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Seven ancient maps of the Americas


Antique maps, remarkable cartographic fictions, reflect not just how we once saw geography, but abstract issues of power and fantasy.

A map is not the territory.

—Alfred Korzybski

Maps are never merely maps. They’re human projections, metaphors in which we find both the geographical and the imaginary. The cases of ghost islands—pieces of land which never existed but which appear on maps—are clear examples of this. Maps are blueprints of our territories, of our fears, desires and, above all, of our relationships with power.

Long before geolocation technology, maps were made up of elements which were not always part of the planet’s geographical reality: accounts of sailors and explorers that often became legends transmitted by word of mouth, cartographic errors and, on rare occasions, territories which had existed but which disappeared due to hurricane or earthquake —such was Pactolus Bank, an island discovered in 1885 and visited by the famous pirate, Sir Francis Drake, but which at some point disappeared into the sea.

The history of cartography is thus also a narrative of human history and of relationships between the lands and seas that humans believe they possess. Such a history is immersed in the political and the ontological, the fanciful and the allegorical. Maps are the way we narrate ourselves as earthly beings, as members of a continent, a country, or a city. The case of the Americas, a territory drawn repeatedly by European conquerors, has its own complexity. Suffice it to recall Brazil’s strange place on maps for decades, as an island near Ireland, before the Americas were discovered; the many depictions of the Baja California peninsula as an elongated island disconnected from the rest of the continent; or the legendary sea once appeared on the maps of North America though it never existed.

From a distance as physical as it is cultural, Europeans mapped America in countless ways; as a promised land and as newly discovered loot. Below is a brief selection of antique maps of the Americas.

1633 map of the Americas
1550 map of the Americas
1762 map of the Americas
1825 map of the Americas
1630 map of the Americas
18th century map of the Americas
1669 map of the Americas

Images: New York Public Library – Digital Collections

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