Mapping History

“That maps drawn up by diplomats and generals became a political reality lends an unintended irony to the aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword”. – Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps.

What is a map? (Excerpt from Community Mapping ‘zine by Hannah Lewis)

-Maps are powerful.
-Maps have interests or an argument to make.
-Maps are socially constructed.
-Maps are often conventionalized (they become seen as true or real).
-Maps are shaped by (and shape) political, economic, social, and cultural discourses of the time.
-Maps are a means of communication that many people find appealing.
-Maps come in many forms, such as aboriginal maps of stories, songs, or dreams showing the convergence of boundaries between realms.
-Maps have different ways of representing time.
-Maps are relational—they represent relationships between spatial or physical elements, cultural values and abstract ideas. For example: a road map shows the distance between physical places, but also shows cultural relationships in place names and abstract ideas, such as wilderness or adventure.
-Maps reflect the map-maker’s worldview: the relationship between the map’s creator and the topic is important to consider.

Mapping the Abstract

Maps can be used for nearly anything, not just for providing a geo-spatial frame of reference for physical space.

Take a look at ways maps can organize information and visually represent conceptual ideas.

Organizational strategies or structures:

Brainstorming or thought processes:


Relationships and networks:

Themes and patterns:



Mapping Land: A Colonial History

Geographical mapping is steeped in a colonial past. Cartography was mostly left to the “experts”, while what was shown on the map, and more importantly, what was left off, was often determined by people in positions of power and influenced by political or diplomatic agendas. Colonialists used maps as an intellectual tool for legitimizing territorial conquest, economic exploitation, and cultural imperialism [1]. Maps made it easy for the powerful to lay claim to land and resources and ignore existing social and political structures.

Denis Wood, a cartography expert, argues that few, if any of the graphic notations produced in ancient or medieval civilizations would be considered maps today, and maps that reflect our contemporary understanding of cartography have only prevailed for the past 400 years [2]. In fact, Wood opines that while maps have been found preceding the 15th century, they were more likened to landscape drawings, cosmological diagrams, or large-scale plans rather than the technical and geographically accurate maps that are indispensable parts of our lives today [3].

The oldest extant maps about which there is scholarly consensus are Babylonian. Many large-scale cuneiform maps have survived from the second and third millennium BCE, and a few small-scale maps have survived from the first millennium BCE. The Babylonians also produced the first known map of the world in 600 BCE.

Babylonian map of the world, 600 BCE

Upon close examination of the Babylonian map pictured above you can see that maps already present a singular worldview.  The map, depicted on a clay tablet, deliberately omits peoples such as the Persians and Egyptians, who were well known to the Babylonians. As well, the world is depicted as a circular shape surrounded by water, which fits the religious image of the world in which the Babylonians believed.

After the turn of the 15th century, maps begin to appear in large numbers, and the practice of mapping does not seem to have happened in isolation. Ancient maps have transcended cultures and geography, having been found by excavators and historians in modern day China, India, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Mongolia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan. However, no extant maps are known to precede the 15th century in sub-Saharan Africa, South and North America, Australia, or Oceania (this is not to say that mapping did not occur in these areas, but indigenous forms of mapping were often cognitive – using stories and memory to recall physical space and ecological detail – or were created with perishable items such as sticks, bark, and planks). It can be argued that mapping as we understand it today gained currency in civilizations that had larger, more complicated societies and organized political communities that could use mapping as an instrument of polity to assess taxes, develop military tactics, facilitate communications, and exploit strategic resources [4]. Maps, essentially, helped ancient and medieval societies transition into early modern states. “Contemporary scholarship is unanimous that the map possessed an all but unique power to give the elusive idea of the state concrete form, to those outside looking in, certainly, but also to those living within” [5].

It is highly contested that the purpose of a map is to “represent a part of the earth’s surface”, according to the definition in any modern dictionary. After all, maps draw lines and conjure up borders where none physically exist, maps summon unity from chaos or chaos from unity depending on how they’re used, and maps enrobe the shapeless, endowing with form what had once been amorphous [6]. It is believed that maps, rather, denote power and ownership. Don Meinig, Research Professor Emeritus of Geography, has this to say: “Lines on the map exhibited… imperial power… because they had been imposed on the continent with little reference to indigenous peoples, and indeed in many places with little reference to the land itself. The invaders parcelled the continent among themselves in designs reflective of their own complex rivalries and relative power” [7].

