Cartography, or mapmaking, antedates even the art of writing. Diagrams of areas familiar to them were made by Marshall Islanders, Eskimo, Native Americans, and many other preliterate peoples. Maps drawn by ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese have been found. The oldest known map, now on exhibition in the Semitic Museum of Harvard, is a Babylonian clay tablet dating from c.2500 B.C. Our present system of cartography was established by the Greeks, who remained unexcelled until the 16th cent. Scientific measurements of earth distances by means of meridians and parallels were first made by Eratosthenes (3d cent. B.C.). Of the ancient scholars, the mathematician and geographer Ptolemy (2d cent. A.D.), expounded on the principles of cartography; his system was followed for many centuries, although his basic error in underestimating the earth's size was not corrected until the age of Mercator. Only the Mediterranean world was represented with any accuracy in early maps. During the Middle Ages, while European cartographers produced artistic, idealized maps, Arabic mapmakers, notably Idrisi (12th cent.), carried on the work of Ptolemy, and the Chinese produced the first printed maps.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.