One August, at the height of subarctic summer, I came across Hadseløya – an island connecting the archipelagos of Lofoten and Vesterålen in northern Norway. It consists of a couple of small towns huddled on the coast, encircling a central ridge of mountains. Narrow trails lead upwards, steep at first, and then, above the tree line, less inclined until they reach a grass-grown plateau.

In between, they cross a zone of remarkable beauty: Groves of birch trees grow amidst pallid pasture and marshland, with leaves of a most vivid green when the light of the afternoon sun shines through them. Towards the top, where they stand more exposed to the elements, the trees keep their distance, as if to avoid beleaguering their neighbors for light and ground. At lower altitudes, they close ranks and indulge in a more lavish growth, with roots shaded by ferns. The birches‘ bark has a greyer, argent tint than their southern varieties; sometimes brown shades with a violet lustre show in places where the trees lend support to stumbling wanderers. Their gnarled stocks and roots often form the only solid steps when crossing the moors at the mountains‘ foots. And every once in a while they bear a red mark, mirroring dots on the map where a path is supposed to be found.

These dabs of paint constitute a connection – the last one – of tamed terrain, minutely measured and charted, with a land barely surveyed. They compart space into segments appropriate to human scale: From this tree to that one over there, from this stone here to another one and then on to the next. A guiding thread, which, when lost, confronts us with an onerous task of orientation in a world that did not wait for us to step into it: „Landscape was here long before we were even dreamed. It watched us arrive.“1

Imagine, then, the first arrivals looking at an ancient landscape, how they gaze the unknown terrain, considering where to go, or whether to go at all. Not the task of finding a way causes their hesitation – a trained eye, a firm step would do – it is the impossibility of an overview, being unable to predict what lies ahead, behind this ridge, beyond the horizon. How strange the sound of wind must have felt, as it howled over a cliff edge. The distant roaring of a river. The cracking echoes of rockfall in darkness. There, at the fringes of the familiar, demons dwell in clouds and gods reside atop snow-capped mountains.

„Unlike modern scientific awareness, with its search for order and regularity, the awareness of early Homo sapiens focused on irregularities in the world and on uncertainties rather than certainties. Consciousness would have constituted ‚a form of re-presentation of the current perceptual input on a mental screen,‘ thus maintaining a continuous state of alertness for the unanticipated and unexpected. However, survival and success were not dependent only on consciousness and on response in individuals. They also depended on cooperation between individuals and within the society and on the ability to communicate between individuals and within the group, to store and transmit information, and to decode it in message form. Hence the development of the several forms of language – including those for communicating spatial information – which ensured the emergence of society and the handing on of its accumulated culture to later generations.“2

Here is one motivation for the creation of the earliest maps, even for the development of language as a means of communicating a perception of space: An act of self-assurance of one‘s place in the world. This is where I am, these are the boundaries of my safety. A reminder about where it ends. Giving names to places, objects and events allows their integration in songs and tales, and later in pictorial representations, thus incorporating them into the knowledge of a society. „Mapping may […] have served to achieve what in modern behavioral therapy is known as desensitization: lessening fear by the repeated representation of what is feared.“3

That day, on Hadseløya, I followed a dashed line that was repeated reassuringly on every map I consulted. It aligned with red dots on rocks and birch trunks alongside a footpath of little difficulty. My plan was to walk this trail up onto the ridge, where the map indicated a few hundred meters of pathless terrain until another dashed lined picked up, leading me back to the lowlands on the other side.

This is, in fact, how many of my hikes begin: With a finger on a map, tracing lines, looking for optimal routes, dreaming up vistas. It is the essence of travelling, effortless and unspoiled by weariness or foul weather. Unlike following detailed directions in guide books or densely signposted tourist tracks, planning map-first retains an element of exploration, a chance of discovery, surprise – and, sometimes, of trouble.

Soon after guiding me around a small lake, the dashed line turned towards the foot of the ridge and began to cut through contour lines at a right angle. The harsh reality of this meant, of course, toiling up a steepening path through waist-deep shrubs. The birches lent their borky hands as far as they could, but after a while they stayed behind, leaving me exposed in a mountain side that felt much higher than it actually was. Quickly gaining altitude, I watched the lake shrink to its mapped abstraction and the summit edge become outlined with mounting precision.