Mapping has induced a heightened sense of “place” or “nation” by depicting alien worlds. In the 1500s, when cartographers had little to no understanding of unchartered territories on maps, they often filled the space using mythological or foreboding creatures, indicative of the world’s fear of the “unknown” and mistrust of “foreigners”. Dragons in Asia, lions in Africa, sea serpents in foreign waters, and even cannibals were common illustrations in unknown territories. Colloquialisms used by ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers were “HIC SVNT LEONES” or “HC SVNT DRACONES”, meaning  “here are lions” or “here be dragons” when denoting unknown areas, suspected dangerous. Below is an image of the Lenox Globe, the second or third oldest terrestrial globe, believed to be created in 1510. If you look closely, you can see dragons and other mythical creatures occupying unknown terrains.

As colonialism continued to expand, maps held increasing power as symbols of knowledge and authority and have been used as vehicles of subjugation of local knowledge and distinctiveness. “In Canada, as in the rest of the Americas, the history of map-making is intimately tied to the exploration of the land mass and the identification of resources to be exploited, whether that be beaver pelts, lumber, gold or oil. Map making, resource exploitation and the conquering of indigenous lands have gone hand in hand” [8].

For further reading:
History of Cartography by Leo Bagrow
Maps and Man: A history of cartography in relation to culture and civilization by Norman J.W. Thrower
The History of Cartography by J.B. Harley and David Woodward
Geographic Thought: a praxis perspective by George L. Henderson and Marvin Waterstone

How Maps Lie (or bend the truth)

“Maps divide whole local, regional and continential environments into the absurdity of squared efficiency.
They aid in attaching legitimacy to a reductionist control that strips contact with the web of life
from the experience of place.” – Doug Aberley, Boundaries of Home.

Maps can be of great use to us. They can show us the way, highlight landmarks, compound our understanding of global issues, and give us a glimpse into the past. But maps that are created unscrupulously, cursorily, or without holding local interests in mind can have oppressive and inimical consequences. This section acknowledges the ways in which maps can manipulate, generalize, mislead, exclude, and lie. The purpose of this information is not to instill an outright mistrust of maps. Maps are powerful resources and can help in a myriad of ways. The purpose is to develop a healthy skepticism of maps by bearing in mind the subjectivity and contextualization of maps and map-making.

All maps, to some degree, distort reality, using generalization and symbolization to highlight critical information and to suppress detail of lower priority. This is not necessarily a critique of mapping, as maps that didn’t generalize would be overwhelmed by minutia and far too cluttered to communicate anything of saliency.

Generalization can take many forms:
Selection – choosing only the information that requires attention;
Simplification – reducing or eliminating details;
Displacement – avoiding graphic interference by separating features that would otherwise overlap;
Smoothing – diminishing angularity;
Enhancement – adding detail to give the map a more realistic appearance;
Aggregation – grouping many equivalent features;
Dissolution – aggregating two separate but equivalent features;
Conversion – showing individual features as zones of relative concentration [9].

Ultimately, it is in the map-makers hands as to what information gets attention, what information gets excluded, and what details are abstracted. While generalization of maps is an accepted practice, the resulting graphic interpretation might differ significantly from that of another competent observer. It is important to keep the authored views of maps in mind.

There are many other ways that maps mislead that raise questions about the veracity of maps:

  • Manipulation– maps can make regions look big and important, or small and threatened. They can exclude eye-sores, and emphasize positive features. Below is a typical developer plan. Look how adding more tree symbols increase the visual appeal of the plan.

    (source: How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier)

  • Blunders – maps can present false information due to cartographic carelessness, inconsistencies or distortions in the appearance of the map, out-dated information or deliberate errors.
  • Advertising – maps can be created with a specific motive or agenda in mind. When a product or service involves location or place, the ad often includes a map. These maps, however, are created to emphasize convenience, accessibility, and success, and do not have to meet regulated mapping standards.
  • Propaganda– a more insidious version of maps are those used for political and ideological persuasion. Maps based on bias can present fraudulent selections of facts. Propaganda maps were used voluminously under the Nazi regime. Pictured below is a map produced by the German Library of Information in 1939, comparing the German plight in 1914 with that of 1939. See how Germany is consistently depicted as a “pure” white country, while Great Britain and France remain ominously black.

    (source: How to Lie with Maps, Mark Monmonier)

  • Disinformation – this most often occurs on military maps, where false geographical information  is leaked to deceive the enemy.

Lying or bending the truth is an essential element of cartography. As a form of representation and an essential source of information, maps tend to be taken as truth, especially ones that appear to be scientific. Like all information, maps should be examined through an analytical and critical lens, with the understanding that all maps represent a particular point of view.

For further reading:
How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

(Re)claiming the power of maps

“Maps can show a vision for the future more clearly than thousands of words” – Doug Aberley, Boundaries of Home

In recent years, a grassroots countermapping movement has sprouted, involving a segment of people who practice Critical Cartography. Critical Cartography is a set of new mapping practices and theoretical critique grounded in critical theory. Critical Cartographers have identified maps as social issues and expressions of power and knowledge, and have developed mapmaking processes to reflect community values, supporting socially and ecologically sustainable planning. The aim of Critical Cartography is to reduce the gap between technically oriented map designs and a theoretical analysis of power in society. The movement involves such mapping methods as community mapping, protest mapping, indigenous mapping and public participation GIS.

