Old maps, the Americas and Antarctica


Maps of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries are a favourite source of information for fringe writers, who use them to make a wide variety of claims. To Erich von Däniken, for instance, they are evidence for a survey of the Earth from space, carried out by extraterrestrials, while for Graham Hancock, they are evidence for an ancient sea-faring civilisation, lost beneath the sea after the melting of glacial ice at the end of the Pleistocene. These writers focus on a relatively small number of such maps, those of Piri Re‘is and Orontius Finaeus being the most used, whilst ignoring others of the same age. All these maps are alleged to show anomalous knowledge for the dates at which they were drawn: the west coast of South America, Antarctica (with or, more frequently, without its ice sheet), the Strait of Magellan and other “impossible” details. This appears to be solid evidence, so why do mainstream historians and archaeologists ignore it?

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

Piri Re‘is’s map of 1513

The Piri Re‘is map

The most widely used of these maps is a manuscript map produced in 1513 CE by Hacı Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, better known as Piri Re‘is (“Admiral Piri”, although most of these writers seem not to understand that Re‘is is a title, not a surname). It was drawn on camel-skin parchment and is one surviving part of an originally larger set of maps depicting the known world. Since its rediscovery by the German theologian, Gustav Adolf Deissmann (1866–1937) in the Topkapı Sarayı Museum in 1929, it has been an important source of claims that there were much older maps showing the world in great detail, including places unknown in the early sixteenth century CE. Much of the detail in these claims derives not from scholarly studies of the map but from the work of Charles Hapgood (1904-1982), a geography teacher at Keene State College (whose status is often inflated to ‘professor’ through a misunderstanding of American usage of the term).

The inspiration behind Hapgood’s work was a radio discussion on 26 August 1956 between Arlington Humphrey Mallery (1877-1968), an engineer then working for the US Navy Hydrographic Office, Rev Daniel L Linehan SJ (1904-1987), director and chief seismologist of the Weston Observatory at Boston College, and Rev Francis Heyden (1907-1991), director of the Georgetown University Observatory. Mallery, something of a student of the history of cartography and an amateur archaeologist, had formed the view that the bays and islands depicted at the bottom of Piri’s map were hidden beneath the ice of Queen Maud Land (Antarctica). After reading a transcript of the broadcast, Hapgood contacted Mallery and, having obtained a copy of the map, set his students to work examining it.

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s attempt to impose a grid on Piri Re‘is’s map

Hapgood’s account of the investigation, in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966) is tedious to anyone, like me, with little or no interest or ability in maths. He detected the use of a grid on late medieval portolan charts and suggested that a similar grid was used by Piri; he conjectured that it was based on Syene (Aswan, Egypt) and that similar grids were used on other early medieval maps. This may have been a correct deduction (although it appears not to be generally accepted by historians of cartography, who believe that portolans were based on compass directions), but it is the next stage of Hapgood’s analysis where the claims made for the map go way beyond the evidence.

Hapgood started with the belief that the Piri Re‘is map was an accurate depiction of South America and part of Antarctica but when close analysis showed that it was not accurate in any projection he and his students applied to it, had to come up with a reason why it contained errors. Given that Piri stated that he had used “about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi” and that some of them were “drawn in the days of Alexander”, Hapgood conjectured that Piri’s map (or its sources) had wrongly combined numerous earlier sources of varying scale, orientation and projection. In this way, small sections of coastline were drawn accurately but each section had to be looked at in isolation. Worse, some parts of the coastline were missing (so that the Strait of Magellan was not depicted, for instance) and some were duplicated. In this way, Hapgood and his students could rescue Piri’s map from any suggestion of inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, Hapgood has misunderstood what Piri says about the sources for his map. Here is Piri’s note in full:

This section shows how this map was drawn. In this century, there is no map like this in anyone’s possession: the hand of this poor man has drawn it and now it is assembled from about twenty charts and Mappae Mundi (these are charts drawn in the days of Alexander, Lord of the Two Horns, which show the inhabited quarter of the world). The Arabs name these charts Caferiye. I have compiled it from eight Caferiyes of that kind, one Arab map of India, from the maps recently drawn by four Portuguese that show the countries of India, Sindh and China drawn geometrically, and also from a map drawn by Columbus in the western region. The present form was achieved by reducing all these maps to a single scale so that this map is as correct and reliable for the Seven Seas as the map of our own countries is considered accurate and reliable by sailors.