At this point the map betrayed me: With satellite-powered confidence a blue dot insisted that I was right on track – my feet, however, stumbled in cognitive dissonance through pathless undergrowth. I went back and forth, observing how my digital alter ego crossed the supposed route multiple times. All I found were some sheep trails leading nowhere.

Even the most detailed maps are, by necessity, abstractions of the terrain they are meant to represent. „How little there is on an ordinary map!“, Thoreau, the meticulous surveyer, exclaimed: „Between those lines indicating roads is a plain blank space in the form of a square or triangle or polygon or segment of a circle, and there is naught to distinguish this from another area of similar size and form.“4 Any map is condemned by sheet size or storage capacity to be a mere approximation of reality; it is „the projection of a wish that the space could be this well organized“, as Barry Lopez put it: „Neatly folded simulacra.“5

It is one thing to scale contour lines with a fingertip, to ford blue bands with the blink of an eye: Approaching the actual landscape is an entirely different matter. Alfred Korzybski, in an attempt to illustrate the relation of language and the world it describes, famously wrote: „A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.“6 This similarity is distinct from accuracy: A quick pencil drawing can be perfectly sufficient to navigate an unfamiliar quarter. On the other hand, the highest accuracy cannot guarantee a map‘s usefulness, as Jorge Luis Borges showed in a beautiful short story, wherein the cartographers of an empire achieved such mastery in their profession, that they produced a map of the size of the empire itself, with even the smallest detail represented. „In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.“7

Umberto Eco, never too shy to follow a thought to ultimate absurdity, investigated how the map could actually be constructed, including ways to use and fold it. The whole project, he concluded with a straight face, would be doomed to failure by its inherent paradoxes.8

As I clutched at ferns and clumps of grass to hold my balance, I realized that my maps had, as Korzybski put it, „a different structure from the territory“. They were a representation of some point in the past, not accounting for changes in the terrain, erosion and overgrowth. Not knowing what would await me beyond that ridge, I opted for retreat.

In 1896, while stationed in the Marshall Islands, Captain Raimund Winkler of the Imperial German Navy came into posession of two artefacts – pieces of wood and shells bound into intricate patterns by indigenous craftsmen. The arrangement of shells was soon recognized to reflect the surrounding archipelago, obviously forming some sort of rudimentary map. Nobody seemed to know how to use these stick charts – the impact of colonial seafaring had already lead to a decline of traditional canoeing and navigation at sea. It took Winkler quite some time and effort to reveal their secret – a knowledge reluctantly shared only by Marshalese kings and a select few subordinates.9 The wooden shapes represent prevailing directions of waves and their points of intersection amongst themselves and with the islands. An experienced navigator, lying flat on his back, would be able to recognise typical wave patterns by the rhythm of his boat when it came across them, along with visual clues of the sea surface, thus gathering information about position and course. Rather than describing distance and direction in a standardised form, the stick charts are memory maps specific to the individual who made them, often making it difficult to read them for anyone else – an art almost lost nowadays.

Even though the usage of stick charts likely dates back only a few centuries, the story of their discovery highlights a problem they share with earlier maps of prehistoric cultures: A lack of understanding of the specific context those maps were used in, as well as the absence of a writing system create a significant obstacle to their interpretation. Just imagining life in a mostly oral culture is difficult for us, growing up in a society where written words are ubiquitous. Evidence in the archeological record may suggest a cosmological and ritual context, rather than one of wayfinding or the storage of information. Nonetheless, many symbols stay undecipherable, presenting us with fascinating puzzles about lives in a distant past. Even in cases where a practical use seems straightforward, such as the village plans found in Valcamonica, northern Italy – complete with detailed path lines, different patterns for housing and fields, and designations of what could be interpreted as wells – even here the purpose of these intricate rock carvings defies an easy explanation.10

Left: Stick chart. Source: By Daderot [CC0 or CC0], from Wikimedia Commons. Right: Carved coastline maps from Greenland. © By Gustav Holm, Vilhelm Garde ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Stick charts and similar symbol maps such as the wooden coastline maps of Greenland or carvings on Pintupi weaponry in Australia (representing water sources) are a long way from modern cartography. In fact, the word for map – mappa, carta, karte – is not to be found in any European language before the Renaissance, and accurate, survey-based mapping slowly emerged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although a few precursors have been found on Roman and medieval sites.

