How We “Do History”

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Herodotus, the “Father of History”


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Introduction – How Do We Know?

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According to the Bible, God forewarned Noah of a great flood that would cover all of the Earth. To ensure that creatures of the land would survive, he and his family constructed an enormous boat or “ark” to save two of each species.

“A black cloud rose…
Gathering speed as it blew, drowning the mountains,
Overcoming the people as in battle…
For six days and seven nights
The flood wind blew as the South Storm swept the land.
At sunrise in the seventh day…
The sea grew quieter, the storm subsided, the flood ceased.” -Tablet XI, The Epic of Gilgamesh

Archaeologists aboard a ship named Northern Horizon watched in amazement as a rectangular shape slid across their video screens. Here, eight miles off the Turkish shore, submerged beneath 300 feet of water, was the remains of a house. It was just what they had been searching for.

It was September 9, 2000. The pictures were relayed to the mothership by Little Hercules, a tiny submarine robot, which slipped through the murky waters of the Black Sea scrutinizing the sea floor.

“What we’ve done today is of world importance,” Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, the expedition’s chief archaeologist, solemnly announced. He might be right. The underwater house was startling evidence of a gigantic flood recounted in the Old Testament (Noah’s Ark) and described above in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Reconstructing History

How do we know about the past? Did a giant flood actually occur? Or were the stories of Gilgamesh and Noah folk tales intended to provide moral guidance?

Scientists today are helping to decide. It’s hard, complicated work though. The Epic of Gilgamesh was lost for thousands of years. Recovering it took the patient excavation of the ruined cities of Mesopotamia; the discovery of libraries of clay tablets, then the deciphering of cuneiform writing and several ancient languages.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s first great work of literature, and features the exploits of Gilgamesh — the actual king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. Here, Gilgamesh takes great pride in his slaying of a bull.

Gilgamesh, we now know, was a real king, ruler of the Sumerian city of Uruk, located on the Euphrates River in modern Iraq. His epic/fact/myth was first written down on clay tablets about 2000 B.C. It is the first great work of world literature — an adventure story, a story of morality and tragedy, and the vain search for eternal life.

Dozens of legends worldwide contain similar flood stories. In 1997, two Columbia University oceanographers, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, began wondering, could these tales have some basis in fact? Here is what they proposed:

Twelve thousand years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, the Black Sea was an isolated freshwater lake. As the climate warmed, an enormous icecap covering much of the Northern Hemisphere started to melt. Sea levels rose everywhere. One ominous day around 5600 B.C. the swollen waters of the Mediterranean cut through the hills surrounding the Black Sea. A torrent cascaded toward the sea with the force of 200 Niagara Falls. Rising waters quickly flooded coastal plains, inundating farms and villages. Their terrified inhabitants fled to higher ground, carrying with them tales of a tremendous flood.

In 1999, an expedition to the Black Sea dredged up shells of two entirely different kinds of mollusks. Freshwater species lived there from 15,500 until 7,460 years ago. Suddenly, 6,820 years ago, saltwater species appeared. This made perfect sense if the Black Sea switched from a freshwater to a saltwater environment about 7,000 years ago.

A New Discovery

Now, in September 2000, came the first signs of human habitation: Little Hercules’ cameras revealed a rectangle of hewn wooden beams perhaps 12 feet across and twice as long, with “branches that seemed to be stuck in layers of mud.”

“What we were looking at” explains archaeologist Hiebert, “was a melted building made out of wattle and daub. Now, this is the typical type of construction for the ancient inhabitants along the Black Sea coast. And here we’re seeing it under 300 feet of water. It was one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen.”

Coming up with the theory of the Mediterranean flood took years of accumulated information about the earth’s past climates and changing sea levels. Proving it is taking still more skill and effort. How do we know about the past? By ideas and imagination, shared knowledge, and sheer hard work.

Why study the past? The tale of the flood should make that obvious — it’s fascinating. Stories about ourselves are always intriguing. Where did we come from? How did people from thousands of different cultures, over tens of thousands of years, live? How were their concerns different from or similar to our own? The past is full of surprises, but they never fall far from home. By learning more about who we were — and how we come to be here — we become more fully human.

Archaeologists and Their Artefacts

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Spending sun-scorched days digging through the desert sands isn’t the only life for an archaeologist. There are ancient treasures to be found hidden amidst the plant and sea life on the ocean floor.

