In 1504, an anonymous mapmaker – most likely an Italian – carved a meticulous depiction of the known world into two halves of conjoined ostrich eggs. The grapefruit-sized globe included recent breaking discoveries of mysterious distant lands, including Japan, Brazil and the Arabic peninsula. But blanks remained. In a patch of ocean near Southeast Asia, that long-forgotten mapmaker carefully etched the Latin phrase Hic Sunt Dracones – “Here are the dragons.”
Today it is safe to say there are no unknown territories with dragons. However, it’s not quite true to say that every corner of the planet is charted. We may seem to have a map for everywhere, but that doesn’t mean they are complete, accurate or even trustworthy.
For starters, all maps are biased toward their creator’s subjective view of the world. As Lewis Carroll famously pointed out, a perfectly objective and faithful 1:1 representation of the world would literally have to be the same size as the place it depicted. Therefore, mapmakers must make sensible design decisions in order to compress the physical world into a much smaller, flatter depiction. Those decisions inevitably introduce personal biases, however, such as our tendency to place ourselves at the centre of the world. “We always want to put ourselves on the map,” says Jerry Brotton, a professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary University London, and author of A History of the World in 12 Maps. “Maps address an existential question as much as one that’s about orientation and coordinates.
“We want to find ourselves on the map, but at the same time, we are also outside of the map, rising above the world and looking down as if we were god,” he continues. “It’s a transcendental experience.”