If we take a cautionary approach to interpreting information on a map, maps can be our friends. Moreover, if we include ourselves in the creation of maps, relying on local knowledge and anti-oppressive processes of map-making, maps can be emancipatory. Doug Aberley states that there is no “good” mapping and “bad” mapping, but that “every region has the potential to be represented by as many unique interpretations as it has citizens” [10].

Although we have great access to maps, we have relied on experts and specialists to do the mapping for us, resulting in a lost ability to conceptualize, make, and use images of place – skills which our ancestors honed over for thousands of years. Many people are making the conscious choice to reclaim the commons through reinhabiting place. A spurred desire to imbue participatory approaches to mapping our world is a pivotal part of this movement.

A fundamental tenet of community mapping is to renounce the notion that only experts can map, and do what we can to fill maps with personal and collective descriptions of time and space. Pre-existing topographic, local government, or other precise maps can be used as a starting point for community mapping, but it is up to the community at large to decide what should be included on the map, developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of their local spaces in the process.

Community mapping is a pedagogical vehicle that assists in creating a sense of place, providing space for learning and dialogue, and bridging personal knowledge to community learning and institutional planning. As a spatial learning process, community mapping can bring together diverse perspectives and people to create dialogue and common understanding. Members of the community are enabled to identify the historical, physical, social, cultural and even spiritual attributes of their local spaces that they deem important, and use that information to support community action or planning projects [11]. “Maps, like theories, have power in virtue of introducing modes of manipulation and control that are not possible without them. They become evidence of reality in themselves and can only be challenged through the production of other maps and theories” [12].

Overall, community mapping is an excellent example of asset-based development, as described on the Cultural Mapping page. As outlined by Maeve Lydon, community mapping shares the following three characteristics of asset-based development:

  • it starts with what is present, not what is absent;
  • it is internally focused to stress the importance of local definitions, visions, means and ownership of development;
  • it is relationship-driven – people are not treated as blank slates without histories, narrative and storied residence [13].

Asset-based development and community mapping thus affirms and facilitates space for the intrinsic capacity of individuals and communities to find solutions to the challenges they face [14].

The following map images are examples of countermapping. The first shows how maps can be used in protest, elucidating the ‘dark side’ of our bioregions to support an environmental cause. The next series of map images are examples of a community mapping project, where the broader community was invited to contribute their local knowledge to the mapping process.

The map pictured below follows the path of the Keystone 1 Pipeline system, plotting each confirmed oil spill along its trajectory. The map connects the destruction of the pipeline with land, environments, ecologies, and communities, with hardly any text and using a simple legend that the most basic of map readers could understand. The creation of this map would require very little technical cartography skills. While it is not geographically perfect, it provides the public with a piece of information that is excluded from the maps that are ubiquitous in our every day lives.

The following images are maps that were created during a community mapping project in Parkdale, Toronto. The Food Mapping project, done by the West End Food Co-op, sought to explore the local food system and consider challenges and opportunities to improve it. The project included public workshops, site visits, consultation with community groups, and skills training in community mapping. The activities attracted hundreds of participants from various organizations and communities, and culminated in a mural at the Food Co-op’s store.

(photo credit: Karin Ng; source:

(photo credit: Deborah Bardnt; source:

For further reading:
Boundaries of Home: Mapping for local empowerment by Doug Aberley.
Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places by Sheila Harrington.
Whose Reality Counts? Putting the Last First by R. Chambers.
Maps are Territories – Science is an Atlas by D. Turnbull.


[1] Monmonier, Mark. (1996). How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[2] Wood, Denis. (2010). Rethinking the Power of Maps. New York: The Guildford Press.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid, page 31.

[6] ibid.

[7] Lewis, Hannah. (2009). Community Mapping: Exploring what it means to us.

[8] Lydon, Maeve. (1985). (Re)Presenting the Living Landscape: Exploring Community Mapping as a Tool for Transformative Learning and Planning. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria.

[9] Monmonier, Mark. (1996). How to Lie with Maps. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[10] Aberley, Doug. (1993). Boundaries of Home: Mapping for local empowerment. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Page 5.

[11] Lydon, Maeve. (1985). (Re)Presenting the Living Landscape: Exploring Community Mapping as a Tool for Transformative Learning and Planning. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria.

[12] Turnbull, D. (1989). Maps are Territories – Science is an Atlas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page 54.

[13] Lydon, Maeve. (1985). (Re)Presenting the Living Landscape: Exploring Community Mapping as a Tool for Transformative Learning and Planning. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria.

[14] ibid.

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