The first known compass rose depicted on a map, in a detail from the Catalan Atlas from 1375, attributed to cartographer Abraham Cresques of Majorca.
Bibliotheque national de France/Wikipedia
From BBC by Caroline Williams
Why are almost all modern maps the same way up?
Caroline Williams explores the intriguing history that led to this orientation – and discovers why it shapes how we see the world in more ways than we realize.
Imagine looking at the Earth from space.
What is at the top of the planet?
If you said the North Pole, you probably wouldn’t be alone.
Strictly speaking, you wouldn’t be right either.
The uncomfortable truth is that despite almost everybody imagining that the world is this way up, there is no good, scientific reason to think of north as being the roof of the world.
The story of how it came to be considered to be that way is heady mix of history, astrophysics and psychology.
And it leads to an important conclusion: it turns out that the way we have decided to map the world has very real consequences for how we feel about it.
The Vinland map, a 15th century world map purportedly based on a 13th century original.
If authentic, it is the first known depiction of the North American coastline.
Understanding where you are in the world is a basic survival skill, which is why we, like most species come hard-wired with specialised brain areas to create cognitive maps of our surroundings.
Where humans are unique, though, with the possible exception of honeybees, is that we try to communicate this understanding of the world with others.
We have a long history of doing this by drawing maps – the earliest versions yet discovered were scrawled on cave walls 14,000 years ago.
Human cultures have been drawing them on stone tablets, papyrus, paper and now computer screens ever since.
Given such a long history of human map-making, it is perhaps surprising that it is only within the last few hundred years that north has been consistently considered to be at the top.
In fact, for much of human history, north almost never appeared at the top, according to Jerry Brotton, a map historian from Queen Mary University, London and author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps.
“North was rarely put at the top for the simple fact that north is where darkness comes from,” he says. “West is also very unlikely to be put at the top because west is where the sun disappears.”
Confusingly, early Chinese maps seem to buck this trend. But, Brotton, says, even though they did have compasses at the time, that isn’t the reason that they placed north at the top.
Early Chinese compasses were actually oriented to point south, which was considered to be more desirable than deepest darkest north.
But in Chinese maps, the Emperor, who lived in the north of the country was always put at the top of the map, with everyone else, his loyal subjects, looking up towards him.
“In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from, it’s a good direction. North is not very good but you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, so you look up to him,” says Brotton.
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