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Maps of all types, whether depicting location, topography, or historical patterns and trends, are considered an essential tool for explaining and understanding world history. Key concepts of cartography, such as scale and projection, determine how a map is viewed and can often result in distortions. New technologies that allow for more accurate mapping techniques may eventually lead to better understanding of global historical development.
Historians have used maps to portray the geographical patterns of the past for hundreds of years. Chinese historical cartography dates back at least to the Song dynasty (960–1279). Europeans made historical maps of their Holy Lands, based on biblical sources, as early as the fourth century. The first historical atlas is sometimes attributed to Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), who included sets of historically focused maps in the later editions of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (first published in 1570).
Such early exercises in historical mapping, however, were not conducted on the global scale that informs modern world history. Not only was the Earth incompletely known, but the ethnocentric principle of geographic construction ensured that such projects focused on the cartographers’ own homelands and, more generally, civilizations. Gradually, however, the mapping of historical patterns has become less parochial. The DK World History Atlas, for example, published in 2005 by Dorling Kindersley, is at pains to take a global perspective and to avoid Eurocentrism.
Although the most inclusive use of cartography in world history is encountered in historical atlases, maps are deployed by world historians in a variety of other circumstances. All world history textbooks contain maps, as do many scholarly monographs that focus on world history. World history lends itself to mapping because it is by necessity geographical; world historians have to discuss a large array of different places, noting how they are both connected to, and differentiated from, one another. The most economical and elegant way to depict such spatial differentiation and integration is through cartography.
Essential Cartographic Concepts
A key cartographical concept is that of scale, the level of reduction from the actual space covered to its representation on paper. In a map scaled one to one million (at a ratio, in other words, of 1 to 1,000,000), a centimeter on the map represents a million centimeters on the Earth. Counterintuitively, large-scale maps cover small areas while small-scale maps cover large areas. World historians typically employ small-scale maps, often operating at the global level of resolution. Most world historical atlases actually have a regional focus, interspersing maps of the entire planet among more numerous presentations scaled at the continental or subcontinental level. Several maps of early modern Europe, for example, may be followed first by portrayals of East Asia and then South Asia during the same period and subsequently by depictions of global trade routes and imperial expansion.
A second signal cartographic concept is that of projection. In projecting the curved surface of the Earth on a flat sheet of paper, distortions—whether of shape, size, distance, or direction—necessarily result. Mathematical techniques have allowed cartographers to devise hundreds of different projections, each of which warps the image in its own particular way. Inadequate attention to the challenges posed by projection has led to poorly conceived historical maps. Many of these have used Gerardus Mercator’s eponymous projection of 1569. Although invaluable for navigators (it is the only map projection on which a constant compass bearing can be plotted as a straight line), the Mercator projection grossly exaggerates the extent of high-latitude areas, such as Europe. As a result, critical scholars have argued that it serves in the end as a kind of visual propaganda for Eurocentrism.
Even the vantage point from which maps are constructed leads to necessarily skewed images of the world. In the typical equatorially oriented world map, for example, the oceans all appear to occupy discrete basins, whereas a map projection focused on the South Pole reveals the broadly interconnected oceans as mere embayments of a global sea. Several recent world historical atlases experiment with multiple and novel map projections, both at the global and regional scales, allowing viewers to picture spatial relations in fresh and arresting ways. Such maps sometimes dispense with seemingly natural yet purely conventional cartographic protocols, such as situating north at the top of the page.
Distributional Maps: Problems of Sovereignty
Historians use a wide variety of map types to illustrate the past. Simple locational maps are often employed to indicate the positions of places mentioned in the text. More complex versions of this sort of map add topography and other natural features. In the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000), detailed physical maps, containing a large array of precisely located place names, depict the landscapes of antiquity, much as one would find in an atlas of the present-day world. More often, however, the maps employed by world historians reveal the distributional patterns of specific phenomena. The most commonly depicted patterns are those of political geography, bounding the territories of kingdoms, empires, and other polities of the past. Historically minded cartographers also map the spatial configurations of religious adherence, economic organization, population density, and many other aspects of social life. Less often encountered in world history are thematic maps that depict statistical variations of particular phenomena over space, since gathering the requisite quantitative data over large areas for earlier times is difficult at best.
