Maps That Got Things Absurdly Wrong
Today’s maps are far from perfect. But, still, it's safe to say we've come a very long way.
Over the centuries, some cartographers have gotten the world so wrong it’s downright comical — like, for instance, believing Earth was shaped like a roulette table and California was its own island.
Grab your compass (we mean the one in your smartphone, of course), and let’s set sail to explore mapmaking's biggest blunders, lies and mysteries.
The Map That Bet on the Earth Being Square
Professor Orlando Ferguson wanted to disprove a newly popular theory that the earth was shaped like a globe. In the process, he showed the world looking like a giant roulette table. He also threw in some angels, a fireball and a self-portrait for good measure. Then he gave it a howler of a name: “Square and Stationary Earth.”
Spoiler alert: It is neither of these things.
The Map with the Cyclops and Dog-Headed Man
A year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Hartmann Schedel created “The Nuremberg Chronicle,” an illustrated history of the world going all the way back to biblical times.
In an accompanying map, he taught society about the types of people who existed in distant parts of the world. These included a six-armed man, a dog-headed man and, of course, a cyclops. There’s also a bunch of faces in the border, blowing what we can only imagine is more hot air.
The Map Based on a Whale of a Tale
According to Irish lore, Saint Brenden was a 6th-century monk who sailed the Atlantic while fending off dangerous demons and sea creatures. In one of the most famous stories, he lands on an island that turns out to be a whale and heroically dives off the creature before it carries him away. Hey, we didn’t write this stuff.
Brenden was so revered that an island was named after him. It remained a mainstay on maps through the 17th century, despite never existing.
The image here shows Brendan in a golden robe, kicking it near his made-up isle.
The Maps with California as an Island
Over the years, Californians have joked about wanting to break away from the United States and form an independent country. But did you know that the Golden State was once depicted as an actual island?
In the early 1500s, Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo described a “mythical island of California” is his adventure-romance novel, “Las Sergas de Esplandián.” Inspired by the book, explorers such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco de Ulloa investigated this new territory.
Though they pointed out California was actually a peninsula, Europeans denied their claims and continued to show the state as an island on over 700 maps for the next two centuries. The map shown here was made by Johannes Vingboons circa 1650.
The Map Made by Two Imaginative Hucksters
Throughout the 15th and 16th century, the Americas were relatively unexplored lands shrouded in mystery. As explorers charted these exotic destinations, Europeans back home couldn’t get enough of their epic sagas.
Though largely fictional, these tales inspired Spanish chart maker Diego Gutiérrez and Dutch engraver Hieronymous Cock (pictured here finagling a skeleton head, because why not) to draw the Americas in a massive six-paneled rendering, the largest engraved map of its time.
The two men took a lot of creative cartographic license. For instance...
The Bogus Rhino
Gutiérrez and Cock wanted to detail the wildlife that explorers observed, including not only birds and monkeys, but an Indian rhinoceros hanging out in Africa.
While explorers had reported rhinos in Africa, this image was actually copied from a 1515 depiction of a rhinoceros native to India, drawn by Albrecht Durer.
The Sea Monsters, Mermaids And Aliens
Apparently, the seas were really dangerous in the 15th and 16th centuries. According to Gutiérrez and Cock’s panels, you might encounter scary sea monsters, big apes who love to gnaw at fish and mischievous mermaids who appear to be holding UFOs.
But don’t think you’re any safer on land...
The Map with the Patagonian Giants
Size really did matter in the 16th century, according to Ferdinand Magellan. The famed explorer claimed to encounter men who were 10 feet tall while in the region of Patagonia. He also boasted about capturing two of the colossal men, who (conveniently) died on the way back to Spain.
Though his, ahem, tall tale was later debunked by Sir Francis Drake, it was immortalized in another erroneous Gutiérrez and Cock rendering, “Tierra de Patagones.”
The Maps with Totally Made-Up Islands
In the 1800s, explorers faced a syndrome that could be just as dangerous as seasickness: shady captains who liked to embellish or, in some cases, flat-out lie. One of the biggest culprits was American explorer Benjamin Morrell, who regaled his peers with stories of exotic islands. He described these places, named Buyers and Morrell Islands, in expansive detail, telling others of their size, climate, elevation and vegetation.
As it turned out, Morrell was full of sea wind. Much to their frustration, explorers never found these islands because they never existed. One was named for Morrell himself and the other for one of his investors.
Unfortunately, the trend continued throughout the 19th century, with cartographers having to cut over 120 made-up "Phantom Islands" from maps.
The Map with the Totally Made-Up North Pole Island
Perhaps an even bigger hoax was the aptly named Crocker Land, a fictional island in the North Pole. This land was “discovered” by Robert Peary, a polar explorer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who claimed to be the first man to set foot on the North Pole.
Peary named his discovery after George Crocker, a banker financing his voyages, and soon Crocker Land took the world by storm. In 1913, the San Francisco Call even published a drawing for its readers.
However, not everyone bought the story. Rival explorer Frederick Cook, who’d also staked claim to being the first man to reach the North Pole, challenged Peary. As things grew heated, Peary’s assistant, Donald MacMillan, decided to lead an expedition to prove the existence of Crocker Land — yet he came up short.
After a long, uneventful journey, MacMillan wrote, “My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment.”
The Map That Claimed the North Pole Was Magnetic
Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator changed the way we see the world with his Mercator Projection. Though widely inaccurate, it is still used as the standard for many maps today.
