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.
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Maps in the Middle Ages were believed to have the phrase, "Here be dragons." This was meant to represent unknown regions of the world. However, this phrase was rarely used.

Although there were no dragons, some of the earliest mapmakers did create records of the animals in their time. Human-made maps in the Stone Age are one example. These maps date back to the Paleolithic Period when woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primogenuis) roamed Earth along with humans. More recent mapmakers, like the Babylonians, did tell of mythical beasts in their maps. The ancient Greeks traveled the world they knew in the spirit of cartography. Cartography is the study of maps.

Mammoth Ivory Maps

The woolly mammoth was a relative of the elephant that lived in North America and Eurasia. Mammoths were around from 300,000 years ago to around 3,700 years ago. Early humans hunted mammoths for food. Sometimes, they also used mammoth tusks or bones to make maps.

The oldest map that has ever been discovered is a set of markings on a mammoth tusk. It is from around 25,000 years ago. The tusk was discovered in Central Europe. It includes engravings apparently representing a mountain, a river, valleys, and trails around a town.

Abauntz Map

The European Magdalenian culture existed from 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, in northeast Spain. It has been dated to around 13,500 years ago.

The engraving shows rivers, mountains, ponds, animals, and pathways. The map is believed to show a past hunt or a plan for a future one.

The Çatalhöyük Map

Several thousand years later, humans were making maps on the walls of buildings. In the southern Anatolian Plateau in modern Turkey, there are the two human-made mounds of Çatalhöyük. It is the site of a Neolithic village. The mounds were formed between 7400 and 5200 B.C.E.

Of particular interest to cartographers is a three-meter-wide (10-foot) mural on a wall of one mound. It dates back to around 6600 B.C.E. The lower half of the mural shows tightly packed "cells" thought to represent a village. The upper half shows mountain peaks and dark spots that are believed to be a volcano.

Babylonian Maps

The Babylonians lived in the Mesopotamian kingdom of Babylon. They produced the first known map of the world. This map, engraved on a clay tablet, shows Babylon at the center of the world.

The Babylonians used cuneiform, an ancient writing system, on this map. The map describes mythical creatures that they believed existed in other parts of the world. This map dates back to around 600 B.C.E.

Ancient Greek Maps

Anaximander of Miletus was a Greek philosopher born around 610 B.C.E. He produced the first map of the world in Greece, though only descriptions and revisions have survived. Like the Babylonian map, his map was circular and featured Delphi, a town in Greece, at its center. Europe was on one side, with Asia on the other. The entire world was surrounded by water.

Hecataeus lived during the fifth century B.C.E. and improved on Anaximander's map. He traveled extensively and wrote an account of his travels in Asia. Hecataeus drew a map of the world based on Anaximander's and his own travels. This map is also lost.

Claudius Ptolemy was a Greek scholar who lived in Egypt around C.E. 100 to 170. He is known as the inventor of geography. Ptolemy invented a system of latitude and longitude, which is a coordinate system for locating places on Earth.

Maps created using Ptolemy's ideas were not known in Europe until the early 15th century. His maps had to be translated first. After this, some maps were created using his methods. These maps may have been used by explorer Christopher Columbus. From these maps, Columbus might have wrongly believed he could reach Asia by sailing west from Europe.

Media Credits

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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

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