The common focus on political organization reveals one of the most intractable problems in historical mapping: that of projecting the geographical patterns of the present onto the past. Almost all atlases of world history are dominated by maps depicting, with bright colors, neatly bounded polities, much like those found in political maps of the modern world. Before the nineteenth century, however, few states were in fact clearly bounded in space. Most were characterized by a gradual diminution of sovereignty with distance from core areas. Instead of clean borders, one would have found broad frontiers of ambiguous, or overlapping, political affiliation. A related difficulty, most glaringly apparent in the case of early modern European empires, is that of hypothetical sovereignty. Spain, for example, did indeed claim control over vast expanses of North America in the late eighteenth century, as is reflected in most maps depicting that period. In practice, however, the Spanish monarchy exercised power over only a few minor outposts in those vast territories located in what is now the United States.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to depict the complex spatial patterns of sovereignty that characterized the premodern world. The black-and-white maps to which most authors are limited are almost never adequate, and even the full color maps of world history atlases seldom prove equal to the task. Only regionally focused historical atlases, such as Joseph Schwartzberg’s exemplary A Historical Atlas of South Asia (1993), allow the concerted attention to detail that is needed to address this thorny issue.
Mapping Dynamic Patterns
Political-historical maps, however they are drafted, primarily depict differences among places. If such spatial differentiation is one of the fundamental aspects of geography, the other is spatial integration, or the connections that bind places together. World historians are increasingly interested in this latter, more process-oriented, form of representation. Rather than stressing boundaries, maps of integration typically portray routes, often depicted by arrows. The routes in question may be trade circuits, lines of diffusion (whether of innovations or diseases), migration pathways, courses of exploration, or paths of invasion; roads, canals, and shipping routes are often prominently displayed. Such maps are often dynamic in orientation, illustrating movement over time. A wide variety of hybrid maps, such as those overlaying trade routes across politically marked territories, are also commonly used.
In the final analysis, all cartographic representations of the past are at least implicitly designed to suggest change over time. To be sure, most maps found in world history texts and atlases present snap-shots, illustrating conditions as they supposedly existed at a particular date. A sense of dynamism can be gained, however, by comparing maps depicting conditions in one period with maps of the same area in earlier or later periods. More ambitious cartography attempts to incorporate historical change within a single representation. In regard to political mapping, this is most easily done for polities that exhibited prolonged expansion. The growth of the Roman or Ottoman empires, for example, can fairly easily be shown by using different colors or shades to represent territorial accretions made during particular periods. One can also map contraction in much the same way, as with the often-mapped diminution and eventual disappearance of Poland in the eighteenth century. It is very difficult, however, to show complex territorial changes, exhibiting episodes of both growth and retrenchment, on a single rendering. Maps of this sort tend to be so complex that they can be more confusing than edifying.
Political Implications and Motivations
Like other forms of mapping, historical cartography is often influenced, consciously or not, by ideological commitments. Maps necessarily demand the exclusion of information (a totally comprehensive map, it has often been remarked, would have to be constructed at a 1 to 1 scale, rendering it useless). What the cartographer chooses to portray depends on what he or she considers important, which in turn is influenced by his or her political outlook. A left-leaning scholar, for example, might be more inclined to map peasant rebellions than a right-leaning scholar, who in turn might be more concerned with great-power politics. Political sea changes in academia have thus influenced our cartographical portrayals of the past; maps of rural insurrections, for example, are much more common today than they were in earlier generations.