Yu Ji Tu. [?, 1136] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

It is often overlooked that there was a far older tradition of cartography in Asia, where remarkable scale-maps appear as early as in the third century.11

In 1136, a stone stele was erected in the city of Xi‘an, engraved with a detailed map of China. Under a precise grid system – an innovation at the time – the map displays the outlines of the empire, its river systems, mountains and cities with astounding accuracy. A second glance, however, gives rise to doubt about the map‘s realism: Political divisions are omitted; the Yellow River has its source at a place far from the Kunlun Mountains.

The apparent contradictions are resolved by the map‘s legend and its title: Yu ji tu, „The Map of the Tracks of Yu“ registers place names related to the life of Yu the Great, one of the legendary emperors of ancient China. Mythical geography is merged with contemporary cartography of the twelfth century Song dynasty to evoke the dream of an united empire instilled with epic greatness.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This idealized map finds its echo around 150 years later in western England, in what is generally considered a culmination of medieval cartography. The Hereford Mappa Mundi is less of a world map in any practical sense, but rather a world view. While landforms are hardly recognisable, rivers get distorted and the Mediterranean Sea is a clutter of islands, hundreds of places are designated for either their importance at the time, or their relevance in biblical history: Paris, Rome and Constantinople are joined by images of the Garden of Eden, Noah‘s Ark, the Tower of Babel, and Jerusalem „in the center of the nations, with countries all around her“.12

Furthermore, Greek myths such as the Minotaur‘s labyrinth on Crete, the Golden Fleece and the city of Troy can be found. Despite its casual rendering of coastlines and coordinates, the Hereford Mappa Mundi shows how much more a map can reveal: Cartography as a kaleidoscope of storytelling.

Three centuries later, a far more mundane map played a central role in a dispute between two european monarchs who sought to determine the border of their respective spheres of influence. They began – as men in power often did – with drawing an arbitrary line that split the known world of 1494 along a meridian going roughly through central Greenland and the easternmost part of the South American continent. To the west, the Spanish Crown began to exploit the recently discovered Americas. The opposite direction was claimed by Portugal, whose merchant ships found their way along the African coast towards India and East Asia. Within decades, the lucrative spice trade transformed the poor country into a wealthy colonial empire.

Detail of the Diogo Ribeiro Planisphere, with the border of the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence designated by the flags at the center bottom. 1529, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City, Carte Nautiche Borgiano III © 2013 Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The Age of Discoveries changed the way the world was looked upon: Globes became an instrument to make sense of the vast scale of these trade networks. And soon enough this shifting point of view presented the Kings of Spain and Portugal with a problem of globalization: How far to the west (or east) could they go, before violating their agreement? Where exactly, on the other side of the earth, would the demarcation line continue? And most significant: In whose half of the world would the Moluccas be found? Over five years the best cartographers of their time disputed the location of the legendary Spice Islands. Each side produced skillfully manipulated maps to support their claim. Well-esteemed navigators related their experiences. Bribes were paid. Spies sneaked about. Under a thin veil of scientific exactitude, the means of mapping were adapted to politicial ends. State-of-the-art cartography was employed to distort the map-territory relation: The Moluccas changed position as anyone saw fit. In the end though, Realpolitik prevailed. Spain, busy with a war against France and for want of money, agreed to a financial settlement: Portugal paid 350.000 ducats for a new line on the globe, placing the islands in their domain for good.

These examples, among many others, illustrate how maps are limited not only by material, skill and knowledge, but also by intent and purpose. Even where their production aims at an objective representation of reality, they still record ever-changing landscapes at a fixed point in time. As with the spatial dimensions, practical constraints hamper a cartography of the present. After a few years of disuse that trail in Norway had disappeared, making my maps obsolete. Shipping lanes through Arctic pack ice had to be updated daily, a practice now interfered with the bigger picture of climate change. Intertidal shorelines are in constant transformation, restricting their recording to minimum or maximum sea levels, or an average thereof. Another example is a map of the meandering Mississippi published in 1944: Like geological strata, the shift of river bends is superimposed in colored layers, a flip-book of fluvial flux. The time frames are distinct, decades apart; yet the density of information exhausts the capabilities of a two-dimensional paper map – albeit in a most beautiful way.