It is quite clear from this that Piri’s only source for the “western region” was a map he attributed to Columbus. The Mappae Mundidrawn in the days of Alexander” were not charts 1800 years old when Piri acquired them but maps based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographical Guide (Γεωγραφικὴ Ύφήγησις, more commonly known as the Geography), which had become the standard for accurate mapping in the Arab world and in Christian Europe after a text was brought from Constantinople in 1400. Rather than dating from “the days of Alexander”, the original work dated from c 150 CE and although the only copy that Maximos Planoudes (Μάξιμος Πλανούδης, c 1260-c 1305) was able to locate in Constantinople in 1295 had lost its maps, the tenth-century al-Masʿūdī (أبو الحسن علي بن الحسين بن علي المسعودي, Abu al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī al-Masʿūdī c 896-956) was familiar with a copy that may have retained them. These maps dealt with only those parts of the world known to Ptolemy; Piri used more recent maps to update them.

What this means is that Hapgood’s attempt to rescue his hypothesis is just plain wrong: Piri is absolutely explicit that his only source for the “western region” was a chart he believed to have been compiled by Christopher Columbus. Piri may or may not have been correct in this belief, but either way, his sole source for the western continent was a map deriving from the voyages to the New World by European explorers after 1492. Had there been earlier maps available to him, we would have to explain why he did not mention them as sources.

What about Antarctica?

So, why did Piri show a land apparently south of the South Atlantic? Is this evidence for an early discovery of Antarctica? Alas, no. The authority of Arlington H Mallery is not quite what it seems: although fringe writers tend to refer to him as an expert on historic maps and an archaeologist, with the implication that his work for the US Navy’s Hydrographic Office was connected with cartography, this is not correct. He was a civil engineer and inventor of a swivelling head block transfer bridge for transferring railway trucks to and from canal barges that is still known as the Mallery Type. He was an enthusiast for old maps and his archaeological opinions were a long way from the mainstream. In 1951, he published Lost America: The Story of the Pre-Columbian Iron Age in America, in which he argued that there was an Iron Age in North America, inaugurated by Viking settlers. He was, to put it bluntly, a crank.

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

Piri Re‘is’s map as replotted by Ayşe Afet İnan, showing placenames that identify places in Argentina

We can dismiss Mallery as an authority, but does this mean that Hapgood was also wrong to identify the land at the bottom (south) of the map as Antarctica? To see it as such, one must ignore the placenames written in this area, as transcribed in Ayşe Afet İnan’s The Oldest Map of America, Drawn by Pirî Reis (1954, Ankara). They include Rio de laplata, San Matias, Porto Deseado and Porto San julean. These are clearly the Río de la Plata, Golfo San Matías, Puerto Deseado and Puerto San Julián. In other words, this is a depiction of the coast of Argentina, twisted through 90° to fit onto the parchment! There is no depiction of Antarctica here.

Hapgood brought a series of maps – principally those of Orontius Finaeus (1494-1555), Hadji Ahmed and Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) – to bear on the question of knowledge of an Antarctic continent at a much earlier date than is usually believed. The maps he used are superficially impressive: they depict a continent that somewhat resembles what we now know to be the shape of Antractica, albeit one much larger than the real continent. In particular, they lack the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s most prominent and characteristic coastal feature.

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531

The Orontius Finaeus map of 1531: note that Terra Australis (the supposed Antarctic continent) is recenter inventa sed nondum plene cognita (“recently discovered but not yet fully known”) and appears to include the northern coast of Australia

Those who get excited by these supposed maps of Antarctica that pre-date its discovery take the maps as if they exist in a vacuum. They completely ignore books and papers written by the cartographers themselves, which often explain the methods they used. Piri was a careful scholar who listed his sources; they ignore the fact that those who depicted a southern continent did so on the basis of speculation about the balance of land in the two hemispheres; they fail to read the captions on the maps that make it clear that certain elements are conjectured or recently discovered.

There is nothing in these early modern maps, then, that needs explanation. We understand a lot about the context of their production and often have the very words of those who made them. We know their sources and, much of the time, the voyages of discovery that enabled Arabs and Europeans to chart previously unknown coastlines. These maps are interesting for what they show and also for what they do not: the Piri Re’is map, for instance, does not show inland details as it was made by sailors as a navigation aid, quite different from von Däniken’s idea that it was copied from an ancient aerial survey. The real mystery is why so many fringe writers continue to promote them.

