Oldest Known World Maps

9 Oldest Known World Maps

People have been making maps for thousands of years, but for millennia maps depicted only the stars or regional areas. World maps, or maps that showed the known world at the time, did not start to appear until people began exploring beyond their homes. As empires grew and sea travel became common, geography and cartography began to emerge.

The oldest known world maps date to Mesopotamia as well as the Greek and Roman empires. Very few of these maps exist in their original forms, but were reconstructed by later cartographers based on extensive descriptions.

9. Tabula Peutingeriana

Year Created: unknown – possibly c.4th or 5th century CE; copy from 13th century CE
Country of Origin:  Unknown – believed to be Roman in origin; copy found in Worms, Germany
Creator:  Unknown – copy made by a monk in Colmar, France
Materials Used: Ink and parchment
Area Depicted: Road network of the Roman Empire – Europe (minus the Iberian Peninsula and British Isles), North Africa, and parts of Asia, including the Middle East, Persia, and India

Tabula Peutingerianaphoto source: Wikimedia Commons via Conradi Millieri (Only portion of map is shown because the full map is too large and long)

The Tabula Peutingeriana is an extraordinary map depicting the road network of the Roman Empire from around the 4th or 5th century. The surviving version of the Tabula Peutingeriana or “Peutinger Map,” only dates to the 13th century and was drawn by a monk in Colmar, France. The map is an impressive 22.1 feet (6.75 meters) long and 1 foot 1 inch (0.34 meters) high.

The Tabula Peutingeriana stretches across the known parts of Europe (except for the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles) all the way through Northern Africa and parts of Asia, including the Middle East, Persia, and India. The map shows about 555 cities and 3500 places of interest such as smaller settlements, rivers, mountains, and islands. It is believed that the 13th century Tabula Peutingeriana is based on a map from the 4th or 5th century CE, which in turn was a copy of an original map by Agrippa during the reign of the emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE).

Did You Know?

The Tabula Peutingeriana is named for 16th-century German antiquarian Konrad Peutinger, who was gifted the map by its discoverer Conrad Celtes following his death.

8. Ptolemy’s World Map

Year Created: c.150 BCE
Country of Origin:  Roman city of Alexandria (modern-day Alexandria, Egypt)
Creator:  Roman mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer Claudius Ptolemy
Materials Used: Ink and parchment
Area Depicted: Map of the known world – known parts of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa (also indicated that China or “Sinae” was to the far right as well as Korea)

photo source: Wikimedia Commons via Francesco di Antonio del Chierico

While every geographer on this list was important, Ptolemy’s contributions (through building on the work from earlier geographers) changed the world’s knowledge of geography and lead to many advances in this field. Ptolemy’s Geographia contained more geographic information than any other geographic work. It contained a list of 8,000 over 8,000 locations known to Greco-Roman civilization, centered on the Mediterranean.

Ptolemy’s map went beyond earlier maps and included such far away places like China, Korea, and even Iceland. Geographia was written in eight volumes, including an Atlas. The book also contained a gazetteer, which featured latitude and longitude coordinates. While copies of Geographia have survived, no maps personally drawn by Ptolemy have been found. The earliest Geographia texts and maps only date to the early 14th century.

Did You Know?

Something that was unique to Ptolemy was that he acknowledged that Europeans were only aware of about a quarter of the globe and had many more places to explore and map.

7. Pomponius Mela’s Map (De situ orbis)

Year Created: c.37 CE
Country of Origin:  Roman city of Tingentera (modern-day Algerciras, Spain)
Creator:  Roman geographer Pomponius Mela
Materials Used: Ink and parchment
Area Depicted: Map of the known world at the time – known parts of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa and important bodies of water

Pomponius Mela's Mapphoto source: Wikimedia Commons via Edward Bunbury

Pomponius Mela is the earliest known Roman geographer; the geographers before him had all been Greek. For the most part, Pomponius Mela agreed with his Greek predecessors, but he had more knowledge about the Western Europe and the British Isles. In fact, Pomponius Mela was the first to name the Orkney Islands (he called them Orcades).

