass on the left) is all over the place. Its eastern coast ends with ‘India.’ There are also references to Tibet and Ciamba (Vietnam).
The big, pink island off the coast of Asia is Java Major. Marco Polo mentions it, and it appears on many maps, but no one knows for sure which modern island it is. Further south is Java Minor which is modern Sumatra.
The yellow, big island in the center of the map, labeled Zipangri, is Japan.
Mapmaker Schoner thought America was a continent made up of islands.
So here, America is composed of those big islands with blue stripes located at the center of the map. The largest island is South America, which is labeled ‘America or Brazil or Land of the Parrots.’
The second-largest island, to the north, is labeled ‘Land of Cuba.’ And the other Caribbean islands are grouped under ‘Islands of Cannibals or Antilles.’
The blue-stripped island on top is northern North America. Once more it is labeled ‘Land of Corte Realis,’ after the Portuguese explorer.
Below South America is yet another island. This one is branded ‘Lower Brazil,’ and is probably the southern part of South America.
16. Laurent Fries, French. 1522
One of the last maps with the Asian Dragon Tail.
The other tail, above Scandinavia in Europe, has been labeled Greenland. But, spoiler alert, in reality Greenland is an island.
17. Map made in Germany. 1524
This is a Native-American city. The Europans discovered it in 1519. It was called Tenochtitlan and housed 200,000 people or more.
The impressed Spaniards made maps of the city and wrote about it. But their relations with the locals soon deteriorated, and the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521.
In its place, they founded Mexico City.
The maps survived, though, and this one was published in Germany in 1524.
The ‘lagoon’ on the left is actually the Gulf of Mexico and shows Yucatan, Cuba, and the southern part of the US, including Florida.
18. Franciscus Monachus, Belgian. 1527
In this map, South America is connected to Eurasia!
South America is on the right, in yellow. It is labeled ‘America.’ On the north, it is almost joined with a pink landmass that turns out to be Eurasia.
The left map is titled ‘The hemisphere ruled by Portugal,’ while the right map reads ‘The hemisphere ruled by Spain.‘
It refers to the treaty between Spain and Portugal mentioned above.
19. Diego Ribero, Portuguese working for Spain. 1529
The Spanish have been busy in the New World. They have named all the eastern coast, from Canada to the tip of South America.
They have also established several colonies, including the first European colony in the US.
That colony is labeled ‘Aylon’s Land’ (Tierra de Aylon) in honor of its founder, but the colony’s real name was San Miguel de Guadalupe.
It was established in 1526 in present-day South Carolina.
Other places in North America are labeled ‘Lands of Garay’, ‘Lands of Esteva Gomez,’ or ‘Land of Labrador‘ after the Spanish and Portuguese captains that explored them.
The Spanish were still being ultra-secretive. The men that returned from the Americas had to relate their discoveries to the authorities. The information was added to a master map called Padron Real. And revealing the Padron’s contents to unauthorized personnel was punishable by death.
So the maps of other countries won’t have this degree of accuracy about the geography of the Americas in decades -or in some cases centuries- to come.
Europe and Africa are perfectly drawn in, with Asia still needing a bit of work. All are labeled with fascinating names.
The proportions on this map are also surprisingly accurate -this is before the wonky Mercator Projection began beeing used. So Europe is shown much smaller than Africa and Asia, which it actually is.
20. Oronce Fine, French. 1536
South America, labeled ‘America,’ connects with North America/Asia.
21. Sebastian Munster, German. 1545
This is the first map to use the name ‘Pacific Ocean,’ which is the name Ferdinand Magellan gave it after sailing across it in 1520.
As a novelty, North America has been split into three: Florida, New France, and Terra Nova.
Florida, which translates to ‘Land of the Flowers’ or ‘Land in Bloom,’ had been explored and settled by the Spanish. And New France (eastern Canada), by the French.
While ‘Terra Nova’ is Newfoundland, in Canada. It was first sighted by John Cabot, an Italian explorer who worked for the English crown.
22. Giacomo Gastaldi, Italian. 1548
23. Peter Apian, German. 1553
24. Diego Gutierrez, Spanish. 1562
By now, the Spaniards have explored nearly all the coasts of the Americas. They still have to catch up with that western coast of North America, though.
They have mapped California as a peninsula. Yet, in many maps, California will appear as an island for almost 200 years.
Also of notice is that the name ‘Canada’ is already in use for a region in North America. The French explorer Jacques Cartier coined it.
