The Mystery of Waldseemuller

You might not think that maps are very interesting. I’ll grant you that looking at maps probably won’t surpass going to the movies or playing video games as “fun entertainment”. But maps can be interesting. Looked at as a timeline, maps have displayed man’s ever-increasing knowledge of the world around him. From early maps that look a lot like something a grade schooler might draw, maps have become ever more accurate.

While maps have been a showcase of the increase of knowledge, they’ve also displayed important changes in human history. Most maps made in the Middle Ages, for example, have Jerusalem as their center. As the influence of the Church waned and maps became important economic tools, Europe became the center of most maps. And of course, looking at maps with political boundaries can show how empires expand and contract, which countries merge with others or cease to exist entirely, and which new countries form out of the ashes of others.

Maps can also hold secrets. Secrets that stay hidden for centuries. Secrets that people have only noticed just now, and are still trying to understand. Take a look at the following map (click on it to open it in a new window or tab):

Waldseemuller Small

This map is called the “Waldseemuller map”. It is named after its creator, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who first published the map in 1507. The map initially gained fame as the first map that used the name “America” to refer to the New World. So in a very real sense, the reason you call yourself an “American” is because Martin Waldseemüller decided to put that name on his map. The map is also famous for its layout – with Europe in the center, the Americas to the left and Asia to the right. Almost all maps made since Waldseemüller’s day have used this same layout.

But there’s a lot more going on with this map that you might imagine. Look at the map carefully. At first glance, it might look like any other European map of the world from the time: the continents are shaped incorrectly and lots of places are missing. But look closer. South America is the land mass on the bottom left of the map. It might not look especially accurate, but if you were to rotate the map, such that the grid lines over South America were perfect rectangles, you’d probably be shocked by what you saw – a continent that looks almost exactly as it does on modern maps. In fact, recent study of the map has shown that Waldseemüller’s map accurately portrays the width of most of South America to a minuscule 70 miles compared to today’s maps, which are made by careful surveying and satellite technology. Let me repeat that: 500 years ago, a man in Germany made a map of South America that, compared to the best maps we can make today, is only “off” on most points by 70 miles.

The secret of this map is, of course, how Waldseemüller made such an accurate map. Although the Vikings or John Cabot might be able to lay claim to discovering North America, it’s well established that Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot on South American soil. And he did that in 1498. So, somehow, in less than 9 years, Europeans were able to develop an astonishingly accurate map of an entire continent.

And the mystery deepens – a lot – when you consider the west coast of South America. According to history, Vasco Nunez de Balboa became the first European to reach the Pacific by land (1513) and Ferdinand Magellan was the first to reach the Pacific by sail (1520). So if these were the first two Europeans to reach the Pacific… how did Waldseemüller make this map in 1507? Was there a mission to map the west coast whose name has been lost to history? Did a secret mission attempt to map the west coast? Did Asian mapmakers share their secrets with Europeans? If so, where? And when? And how come no one wrote anything down about it? And how did all of this information come into the hands of a German in 1507? Germany wasn’t much of a sea-faring nation, and the Spanish and Portuguese would have done everything in their power to keep the map out of the hands of a heretic economic rival.

We honestly don’t know how Waldseemüller made his map. But trust me, there are researchers out there trying to find out how he did.

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