The 20th century, finally, saw fundamental changes in how a landscape could be represented. While traditional maps aim to be a downscaled emulation of the territory, grid systems augment it with „pointillistic“ coordinates. Their initial purpose was to improve targeting and navigation in a globalized warfare of the two World Wars by replacing regional surveys and incompatible map projections with a unified spatial framework. Within decades the grid became a standard for geodesists, civilian aviators, property developers and wildlife managers, among many others, allowing unprecedented precision of radio-based surveying and electronic computation. And slowly, the experience of using a map changed, as well. William Rankin, in his fascinating account of the most recent history of cartography, writes: „Rather than contemplating an overhead view of a large expanse of the earth, navigating by coordinates means inhabiting a virtual landscape of reference points, with your position always at the center.“ And further: „[…] with representation the goal is to know about a place without having to visit. With technologies like GPS, the goal is instead to visit a place without having to know much about it.“13 Some have lamented this as a demise of traditional wayfinding techniques caused by overreliance on technology. But then again, a paper map is no guarantee for successful orientation either, if it is outdated or used with insufficient skills. What has changed though, is the density of data and the variety of possible applications.

The last decade brought about much improved in data processing capabilities, as well as a significant decrease in size and cost of satellites. As of August 2017 a total of 1738 active satellites hovered in Earth‘s orbit, with roughly 700 of them concerned with navigation, positioning or Earth observation.14 Of the 8079 launches since 1957, a staggering 1349 took place in the last five years, with 453 new orbital objects in 2017 alone.15 It is not too far-fetched an idea to imagine a landscape augmented by real time sensor coverage, ever accurate and up to date. Will we look at a map like we watch a video, observing changes in tidal shorelines or snow cover as they happen? Will we zoom in until we reach a scale of 1 to 1, at least virtually?

After struggling for a while, I reached less inclined terrain, still high in the hills of Hadseløya. Disappointment over the missed summit gave way to satisfaction about having made a reasonable decision (and getting away with just a few scratches). At last, while catching my breath, I was able to appreciate the view again: Walls of rock descending into a wooded basin, then grass-grown hills sloping to the shore, then green islands glittering in a sky-blue sea. A gentle breeze stirred summer clouds and carried scents of sunlit stone. And below, at some distance, yet unmistakably, a red dot marked a way into this landscape. I had not checked my position for some time, and now I did not have to. As I looked around, I thought of Melville‘s words: „It is not down on any map; true places never are.“16

Notes & sources

The cover image of the Yu ji map was found at the National Library of China.

  • 1 quoted anonymously in: Macfarlane, Robert, The wild places (Granta Books, 2008)
  • 2 Lewis, G. Malcolm, The Origins of Cartography, in The History of Cartography, Volume 1 (The University of Chicago Press, 1987). Cited quote from Crook, John Hurrell, The Evolution of Human Consciousness (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980)
  • 3 Lewis, G. Malcolm, The Origins of Cartography
  • 4 Thoreau, Henry David, Journal (November 10, 1860)
  • 5 Lopez, Barry, Arctic Dreams (Vintage Books, 2001)
  • 6 Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (New York, 1994)
  • 7 Borges, Jorge Luis, On Exactitude in Science. Published in A Universal History of Infamy (London, 1975)
  • 8 Eco, Umberto, On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1. Published in How to Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays (1995)
  • 9 Korvettenkapitän Winkler, Über die in früheren Zeiten in den Marschall-Inseln gebrauchten Seekarten, mit einigen Notizen über die Seefahrt der Marschall-Insulaner im Allgemeinen, published in Marine-Rundschau – Zeitschrift für Seewesen (9. Jahrgang, Berlin 1898) –
  • 10 Delano-Smith, Catherine, Cartography in the Prehistoric Period in the Old World: Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, in The History of Cartography, Volume 1 (The University of Chicago Press, 1987)
  • 11 Harvey, P. D. A., The History of Topographical Maps – Symbols, Pictures and Surveys (Thames and Hudson, London, 1980)
  • 12 Bible, Ezekiel 5:5
  • 13 Rankin, William, After the map: cartography, navigation, and the transformation of territory in the twentieth century (University of Chicago Press, 2016). See also
  • 14 This is about a third of the total number of objects, turning the orbit into a giant junkyard of satellite debris. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database –
  • 15 United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space –
  • 16 Melville, Herman, Moby Dick; or, The Whale (The Heritage Press, New York 1943)