Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
drawing of two men looking at globes and maps

Tracing Back Our Obsession with Maps


From Ptolemy to Dawkins a brief explanation as to how cartography has fascinated humanity.

Throughout history we have employed cartography as a visual metaphor, a scientific explanation and a work of art. But, how exactly did maps come to play a central role in our lives? In On the Map: A Mind Expanding Exploration of the Way the World LooksSimon Garfield explores our cartographic obsession from the classic era with Claudius Ptolemy through to post-modernist age with GPS and Google Maps.

Ptolomy’s Geographia … was a two-part interpretation of the world, the first consisting of his methodology, the second of a huge list of names and cities and other locations, each with a coordinate. If the maps in a modern-day atlas were described rather than drawn they would look something like Ptolemy’s work, a laborious and exhausting undertaking, but one based on what we would now regard as a blindingly simple grid system.

Ptolemy’s influence was enormous. But just as anything ever made by men, his view was completely determined by the political system of the time:

As one would expect, Ptolemy had a skewed vision of the world. But while the distortion of Africa and India are extreme, and the Mediterranean is too vast, the placement of cities and countries within the Greco-Roman empire is far more accurate. Ptolemy offered his readers two possible cylindrical projections —the attempt to project the information from a three-dimensional sphere onto a two-dimensional plane — one ‘inferior and easier’ and one ‘superior and more troublesome.’

One of the most interesting qualities of the Greek thinker was that, beyond the politicization of his mapamundi he took advantage of the situation by imagining and speculating about the places and countries which had not yet been discovered –– a deed that would influence the navigational routes of future adventurers and travellers.

Where earlier cartographers were willing to leave blanks on the map where their knowledge failed, Ptolemy could not resist filling such empty spaces with theoretical conceptions. … [T]his had the uncanny ability to send ambitious sailors, Columbus among them, to places they had no intention of seeing.

But instead of the proliferation of mapamundis one would expect after such wonderful work, the world descended for a 1000 years into what Garfield calls the ‘dark ages of cartography’. It was only until the rediscovery of the Ptolomy’s Atlas in its Latin translation in Venice (1950) that a modern appreciation of cartography was born, and alongside it our obsession with maps.

Garfield goes as far as to suggest (in accordance with Dawkins) that the elaboration of maps is a dividing line between monkeys and humans; a missing link of sorts. “Could it have been that drawing maps was what threw our ancestors beyond the critical portal that monkeys were not able to change?”, inquires Dawkins.

After the fascinating exploration of our global visualisation of the world, Garfield explores the ‘torrid romance’ that modernity engages with maps, highlighting the manner in which humankind has come to carry maps of the world to draw imaginary lines and divisions containing a large amount of the sense of life. ––A truly captivating concept, worthwhile of our time and attention.

book cover showing map of africa with illustrated hand pointing down


Related Articles