A lesser-known work is the 16th century Mercator’s Map of the Arctic, which makes the argument that the North Pole is, of all things, magnetic. No wonder Santa can always find his way home!
At the map’s center is Rupus Nigra, a black rock said to have magical powers. There’s also whirlpools and pygmies, in case you need more to be excited about.
Of course, Mercator hadn’t been to the North Pole (no one did until the early 1900s), so he based this project on a travelogue known as “Inventio Fortuna” (or “The Fortune Discoveries”), which detailed the voyage of an explorer who made it as far as Norway and was pushed forward by “magical arts.”
The Maps with Totally Made-Up Mountains
In the 19th century, the “Mountains of Kong” (no relation to King Kong) appeared on almost every map of Africa, sparking worldwide intrigue and wanderlust. The mountain range first appeared in a 1798 map created by James Rennell. The English cartographer was inspired by the journeys of Scotsman Mungo Park in West Africa, who reported that “people informed me, that these mountains were situated in a large and powerful kingdom called Kong.”
No one questioned either man’s accuracy. Instead, explorers insisted they’d crossed the mountains--with contradictory reports. Some described the mountains as jagged and snow-covered, while others claimed they were smooth and limestone.
People continued searching for the mythical mountains until the late 1800s, when French explorer Louis-Gustave Binger led an expedition across the Niger River and officially disproved Kong’s existence. Bummer.
The Map with China at the Center of the World
Strikingly gorgeous, if not entirely accurate, the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu is a map from China’s Ming Empire. Dating back to the late 1300s, it is one of the oldest surviving maps from East Asia.
The issue? Like many renderings of its time, it’s more representative of politics and power than actual geography, with China sitting at the center of the world. To further that point, other countries appear much smaller than they actually are, a bold statement about the country’s global significance.
Oh, and check out the way Japan is erroneously misshapen and India is just a collection of names, a definitive message not to mess with the Ming Dynasty.
The Map Named After a Fictional Man
In the 12th Century, Christian Europeans adored a man named Prester John.
According to legends, he was a wealthy king whose mission it was to spread Christianity throughout the world and defeat anyone who stood in his way. This god-like figure was further immortalized in the 1500s in a map named after John by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.
Ortelius’ map took some, shall we say, creative license. Zaire Lake and the Mountains of the Moon, for example, are shown as the sources of the Nile River, which is definitely not the case. But the map's biggest error was its inspiration.
Turns out Prester John never actually existed.
The Map with the Warped Australia
In 1596, Theodor de Bry drew a map of the New World, going so far as to create a rendering of “Terra Australis.” You might say this is some “stretch” of his imagination as the land looks more like rolled dough than the actual continent of Australia.
So, why does it look so warped? Theodore de Bry created Terra Australis with no actual evidence, like others he believed that the world had to be balanced and assumed the land in the Southern Hemisphere had to resemble that of the north.
The Map with the Mythical Strait
In the 1500s, cartographers began drawing “The Strait of Anian,” a waterway that promised a new passage between North America and Asia. Speculated to come from “Ania,” a Chinese proverb found in the writings of Marco Polo, the strait whet (or should we say, “wet”) the appetite of explorers around the world.
However, the strait’s alleged location kept moving. Some maps had it closer to Alaska, while others pinned it near California, resulting in a dangerous and unpredictable journey. Several sailors lost their lives in search of the promised passage that was never real to begin with.
The Map with the Mythical Strait AND California as an Island
Ironically, Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s quest for the Strait of Anian led to the discovery of San Diego Bay and other important features of the California coast. Too bad even this journey couldn’t convince cartographers to stop showing the state as an island. Adam Zuerner’s “Americae tam Septentrionalis quam Meridionalis in Mappa Geographica Delineatio” contains both The Strait of Anian and the Island of California. A double whammy!
The strait was removed from maps in the 18th-century following the discovery of a real Northwest Passage.
The Map with the Conspiracy Theory Island
The island of Bermeja, located in the Gulf of Mexico, first appeared on maps drawn by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Yet by the 18th century through the early 1920s, it was a less common cartographic fixture. The British claimed the island mysteriously disappeared, and the world went along with it — until 1997, when Mexico developed a renewed interest in the island.
Despite the country’s best efforts, explorers never found the island. Some believe it never existed, while others theorize it was destroyed because of global warming, earthquakes or covert CIA explosions, making this one of mapmaking’s greatest mysteries.
The Map with the Fake Island Named After Coffee(?)
In 1566, Nicolas Desliens turned the world upside down...literally. Drawing his inspiration from the travels of Marco Polo, his inverted rendering of the world featured a continent-sized landmass named Java la Grande. Okay, we’ll give you a minute to make a Starbucks joke…
Mapmakers went with the theory, again believing that the north and south had to be balanced with similar-sized land to keep the Earth stable.
But, as we later discovered, it was a tall tale of a territory.
The Map with Double Ocean Vision
The first printed map of what’s now the United States was inspired by the journeys of an Italian explorer. Nope, not Christopher Columbus, Giovanni da Verrazzano. In his travels, he claimed to see the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic!
This amazing discovery inspired cartographer Sebastian Munster to get drawing. Too bad Verrazano was a bit confused. He was actually in the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina, a long way from being able to spot the Pacific.
Despite the blunder, the idea that the Pacific was closer to the Atlantic became a thing until the 1700s. Don’t feel too bad for Verrazano, though. In later years, he’d achieve another kind of infamy, when he became the namesake for New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Sadly, it doesn’t offer views of the Pacific either.