25. Nicolas Desliens, French. 1566
The south is on top.
The big landmass on the upper left is Java Mayor, again. That is the big island that Marco Polo wrote about. Some think it may be Australia, which was officially discovered decades later.
France’s territories in North America are duly labeled ‘New France’ (La Nouvelle France).
26. Abraham Ortelius, Belgian. 1570
Welcome, Papua New Guinea!
There it is, the big, green island on the far left. It was discovered by Spanish and Portuguese sailors in the 1540s but kept being ignored in the maps.
The New World is labeled ‘America or New India.’
The large landmass on the south is labeled ‘Unknown Southern Land‘ (Terra Australis Nondum Cognita).
The ancient Greeks had noticed that the known continents (Africa, Europe, Asia) were all on the north, so they predicted there would be a landmass on the south balancing things out. The Greeks liked balance.
So some cartographers drew in this theoretical landmass that nobody had seen.
In 1820, Greeks and cartographers were proven right when Antarctica was discovered.
27. Heinrich Bunting, German. 1581
28. Abraham Ortelius, Belgian. 1586
The Pacific Ocean with its recently explored islands.
And the Spanish did catch up. Most of the western coast of North America is now named.
29. Petrus Plancius, Dutch. 1594
A plot twist.
North America is labeled ‘Mexican America’ while South America is labeled ‘Peruvian America.’
Many maps made during those years use these names.
Also, the subregions do not correspond with the modern division since Peruvian America includes most of the Americas, including the south of what is now the US.
30. Theodor de Bry, Belgian. 1596
Another example of Mexican America and Peruvian America.
In other news, the English have arrived!
The English began exploring North America in earnest in the 1580s. Soon, they established settlements in Newfoundland (Canada), and Walter Raleigh claimed Virginia for England.
The label ‘Virginia’ is on the right of North America, under New France.
31. Jacob Hondius, Belgian. 1598
A close-up of northeast South America.
Mapmaker de Byr is being a pal and letting you know, in the legends, that there are cannibals in Guyana. Watch your step.
And that farther south, headless men are roaming around (they are called Blemmyes).
32. Wright-Molyneux. British. 1599
This is the first modern world map created and published in Britain.
It labels the British territories of Virginia and Newfoundland in North America. And it accurately draws the coasts of Africa, Europe, and Asia.
33. Arnoldo di Arnoldi, Belgian. 1600
This map has many informative legends.
In one, it lets the reader know that Tartaria (in yellow, far right), in Asia, is governed by Christians that arrived in 1290. In another, it describes the inhabitants of Java as short, corpulent, with long faces. And says they go naked and are inhuman and cruel.
He also says the inhabitants of South America tended to be inhuman and cruel, but adds they are now better since the Spaniards converted them to Christianity.
And Arnoldi labels North America ‘Mexicana.’
Read more: 7 European Aristocrats That Ended Up As Slaves in Recent Times –One of them was a Spanish explorer enslaved by Native Americans
34. Matteo Ricci, Italian. 1602
This map was made for the emperor of China. So, following Chinese tradition, China appears near the center of the map.
35. Gerardus Mercator, German. 1623
The globe seen from the Artic.
At this time, the Arctic had not been explored, so Mercator draws it based on philosophical theories.
The Arctic is in yellow, and at its center, there is a magnetic rock.
(More on this map)
36. John Smith, British. 1627
Captain John Smith -as in Pocahontas’ John Smith- made this work.
Smith arrived in Virginia and helped establish the colony of Jamestown in 1607. It was the first lasting English colony in what is now the US. The colony would suffer several setbacks and finally be abandoned 92 years later.
Founding Jamestown was not easy, either. Enter Smith’s engravings to prove it.
On the bottom center, Smith has placed a map of Virginia, and he has surrounded it with his adventures in those lands.
Smith is captured by a Powhatan Native (top right), who takes him to his tribe. Then, the most famous scene takes place. On the bottom right, Smith is on the ground and is surrounded by the Powhatans. He is about to be killed, but the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervenes and saves him.
Other engravings show him tied to a tree with dancing Natives ready to shoot him (top left), a ceremony (top center), and Smith capturing the chief of another tribe (bottom left).
37. Henricus Hondius, Dutch. 1630
Australia is in the house!
About time, too, since it was officially discovered in 1606 by the Dutch. They called it New Holland.
New Holland is that pink stretch at the far right of the map, under New Guinea.
Which old world map did you find most perplexing?