For many centuries, Pomponius Mela was only known through the works of Pliny the Elder, who often cited Pomponius in Natural History. Work by Pomponius Mela was not discovered until the 14th century, when his De chorographia (On Chorography, or Descriptive Geography). No map by Pomponius Mela was found with this text, but like many of the other geographers on this list, his map was reconstructed later based on his descriptions.

Did You Know?

Like the geographers before him, Pomponius Mela divided his map into five temperate zones, with only two inhabitable (the northern and southern temperate zones). But Pomponius Mela was the only one who believed that people from the northern temperate zone could not live in the hotter southern temperate zone.

6. Strabo’s Map

Year Created: Uknown – believed to be no earlier than 20 BCE and no later than 23 CE
Country of Origin:  Anatolia during the transitional period of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire (modern-day Turkey)
Creator:  Greek geographer, historian, and philosopher Strabo
Materials Used: Ink and parchment
Area Depicted: The known world at the time to the ancient Greeks and Romans – known parts of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa (Libya)

Strabo's Mapphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

While many of the works of the early geographers is only known through later secondary sources, Strabo’s Geographica has survived almost in its entirety (only parts of Book 7 are missing). Geographica is an extensive encyclopedia of the known geographical knowledge of Strabo’s time. Strabo built upon the work of earlier geographers, many of whom are on this list.

Although Geographica still exists, the actual map drawn by Strabo does not and only later reconstructions have survived. Not only does Strabo’s Geographica contain extensive geographic details and information about the local peoples of these areas, it contains a lot of historical information. Strabo also provides his on insights and theories on geography and other topics.

Did You Know?

Strabo wanted the Roman Emperors to use his Geographica to so that they could understand the geography of those places that mattered most historically (i.e. the places they conquered). However, Strabo’s work was largely ignored by the Romans and was not picked up until the late 5th century.

5. Posidonius’ Map

Year Created: c.150 to 130 BCE; reconstruction from c.1628
Country of Origin:  Ancient Greek city of Apamea (modern-day Hama, Syria); map reconstruction from Paris, France
Creator:  Greek philosopher politician, astronomer, geographer, historian and teacher Posidonius; reconstructed by Petrus Bertius
Materials Used: Ink and parchment
Area Depicted: Known world at the time – included known parts of Europe, Asia, northern Africa, as well as the polar circles and large bodies of water

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Posidonius provided extensive details on what he thought the world looked like, there is no known maps actually drawn by him exist. Instead, Posidonius’ work is known through the works of later Greek scientists and the cartographer Petrus Bertius, who drew Posidonius’ Map around 1628.

Posidonius calculated the circumference of the Earth using the work that Eratosthenes had already done. While both men were fairly accurate in their calculations, mistranslations between the unit of measurement caused later geographers to miscalculate Earth’s circumference.

Did You Know?

The miscalculations of Posidonius’ work on the circumference of the Earth persisted for so long that they affected later explorers, including Christoper Columbus, who believed he could sail from Europe directly to the Indies (India) in a much shorter distance than was actually possible.

4. Eratosthenes’ Map

Year Created: c.194 BCE
Country of Origin:  Ancient Greek city of Cyrene (near modern-day Shahhat, Libya)
Creator:  Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist Eratosthenes
Materials Used: Ink and parchment
Area Depicted: An improved map of the known world at the time to the ancient Greeks

Eratosthenes' Mapphoto source: Wikimedia Commons via Bunbury, E.H

While Anaximander and Hecataceus may have been some of the earliest known geographers, Eratosthenes is known as the “Father of geography” for expanding on previous maps and using a more scientific approach to mapping out the world – he is also credited with coining the word “geography” or geographika. Eratosthenes used his extensive mathematical and scientific knowledge to determine that the Earth was a sphere and calculated our planet’s size with great accuracy.

Using what he had calculated, Eratosthenes set out to create a more precise world map. Eratosthenes was the first to use meridian lines and parallel lines, which are similar to modern longitude and latitude He also marked the equator and even made note of the polar zones (the North and South poles) and how far away they were from the tropics.

