Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons

Humans have been practicing mapmaking, also known as cartography, for thousands of years.


3 - 12


Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Map Monsters

Once, mapmakers would often place monsters and other imagined creatures to marked unexplored areas, like those seen in Ortelius's 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum map.

Photograph from the United States Library of Congress
Once, mapmakers would often place monsters and other imagined creatures to marked unexplored areas, like those seen in Ortelius's 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum map.
Selected text level

It is commonly thought that mapmakers in the Middle Ages put dragons on maps. They used the phrase "Here be dragons." It represented unexplored parts of the world. However, this was not true.

Mapmakers never saw dragons. But early mapmakers did note animals on their maps. It was an important way for people to understand the world they lived in.

Mammoth Ivory Maps

The woolly mammoth is no longer around. The animal was related to the elephant. It lived in North America and Eurasia. Wooly mammoths (Mammuthus primogenius) have not been around for almost 4,000 years. But for a long time, humans hunted mammoths for food. Their tusks or bones would be used to make maps.

One of these maps is thought to be the oldest ever found. It is from around 25,000 years ago. The tusk seems to show a mountain, a river, and valleys. The tusk was discovered in Central Europe.

Abauntz Map

Magdalenian cultures were in ancient Europe. They existed 11,000 to 17,000 years ago. They appear to have carved a map onto a small stone tablet. The tablet was found in a cave in Abauntz. This is a place in northeast Spain. The map has been dated to around 13,500 years ago. Markings show either a past hunt or plans for a future hunt.

The Çatalhöyük Map

In Turkey, there are the two human-made mounds. They are in the ancient settlement known as Çatalhöyük. It is the site of a Neolithic village. The mounds were formed between 7400 and 5200 B.C.E.

One of the mounds features a three-meter (10-foot)-wide artwork. The work dates back to around 6600 B.C.E. People who have studied the area believe it is a map. It seems to shows a village, mountain peaks, and a volcano.

Babylonian Maps

The Babylonians lived in Mesopotamia. It is in Western Asia. Their kingdom was called Babylon. The Babylonians produced the first known map of the world around 600 B.C.E. This map was engraved on a clay tablet. Babylonians used cuneiform, an ancient writing system, on the map.

Ancient Greek Maps

Anaximander was a Greek philosopher. He was born around 610 B.C.E. He produced the first map of the world in Greece. However, only descriptions and revisions have survived.

Hecataeus was another important Greek scholar. He lived between 500 and 400 B.C.E. He used Anaximander's map and his own travels to make a new map. Sadly, Hecataeus' map is also lost.

Claudius Ptolemy was a Greek scholar. He lived in Egypt around C.E. 100 to 170. Ptolemy is known as the inventor of geography. Geography is the study of the planet. Ptolemy also invented a system of latitude and longitude. This is a coordinate system for marking locations on Earth.

Maps created using Ptolemy's ideas were not in Europe until the early 1400s. After the 1400s, more maps were created using his methods.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources