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What are Maps?

You would be surprised to know that the word "map", in its original sense, wasn't what we mean by it today. Originally from the Latin word "mappa", it actually meant a napkin or paper. Why so? Because these were the materials the earliest maps were apparently drawn on.

Maps are as old as our desire to explore. The world has become a tad more familiar ever since people started documenting or drawing their experience on pieces of cloth, rocks, sheepskin or wooden tablets. From the wall paintings in Egypt to the 21st century maps, a lot of learning and unlearning had happened in the process of perfecting the art of representing the world on a flat surface. The graphical representation of landscape features of an area of the Earth and their symbolic depiction are at the heart of any map. With its origin in Latin word 'Mappa', which meant napkin or cloth, the map has become the universal term for two-dimensional representation of the surface of the world.


Bytes You Can Share: (quotes for FB and Twitter)

“A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going — in a sense it’s three tenses in one.” ― Peter Greenaway

“If geography is prose, maps are iconography.” ― Lennart Meri

“Maps encourage boldness. They’re like cryptic love letters. They make anything seem possible.” ― Mark Jenkins

History of Maps

Maps were neither discovered, nor invented. They emerged out of a necessity and evolved as a mark of progress of a civilization. Cave painting and rock carvings, dating as early as 12,000 BC, were considered the first map-like representations that have helped in recognizing landscape features such as mountains, rivers, valleys and Neolithic towns. To find the earliest specimen of maps, one has to refer to the wooden tablets of Babylonia (present-day Iraq) and the land drawings found in Egypt. These two civilizations were among the first to demonstrate their mapping skills. What possibly prompted the birth of maps was the necessity to survey fertile areas of river valleys.

The Babylonians and Egyptians, much before the Greeks started creating maps, had made several attempts to depict the form and extent of the Earth. However, their objective of mapping was restricted to their local needs. The scope of maps soon expanded to include engineering plans as town-planners started using them for the construction of canals, roads, and civic infrastructure. The baton was passed on to the Greeks and Romans who refined the art of mapmaking. In fact, Ptolemy's 'Geographia,' which contained thousands of maps of various parts of the world along with longitude and latitude lines, was considered a notable work in 150 AD.

After a prolonged lull in the Middle Age, the world got back its focus on map-making during the Renaissance period. With the invention of the printing press and the growth of major publishing houses, maps became accessible to all. The establishment of institutions such as the French Academy of Science further gave a boost to map-making.

The earliest traces of thematic maps could be seen in the late 18th century when maps were produced to record the spread of a particular event, especially spread of disease or the extent of a flood.

Modern maps are drawn based on the borrowed concept that bird's eye view of a landscape is ideal for creating map since it provides a view of a greater area. It was the early map-makers who introduced this idea in map-making.

The relationship between features on the map and the reality on the Earth was often not accurate in the maps of the olden days. They lacked uniformity in detailing. While features in the center of the map used to be elaborately mentioned, the edges had very less details. With the exposure to scientific knowledge and understanding of geography, maps started becoming more complex and more accurate.

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