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

Medieval mapmakers supposedly inscribed the phrase "Here be dragons" on maps showing unknown regions of the world. Unfortunately, it appears that this claim is not true. Only one 16th-century globe has this inscription.

Although there were no dragons, and the inscription "Here be dragons" was almost never used, some of the earliest mapmakers did have to deal with real and formidable megafauna. Their maps date back to the Paleolithic Period, when woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primogenuis) roamed Earth along with humans of the Stone Age (approximately 2.6 million to 5,000 years ago). More recent mapmakers, such as the Babylonians, did record mythical beasts in their maps. The ancient Greeks also traveled the world they knew in the spirit of cartography.

Mammoth Ivory Maps

The woolly mammoth was a relative of the elephant that lived on the steppes and tundra of North America and Eurasia from around 300,000 years ago to around 3,700 years ago. To humans of the Ice Age, mammoths were a significant source of meat. In addition, their bones were used to build huts and their tusks were used to make tools and figurines. In at least a couple of instances, the tusks of mammoths were used to create maps.

In fact, what is believed to be the oldest map ever discovered is a set of engravings on a mammoth tusk dating from around 25,000 years ago. The tusk was found in 1962 in the area of the modern-day Czech Republic. The tusk includes engravings believed to represent a mountain, a river, valleys, and trails around what is now a town.

Another engraved mammoth tusk was found in 1965 in Ukraine and shows huts along a river.

Abauntz Map

Mammoth tusks were not the only medium used by humans living in the Stone Age to make maps. The European Magdalenian culture, dating from 11,000 – 17,000 years ago, appears to have etched a map onto a stone tablet. The tablet is only a few centimeters across and was found in a cave in Abauntz, in northeast Spain. The tablet has been dated to around 13,500 years ago.

The engraving illustrates a landscape, including rivers, mountains, ponds, and pathways. In addition, herds of ibex, a type of wild goat, are depicted. It has been interpreted as a simple map, possibly showing a past hunt or a plan for a future one.

The Çatalhöyük Map

Several thousand years after the mammoth ivory maps and the Abauntz map, humans were making maps on the walls of buildings. In the southern Anatolian Plateau in modern Turkey are the two tells (human-made mounds) of Çatalhöyük. It is the site of a Neolithic village formed between 7400 and 5200 B.C.E. The site was the subject of detailed excavations in the early 1960s and is still being excavated.

Of particular interest to cartographers is a three-meter-wide (10-foot) mural found on a wall in the eastern mound, dating from around 6600 B.C.E. The lower half of the mural shows tightly packed "cells" thought to represent a village, while the upper half depicts mountain peaks and dark spots that could indicate a volcano.

Other archaeologists disagree with this map-like interpretation, arguing the upper shape is merely a leopard skin and not a volcano. Given that there is no evidence for a nearby volcanic eruption, they claim that the mural is merely art.

However, a recent study determined that the nearby Mount Hasan likely erupted around 6900 B.C. It is possible, therefore, that the spotted object in the mural is a volcano.

Babylonian Maps

Slightly less controversial are maps from the Mesopotamian kingdom of Babylon. The Babylonians produced the first known map of the planet. This map, engraved on a clay tablet, shows Babylon at the center of the world.

An inscription in cuneiform, an ancient writing system, takes up the top portion of the tablet and describes mythical creatures thought to exist in the depicted regions. Circles represent Babylonian cities, such as Assyria, and a band of writing that reads "Salt [or Bitter] Sea" encircles the cities. The Babylonian World Map was intended to be a symbolic map. It 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 Greece, specifically Delphi, at the center. Europe was on one side, with Asia on the other. The entire world was surrounded by water.

Hecataeus, also of Miletus, 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, called the Periodos. Hecataeus drew a map based on Anaximander's. By examining surviving fragments and text of this map, historians believe Hecataeus included details he learned on his travels in his version.

A few hundred years later, Claudius Ptolemy tried his hand at cartography. Ptolemy was a scholar of Greek descent living in Alexandria, Egypt. He lived around C.E. 100 to 170. He is generally considered the inventor of geography. He invented a system of latitude and longitude, and a way to flatten the planet onto a two-dimensional map.

Maps created using his techniques were generally unknown in Europe until the early 15th century, when his "Geography" was translated into Latin. Maps created using Ptolemy's techniques may have led Christopher Columbus to wrongly believe he could reach Asia by sailing west from Europe.

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