Nationalist ideology, coupled with devotion to one’s own “civilization,” has also profoundly shaped the construction of global historical maps. World history atlases produced in Germany, for example, contain more portrayals of Germany and of Europe than those produced in Japan, which, correspondingly, focus more on Japan and East Asia. The academic development of world history as a discrete field of study over the past several decades has, however, countered such parochialism, nurturing instead a globalist vision.
But regardless of such recent progress, cartography has often been put to clearly nationalistic purposes in the past. In Nazi Germany, for example, mapmakers strove to magnify the extent of the German Reich during various historical epochs. At the extreme of politicization one finds propaganda maps, such as the early Nazi productions that depicted Czechoslovakia as a fist striking into the heart of the German geographical body. Today it is not uncommon to find anachronistic political maps of the present-day world that show, without acknowledgement, territorial dreams rather than realities. National maps made in India and Pakistan, for example, usually append all of Jammu and Kashmir to their respective national territories, rather than merely those potions of the region that they actually control.
The use of mapping for such nationalistic and imperialistic purposes has led some scholars to conclude that cartography, whether depicting the past or the present, is primarily a projection of power. Although this thesis is probably exaggerated, matters of state power do infuse many mapping projects. National atlases, for example, emerged as important sites in which to illustrate the themes of national unity, diversity, and historical cohesion. But if the national polities take advantage of maps for their nation-building agendas, so too, in recent times, do members of various small-scale societies, who have learned to employ modern cartographic techniques to define and defend their own historically constituted homelands against encroachment by private interests and state power. Cartography is thus perhaps best seen as a flexible methodology that can serve almost any purpose.
Historical Maps in World History
World historians can use any source of spatial information in order to construct maps. Certain records of the past, however, prove particularly useful. Gazetteers, a genre that was traditionally highly developed in east Asia, organize data in an explicitly geographical framework and hence lend themselves to cartographic presentation. Equally valuable are actual maps made in earlier periods. By examining historical maps, scholars can determine the spatial knowledge that was available and the geographical conceptions that were prevalent in the period under consideration.
Perhaps the most innovative use of historical cartography in a work of world history is Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (1994). While Thongchai’s focus is Thailand (formerly Siam), his frame is necessarily global in that he is concerned with Thailand’s maintenance of independence and its construction of a modern state in the face of French and British imperial aggression. Mapping, he argues, was central to this project. The Thai government had to delineate precise boundaries in areas that had previously been ambiguous frontier zones, just as it had to thoroughly map its own internal districts in order to administer them in the modern style. To understand this crucial episode in both Thai and world history, Thongchai found that it was necessary to examine in detail both early maps and their cartographic production techniques.
New Cartographic Techniques
During the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, advances in cartographic methods have allowed mapmakers to create ever more exact and flexible depictions of the Earth’s surface. Although historical cartography has hardly been at the forefront of these technological developments, world historians have put them to good use. Aerial photography was harnessed to the mapmaking effort in the early twentieth century, to be followed at mid-century by satellite imagery. The late twentieth century saw the development of a host of computer-aided techniques for both making and comparing maps. Novel map forms, such as the cartogram (in which the size of different areas varies in proportion to some measurable feature, such as population) could now be easily generated with the proper software. The same is true, moreover, in regard to unusual map projections. But the most significant cartographic advance of the late twentieth century was the development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS weds mapping to computerized databases, allowing the ready construction of a large number of map overlays. GIS is particularly relevant for world historical projects focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when many forms of quantitative data that can be digitized become available. A related technique is animated cartography. Animated cartography makes it possible to portray changes in distributional patterns over time as continuous transformations, much as is done in conventional animation. Animations of the spatial extension of a single phenomenon, such as the spread of Islam during and after the seventh century, are a particularly effective form of world historical pedagogy.
Cartography, in both its traditional and technologically mediated forms, is a powerful tool for portraying and analyzing world historical patterns and processes. If anything, world historians have underutilized mapping and other forms of graphical presentation in favor of textual approaches. By further linking the techniques and concerns of geography with those of history, a richer and more sophisticated understanding of global historical development may someday be gained.
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