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    • Badger
    • January 7th, 2013

    What do you know about Zealandia – and exceedingly low ancient sea levels -and plate uplifts …there is where the answer lies ! im Sure ..Badger Bloomfield

  1. A fine article. Your emphasis on known context is refreshing. Ideas rarely pop into even the most brilliant of heads without some prodding. Of course taking things out of, or ignoring context altogether, is a standard way of advancing even newly minted bogus claims. For example where is all the Bigfoot feces?

    • Fabio
    • January 8th, 2013

    That was an interesting read. Thank you very much for this blog, these are very interesting subjects. I do enjoy reading about fringe theories to see how far people’s creativity can go, and some of them are true sources of inspiration for fiction, but really, someone has to occasionally nudge the bad archaeologists and put them back in their place.

  2. In mathematics, it’s relatively easy to ‘prove’ 1=2 and also ‘counter prove’. Unfortunately in sciences that deal with history such as archaeology and paleontology, it requires much better clarity, like what you have shown here, to take down a claim as a fraud. Thanks !

    Would you mind to blog a similar clarification for pyramids? For example, claims are made that pyramids are perfectly designed and are engineering marvels, even by today’s sense.

    Keep writing !

  3. “It is quite clear from this that Piri’s only source for the “western region” was a map he attributed to Columbus.” That is NOT what Piris said but I see your bias is working overtime.

    And since you are not a map expert, which puts you in the same boat as those you criticize, why should we take your word for it? Your ideas are mere opinion no greater than Hapgood’s and your idea of scholarly study doesn’t overrule Hapgood’s.

    “whilst ignoring others of the same age” Your problem is determing the amount of knowledge held by those other map makers was complete or not. In other words, they may not have had access to the same information and drew incomplete maps.

    “is tedious to anyone, like me, with little or no interest or ability in maths.” So since you are not an expert, it would be wise for you to withhold your criticism for you do not understand all the data.

    “(whose status is often inflated to ‘professor’ through a misunderstanding of American usage of the term).” Your personal attack simply ruins everything you say and shows that you have no credibility or scholarly status.

    It is clear that your agenda affects your view point and tells your readers that you are not objective but on a mission to distort what other people have done.

    • I like the way you accuse me of a “personal attack” and then indulge in one on Jared Diamond in your very next comment. Remember what your religion tells you about hypocrites?

    • maechuri
    • June 9th, 2013

    I imagine that your incredibly busy these days, but please don’t retire Bad Archaeology (the blog incarnation). It’s just too good!

    • AM
    • June 19th, 2013

    Dear Keith,

    I read several entries on bad archeology – alas they took away some of the wonder of the world i inculcated in my growing up years – incluidng on the turin shround, the lost civilization of atlantis, and so on..

    I actually came to your blog following up some links on archeological evidence for the ramayana and mahabharata – two epics of the indian sub-continent.. what do you think about them ?

  4. This is fascinating stuff. I was recently in the Topkapı Sarayı and picked up a newly published 2013 edition of The Book of Bahriye (Istanbul: Boyut Publications). It makes for fascinating reading; it is quite clear that Piri was aware of the European discoveries in the Americas and European navigation in general (he devotes a large segment to the Portuguese method for arriving in the Indian Ocean). ‘Reis’, by the way, means ‘captain’, not admiral. I’m not sure what ‘admiral’ would have been in Ottoman Turkish, but I’d hazard a guess at ‘reis pasha’. I don’t believe there is a glottal stop in the title.

    Piri says:
    ‘In Genoa there was a stargazer whose name was Kolon.
    A curious book came into his possession that without doubts was from the time of Iskender.
    In that book they had collected and written down all that was known about navigation.
    That book ultimately reached the lands of the Franks but they knew not what was in it.
    Kolon found this book and read it, whereupon he took it to the king of Spain.
    And when he told the king all that was written therein, the king gave him ships.
    Good friend, employing that book Kolon sailed and reached Antilye.’

  5. Off topic but I am just curious if you have heard about this and if you know what is being done about it? Is it still on going?

    http://voices.yahoo.com/construction-crew-bulldozes-century-old-mayan-pyramid-12154466.html?cat=37

    • I have heard about this and think it is disgusting. It is not an isolated case: all across the world, ancient sites are being destroyed in the name of “progress”. Most are invisible, buried sites. Once we have destroyed them, they are gone for ever and any knowledge that might be gleaned from this is lost.

    • rainshadowfarm
    • December 6th, 2013

    Nice blog and website! Thank you for doing this!

  6. Excellent work – congratulations!

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