Maps: Projections of the World

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Author: Alyccea Nymaessene


For some, a map may be simply a way of finding out how to get from “A” to “B”. For others, a map might be a useful visual tool to help them plan their next trip away. For you, a map might mean the wall hanging with colourful shapes that you got tested on at school, or it could mean that device that chirps directions at you while you’re driving (and sometimes steers you the wrong way down a one-way street - hey, we've all been there!).

However, for many, a map can be a way of exploring the world. It can be a window into history, or a portal through which they can view and understand stories and cultures far removed from our own. Maps can reveal all sorts of information about how the world was, is, and will be.

For example, maps can tell us about the history of the land itself. A mountain range can indicate a border between two previously distinct land masses that collided over millions of years. A canyon can represent gradual, or even sudden, erosion as a result of wind and water persistently eating away at rock over time. A forest or grass plain might indicate a landscape that has stayed relatively unchanged for untold generations.

Maps can tell us about potential resources. An area with many rivers can indicate plentiful access to fresh water. A town or city near a wooded area might indicate a connection with the forestry industry, while a road or train track between two locations could be a sign of regular trade between these regions. Similarly, a relatively isolated region (such as a seaside village surrounded by mountains that are difficult to pass) can indicate an isolated but self-sufficient township.

Maps provide a backdrop to history. It is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend Julius Caesar’s empire, Marco Polo’s travels, Genghis Khan’s conquests, the Oregon Trail, the adventures of Burke & Wills, the great journeys of Columbus and Cook, or even the migration of early humans out of Africa (to name a few examples) without being able to visualise the places involved through the use of a map. Maps can tell us of the hardships they faced along their journeys. They reveal the terrain that these pioneers had to overcome to get to their destination. They tell us about the different groups of people they might have encountered along the way. And in doing so, they can help explain how different cultural influences spread between different groups of people as they interacted with each other.

Most interestingly of all, I think, maps tell us about the people who made them. If you’ve ever looked at an antique map, you might have noticed some differences between it and its modern counterparts. For example, it might highlight different features of the location, based on what was most important to these people at the time. Or it might have significant inaccuracies in how it portrays local features. In some cases, these inaccuracies are due to the limitations of the measuring equipment and methods that cartographers used at the time. In other cases, it might be a way to make a particular region appear larger, more powerful, or more influential than another, in order to convey a particular message to those viewing it. Some maps are even missing entire landmasses (depending on the time period, you could find world maps missing Australia/NZ, the Americas, or even parts of Africa and Asia), reflecting the limitations of what was known about the world at the time. And when they show pictures in these spaces, of dragons or sea serpents or scary-looking signs saying “here there be monsters”, they tell us about the beliefs, hopes and fears of their creators.

So the next time you look at a map, take some time to consider and appreciate the vast array of information it can provide about the wonderfully detailed world we live in.

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