Navigating the history of maps

From the early Babylonians to Google Earth, the history of cartography has continued evolving to better support an increasingly connected world.  For more than 5000 years, humans have been creating and using maps to better navigate and understand the world around us.

The Babylonians, believed to be the world’s first cartographers, mapped the world in a flattened, disk-shaped form. Early forms of maps were made on a variety or surfaces – stone, wood, parchment paper, clay, and animal skins.  The oldest known map is Babylonian in origin and dates to about 2300 BCE.  Maps would evolve until the common era to include plans for canals, places of worship and early designs for villages and cities.

Clay tablet depicting a Late Babylonian map of the World. Dated 700 BC. Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG

The Greeks would later impact cartography in ways that would shape mapmaking for the next two thousand years.  Hecataeus produced the first known geography book around 500 BCE.  Aristotle’s theories about an orb-shaped world influenced cartography through the era of European exploration during the 17th and 18th centuries.  Dicaearchus of Messina, a follower of Aristotle, became the first cartographer to use reference lines on maps.  These would eventually lead to the use of longitude and latitude by mapmakers.   Eratosthenes of Cyrene, continuing the Greek pursuit of geographical knowledge, would become the first person to reasonably estimate the circumference of the Earth.

Cartography, 6th-5th century b.c. Circular world map by Hecataeus of Miletus. Photo by: De Agostini Picture Library/UIG

The Greek mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy advanced cartography significantly in the 2nd century CE. His eight-volume “Geographike hyphegesis” (Guide to Geography) depicted a spherical world.  Ptolemy’s guides were used widely by European explorers, including Christopher Columbus and Americus Vespucci during the 15th century.

Claudius Ptolemaeus. Photo by: Design Pics/UIG
Map showing Amerigo Vespucci 1507. Photo by: PicturesNow/UIG

The invention of the telescope would lead to improvements in cartography during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the discovery of the Americas and subsequent expeditions would necessitate the need for printed maps that were more accurate and updated to reflect more recent discoveries.  These explorations would lead cartographers to create maps on flat surfaces that reflected the features of a curved and round world.

The 20th century would bring vast changes to cartography.  The development of plane tables, alidades, and photogrammetric mapping techniques during the first half of the century led to more accurate mapping and assisted in expanding the field of land surveying.

The impact of digital technology towards the end of the 20th century further evolved and improved the science of cartography.  The use of satellites, including those used to create the Planet Observer collection represented by UIG, allow today’s mapmakers to easily construct completely accurate maps.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Cartography”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Jan. 2017, Accessed 19 October 2021.

The Early History of Cartography .” Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. 22 Sep. 2021 <>.“The History of Cartography, Volume Six: Cartography in the Twentieth Century”; Jorn Seemann; Pages 159-161; July 7, 2016

Leave a Reply