Did You Know?

Besides his contributions to geography, Eratosthenes invented the armillary sphere, which was used for centuries by astronomers to determine the position of celestial objects. Eratosthenes was also the director of the famed Library of Alexandria.

3. Hecataceus’ Map

Year Created: c.550 to 476 BCE
Country of Origin:  Ancient Greek city of Miletus (area in modern-day Turkey)
Creator:  Greek historian and geographer Hecataeus
Materials Used: Engraved copper plate
Area Depicted: Known world at the time to the ancient Greeks – expansion of Anaximander’s map which showed the known parts of Europe, southern Asia, and northern Africa

Hecataceus' Mapphoto source: Wikimedia Commons via Bibi Saint-Pol

Hecataceus was also from the Ancient Greek city of Miletus, like Anaximander, but they were not contemporaries. However, Hecataceus studied Anaximander’s work and built upon his world map by improving and expanding on the world map that Anaximander had made. While Anaximander may have been the first to publish a world map, Hecataceus was the first to provide written descriptions of the world to go along with his map.

Hecataceus published a book called Periodos ges, which was a comprehensive work on the known geography of the world at the time. The book provides information about the people and places that would be encountered on a coastal voyage between Straits of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Coast of Morocco. There are also descriptions about the inhabitants of the the various Mediterranean islands, the Scythians, Persia, India, Egypt, and Nubia. Only about 300 fragments of the Periodos ges survive today.

Did  You Know?

While Hecataceus did not visit every place shown on his world map, he did travel around Asia and Egypt.

2. Anaximander’s Map

Year Created: c.610 to 546 BCE
Country of Origin:  Ancient Greek city of Miletus (area in modern-day Turkey)
Creator:  Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaximander
Materials Used: Unknown – believed to have been an etched rounded metal surface
Area Depicted: Known world at the time – parts of Europe (area around Greece), parts of southern Asia, and parts of northern Africa

Anaximander's Mapphoto source: Wikimedia Commons via Bibi Saint-Pol

Although there is no surviving example of Anaximander’s map, we have a close approximation of what it could have looked like because of descriptions of the map provided by Herodotus. Many later Greek geographers credit Anaximander with being the first geographer as well as the first person to publish a world map.

Anaximander’s map was flat and circular and showed the known lands to the Greeks at the time surrounded by the ocean. The Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea are also shown. The northern half of the map shows “Europe,” which consisted of Greece, Spain, a boot-shaped Italy, and Asia Minor. The bottom half of the map is split into Libya (which also contained Egypt) and Asia (Palestine, Assyria, Persia, and Arabia). Libya and Asia are split by the Nile River.

Did You Know?

In addition to his map of the world, Anaximander is credited with building the first celestial globe and was one of the first people to note that the Earth floated freely in the “center of the infinite.”

1. Babylonian Map of the World (Imago Mundi)

Year Created: c.700 to 500 BCE
Country of Origin:  Sippar, souther Iraq
Creator:  Unknown Babylonian cartographer
Materials Used: Etched clay tablet
Area Depicted: Known world at the time to the Babylonians; centered on the Euphrates River

Babylonian Map of the Worldphoto source: Wikimedia Commons via The British Museum

The Babylonian Map of the World or the Imago Mundi is the oldest known world map ever discovered. The map dates to sometime in the 6th century BCE and was created by the Babylonians and shows how they viewed both the physical and spiritual world at the time.

The Kingdom of Babylon is at the center of the map and nearby Assyria and Elam are also depicted on the tablet. The map also shows Babylon surrounded by the ocean and the circles are labeled in cuneiform as “bitter water” or “salt sea.” A few of Babylon’s major cities are also on the map as well as the Euphrates River, which is wear the Imago Mundi was discovered in the late 1800s.

Did You Know?

While the Imago Mundi does mainly show the areas depicted in their correct place, some researchers believe that the map was made to show the Babylonian view of the mythological world. This is because the Imago Mundi mentions 18 Babylonian mythological beasts.



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