What Did Waldseemueller Know and When Did He Know It?

In this past Monday’s Washington Post, there was an article by David Brown that I found quite interesting: 16-th Century Mapmaker’s Intriguing Knowledge. It started like this:

How was it that a German priest writing in Latin and living in a French city far from the coast became the first person to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the American continents?

The story is one of Martin Waldseemueller. Not only did Waldseemueller seem to know about the ocean (i.e., the Pacific), he also seemed to know something about the shape of the west coast of South America. According to the article, the evidence of this knowledge is contained in Waldseemueller’s world map of 1507 (Universalis Cosmographia, for short), which was purchased by the Library of Congress for $10 million in 2003.

Universalis Cosmographia

Universalis Cosmographia

As can be seen to the far left, what are now North and South America appear relatively distorted compared to the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Still, the article states that the general shape of the west coast of South America is surprisingly accurate.

The 1507 map is described as the oldest document to use the term ‘America’ to the land mass between Africa and Asia.

America On The Map

America On The Map

In 1516, Waldseemueller published a second great map, called Carta Marina. In this map, according to the article, South America is no longer shown as an “island”. Instead, “The continent disappears off the left of the page, implying it is attached to Asia, which is on the right edge.”

Carta Marina

Carta Marina

So, there are at least two mysteries:

  1. How did Waldseemueller know about the general shape of South America’s west coast in 1507?
  2. What transpired in the intervening years to prompt Waldseemueller to recant?

John W. Hessler of the Library of Congress is a researcher in these matters. His new book, The Naming of America, might be on my Christmas Wish List this year. Hessler’s blog can be found here:

http://warpinghistory.blogspot.com/

More information and comparisons of the two maps are available from the Library of Congress, here.

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