A 1491 World Map

These days there are flat earthers who profess the belief that the world is flat.  There is also the notion that at the time Columbus sailed the Atlantic in 1492, the common belief was also that the world was flat.  Nothing could be farther from the truth as evidenced by a map created German cartographer Henricus Martellus (aka Heinrich Hammer) in 1491.  The map depicts the world as known to Europeans at that time, but adds some things.  While the America’s aren’t displayed, the void of the Pacific Ocean is filled with small imagined islands.

Partly based upon this and earlier maps, Columbus sailed west, expecting to reach Japan, to the east of his starting point.  He was also well aware of the curvature of the earth that he could easily observe whenever he set sail.  Columbus knew the earth was generally spherical.

Martellus World Map


A copy of the map still exists at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.  It was covered with notations, but most were so faint that they were unreadable.  A few years ago researchers using multispectral imaging were able to make those notes readable.  The were written in Latin.  Here are a few of them, translated to English:

Martellus Map Text ExampleIn the Indian Ocean: “a sea monster that is like the sun when it shines, whose form can hardly be described, except that its skin is soft and its body huge”

In Northern Africa: “Here there are large wildernesses in which there are lions, large leopards, and many other animals different from ours.”

In Central Asia: “Here are found the Hippopodes: they have a human form but the feet of horses.”

In Asia: “monsters similar to humans whose ears are so large that they can cover their whole body”

Some notations are based upon contemporary experience while some relied upon more ancient texts, in some cases fiction.

A note in the margin provides some context for the map: “Although Strabo and Ptolemy and the majority of the ancients were most assiduous in describing the world we, however, bring together in this picture and carefully show in their true places the new knowledge that escaped their diligence and remained unknown to them.”

You can learn more about this map and its relationship to earlier maps in this article from Kenyon College’s Peregrinations.

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