Interested in hearing more about the stories behind these maps? Check out my latest video or read on…
One time in high school, my history teacher decided he wanted to mess with our young innocent minds… so he showed us a map.
An upside down map.
Stuart McArthur published this little treasure on January 26, 1979: Australia Day. He makes a really great point…
Maps are lies!
Okay, that’s kind of an exaggeration, but the thing is, our idea of North is totally made up. A map’s just a way to look at the world, and there are so many different perspectives we can use other than the ones we’ve grown up with.
This map is supposed to make you stop in your tracks and question why Europe is at the center of our map, or why the Global North is, well… North. What is up?!
This really blew my mind in high school (actually though, I remember there just sitting there like, “my brain is tingly.”) One thing I really want to do with Max Gets Curious is to challenge the way we see the world, because getting open-minded is wicked freeing and powerful. Like I said in my very first vlog, I’m starting with maps!
I got really curious about what other funky maps are out there if maps can be anything, so I took a little dive into the whack and wonderful world of mapmaking. Here are the ones that made my brain tingly again:
Old ass maps
It turns out that back in the younger mapmaking days, everyone had different ideas about which way was up. In ancient times, maps tended to be undetailed and inaccurate because they were meant to show you where you stood in the world.
Of course, everyone placed themselves at the center. It’s a human thing, isn’t it?
From the beginning, maps were a tool that people used to express their power and position. Maps weren’t used so much for accuracy as showing off the sprawl of an empire or fiefdom.
The earliest maps — Byzantine, Egyptian, and Moroccan — tended to portray the South as up. Cool theories as to why: the 3 pyramids in Giza lined up with the 3 stars of Orion’s belt, or maybe cartographers thought the Nile’s flow north followed the force of gravity.
Europeans favored the East as up, facing the theoretical direction of the Garden of Eden. Their maps were meant to showcase the reach of Christianity or their personal theories about the locations of Biblical items, like Noah’s Ark. Meanwhile, Arab mapmakers tended to put the South on top.
The Renaissance transformed mapmaking from an act of storytelling and piss-contesting to a priceless tool for sailing around the world. People with power wanted to travel farther than ever for money, exploration, and empire.
This is when a cartographical throwback really came in handy. Back in the 2nd century A.D., Ptolemy invented geography (hilariously, so he could give better horoscopes.) Rediscovering Ptolemy’s maps led to a flurry of new creations.
Maps weren’t just about navigation, they were about persuasion. Maps can be powerful and tantalizing: think X marks the spot, neighborhood redlining in the US, or preparing for battle. Maps can be tools for us to connect or colonize, explore or subjugate.
In a world where there was so much more to discover (and colonize), all mapmakers cared about was coastlines, not what lay beyond them. They labeled the Americas and Africa “terra incognita,” as if the lands were empty for the taking.
When the compass rose was developed for navigation in the 15th century, some mapmakers chose the North as up, a decision Ptolemy had made centuries before. North it was.
2. The map you probably grew up with in school? Yeah, it’s a lie. But technically all maps are.
The map on the left might look familiar. That’s the Mercator projection, created 1569, and it caused a tizzy in the mapmaking world. It was empowered us to navigate better than ever, but it shrank countries like Africa at the center.
Guess what: it turns out that Greenland (that giant white blob?) actually ISN’T as big as Africa, like the Mercator shows. Africa is actually 14 TIMES the size as Greenland. There have long been allegations, and a counter-conversation, that this distortion is racist. I’ll let you decide.
The Gall-Peters projection on the upper right tries to correct some of the Mercator’s many flaws, but it messes up the shape instead. Also, it’s just really fugly. The Winkel Tripel (bottom right) is a pretty happy medium. Phew.
If you’re a West Wing fan like me, you might remember a scene where the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality actually petitions CJ to make the Gall-Peters map mandatory in American schools.
“What the hell is that?!” “That’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”
3. It’s not just what’s North that we made up, it’s the center of our maps too. Here’s a Japanese map centered on the Pacific:
Yeah, the only reason we center the map on Europe and Africa is because the Prime Meridian was set in London, and it’s the best center line we’ve got that doesn’t split a continent in half.
But it doesn’t have to be there. Look how big the Pacific really is. And New Zealand is here! (World maps are infamous for leaving New Zealand out of the picture. PM Jacinda Ardern did a funny little PSA about it.)
Apparently, Pacific-centered maps are much more common in Asia. Check out that map with North Korea at the center.
You can also center the map on the Americas, but putting the USA at the center of the world splits a continent in half. Yeah, that feels like a metaphor.
4. You can put the North Pole at the center too. Kinda cool, kinda feels like looking up the Earth’s skirt. The UN used it in their 1945 flag.
5. THIS ONE FEELS REAL BAD.
IT LOOKS LIKE AN EARTH HELMET. Because you can’t really take a globe and accurately flatten it out, there are TONS of possible map projections out there. This has to be one of the worst. It makes me feel weird. It has Mecca at the center though. That’s different.
6. The Dymaxion projection, because apparently we can do origami with maps now. Check out the aesthetics though.
This little beastie was created by Buckminster Fuller in 1943. I know. WEIRD. But the Dymaxion actually shook up the mapmaking game. Not only does it show all continents whole, it also lets us rearrange the pieces to show anything we want.
The Buckminster Fuller Institute proved it when they hosted a public contest to reimagine the Dymaxion, and it actually got real aesthetic real fast:
These are Dymaxions applied to the surface of the moon (Hector Tarrido-Picart), the migrations of ancestors dating back to 75,000 years ago (Geoff Christou), and cloud patterns (hand-drawn by Anne-Gaelle Amiot). See the other finalists here!
7. The Butterfly projection. This is a personal fav. Your retro Azimuthal could never.
It’s like the gorgeous model cousin of that ugly Earth helmet one. This is the Butterfly projection created by Steve Waterman in 1996.
Need an eyeball cleanser/map chaser? Here are some funner maps:
8. Greenland though.
9. This is a modern Pangaea. Very cool. Pretty sure North Korea would NOT be having a good time.
This map was created by Capitan Mas Ideas. Pangaea is that original supercontinent from 300-175 million years ago that you heard about in school, and this is how it’d look with our modern borders. Want more details? Head to Brilliant Maps for notes.
10. A world map according to what nations call themselves.
This is the Endonym Map, which I think is fascinating. Obviously, the language you choose to represent a country can get a little tricky, but the creator goes into lots of detail if you’re for it.
10. This looks AWFUL. And when you realize it’s a wealth distribution map, it doesn’t get better.
This map was created in 2015 by Global Finance. They’ve got a couple other weird bloaty maps showing things like demographic distribution — worth a look.
12. A map of countries that declared independence from Britain and when. YIKES.
This really puts things in perspective. Credit: Simran Khosla, GlobalPost
13. The most common names across the world.
Rakotomalala from Madagascar always catches my eye. Having lived in New Zealand, I wonder what the most popular Maori name is.
14. Not a world map, but here in the US, we really are a nation of immigrants.
This map is full of surprises. I found it really refreshing that Dakota, Navajo, and Yupik showed up.
15. Last but not least: I’ve got hoes in different areas codes (area, area codes, codes)
It’s not a world map, but I couldn’t not.
Know of any more wack or wonderful maps I should include? Which ones caught your eye? And do you also hate the retro Azimuthal map with a burning fiery passion?! Let me know in the comments!