One aborigine's watering hole is another's breast

The History of Cartography Volume Two, Book Three
May 14, 1999

The earlier two parts of the second volume of this vast history of cartography discussed maps from the Middle East and South Asia (Book One) and China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia and Southeast Asia (Book Two).

Most of the maps were recognisable as cartographic objects, even when they contained no text, or were composed mainly of written information.

In this third book the editors have ranged far and wide, covering all the continents of the world to discover how indigenous peoples view the land around them, the celestial heavens either above them or where they will go after death, even the mythical lands of their progenitors, and their attempts to translate these views into material earthly artefacts.

There is doubt as to how far these attempts were influenced by European demands, as travellers reached unknown shores and requested geographical information from the native people they encountered. The more map-like the artefacts are, the more likely it is that the idea of how space should be illustrated was put into the mind of the chieftain or holy man by the map-knowing foreigner. Where cartographic objects have survived from eras before the arrival of Europeans, they are further removed from our idea of what a map should look like. As the introduction states, evaluation of these maps is made problematic by the fact that they are now studied from a western perspective and by people from varying disciplines, by anthropologists, ethnographers, archaeologists and art historians as well as geographers and map curators. Also, there is no definitive statement of what actually constitutes a map.

The first two sections discuss maps of Africa and America; the vast African continent is covered in 35 pages, and the American in 5. This reflects the attention given to early cartography in North America, as much as the lack of material so far discovered in Africa (the fact that anything at all has surfaced is entirely due to the preparation of these volumes). Malcolm Lewis, the joint editor, has specialised in early maps of North America for many years, and is probably the world's expert in deciphering the content, which partly explains the large section given to this group. They are also better known, as maps, than those from other parts of the world. Many of them were, of course, drawn at the request of westerners, either for geographical information or to settle property disputes. It is ironic that such maps were used in negotiations when the Indians and Inuit had no tradition of exclusive ownership of precisely bounded land. Even lines marking boundaries did not begin to appear on native maps until their presence was found to have importance in defining ownership. The sophisticated Indian maps showing huge river patterns can be contrasted with the primitive rock paintings of South Africa, or the mnemonic maps made from wood, shells and beads used in initiation rites in the Congo to depict the origins of the royal line among sacred lakes and spirit capitals.

Maps from Central America have also been the subject of recent study, but this volume brings together the latest research both of this area and further south. Again, as in the section on Africa, there is much here that will be new about South American cartography. In the Andes a textile found in the necropolis of Cerro Colorado might suggest "a link between blood and social and territorial spaces"; it might also have functioned as a calendar! Proper interpretation of a petroglyph in Colombia might "serve as a map of permissible ecological activities". Europeans needed maps to locate water sources, but for natives familiar with the area they hunted in, such representation was superfluous. Surviving maps are more likely to be cosmological in nature, but the incoming Europeans demanded geographical information from the people they encountered.

When a European expedition reached the Evenk in Siberia in the late 18th century they found that maps drawn on the ground were in common use to provide information about meeting places, and proved to be remarkably accurate. On the other hand Australian Aborigines were unable to draw the same map twice, and a circle might be interpreted by one as a waterhole and by another as a breast! In Oceania researchers were surprised to find that similar navigation systems were in use over a very wide area. The famous shell and stick charts from the Marshall Islands are often quoted as proof of Oceanic mapping capabilities, but this is now thought misleading as they are from a single archipelago and were not employed at sea. Memorised mental maps were used throughout the region and enabled frequent commerce to be undertaken far beyond distances earlier thought possible.

There is so much information in this volume that, like the earlier ones, it is unlikely to be read as a whole. This is a pity as it is only by having an overview of pre-western ideas of the universe that a full picture can be obtained. Then the amazing similarity of how peoples everywhere have attempted to place themselves, both in this life and the hereafter, can be seen. It is a human need to know where we fit in, and to be able to pass this knowledge on to future generations. This does not require scale and projection, but it is essential that those trying to study how this information has been depicted should have knowledge of the aim of the map maker and what he was trying to tell us.

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.

The History of Cartography Volume Two, Book Three

Editor - David Woodward and G. Malcolm Lewis
ISBN - 0 226 90728 7
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £119.95
Pages - £662

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