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?
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 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 Mundi “drawn 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.
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.
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.