“Archaeology is the science of rubbish.” -archaeologist Stuart Piggot

The Forma Urbis Romae may just be the world’s biggest jigsaw-puzzle. Carved across marble slabs 45 feet high and 60 feet long, it is a map ancient Rome showing every street, building, room, and staircase. Eighteen-hundred years ago it hung in the Roman census bureau, the most detailed map of the city ever produced.

At least, it used to be. Today it languishes in the basement of a museum, smashed. Now a team of American researchers have devised a novel way of pasting it together again — by scanning it into a computer.

For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, hunks of marble were hacked off the map for building material. Then the building housing the map collapsed. In 1562, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese made a valiant attempt to collect the surviving sections. Since then every attempt to piece together the 1,163 fragments has failed. It is one of classical archaeology’s great unsolved problems.

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This mock-up of an archaeological dig site gives an impression of what the important elements and basic tools are. Even in this age of computers and x-rays, archaeologists still have to use basic methods like digging and measuring to insure that they collect the best information possible.

The first task of the American researchers was simple: 3-D scan each individual block into their computer. Now it gets harder. The computer must find a way to fit them together. So far the data base contains “8 billion polygons and 6 thousand color images, occupying 40 gigabytes.” Solving the puzzle, says the team, “will take months, possibly years.”

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You come across a buried staircase that leads down into the desert. You open the first doors you see — they lead to a long passageway and an antechamber. Thieves have ransacked it. But there are other doors, undisturbed for centuries. You press your ear to the door. All is silent. You reach for the handle…

This approach is light-years away from the traditional methods of archaeologists who spend their time carefully sifting through the dirt. But today a battery of new tools is helping to bring the past back to life.

Archaeology, notes one of its practitioners, “has a long disreputable line of descent; its ancestors were, quite literally, grave robbers and adventurers.” Foremost amongst them ranks the Italian Giovanni Belzoni. In the early 1800s he looted hundreds of ancient Egyptian tombs, candidly admitting: “The purpose of my researches was to rob the Egyptians of their papyri.” Papyri were the ancient papers of the Egyptians. They were made from a plant that grew along the Nile valley.

Modern archaeologists proceed with more caution. Still, few can claim the delicacy of Sir Leonard Woolley, who in the 1920s excavated the great Sumerian city of Ur. While digging in the royal cemetery he noticed a small hole just below where a small gold cap and some gold nails had been found. Woolley filled the hole with liquid plaster. When the soil was cleared away, the shaft of a lyre — preserved as a plaster cast — emerged. Woolley was able to reconstruct the entire instrument, even though its original wood had long since vanished.

You Want a Date?

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Digging takes up a lot of time in archaeology. Before artifacts can be interpreted, they have to be dug up! Often times, local people are employed to help with the basic chores around a dig, as in this Egyptian dig site.

Before starting a dig the first step is to map a site, dividing it into small squares. Careful notes are kept of changes in sediment, and of each object (however fragmentary) found within each square. The idea is to create a 3-D picture of the area — a picture through time. Younger remains usually lie closer to the surface, older ones beneath. Fortunately, archaeologists no longer have to rely on position alone for judging an object’s age.

In the late 1940s, the physicist Willard Libby invented C-14 (radiocarbon) dating. It transformed the study of the past. For the first time organic material — charcoal, wood, shell and bone, even clothing — from 500 to 50,000 years old could be reliably dated. Through radiocarbon dating, archaeologists built a world-wide chronology of human activity.

How C-14 dating works

Carbon exists in the atmosphere in two forms — ordinary carbon, C-12; and carbon-14. This is radioactive and decays with a half-life of 5730 years (it takes 5730 years for half of the C-14 in a sample to become C-12). Plants and animals contain carbon in the same mixture as the atmosphere. When they die, C-14 continues to decay. By measuring how much — or, rather, how little — C-14 remains, researchers can calculate how much time has elapsed since death occurred.

There are traps, of course. An object may be contaminated by carbon from another source. Or, it may not “belong” at the level where the carbon-containing material was found. Perhaps it was carried there by erosion, or dislodged by a careless archaeologist. It happens. All this allows archaeologists to go on arguing about ages, for ages.

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Raymond Dart’s discovery of the Taung child in 1925 overturned the theory that humans originated in Asia.

How do archaeologists know where to dig? Often they don’t. They know where not to dig — where nothing interesting exists. But how do you tell one from the other? Excavation is expensive, and there is nothing an archaeologist likes less than staring at an empty hole. The ideal solution is to look underground before you start. Astonishingly, techniques are coming along to do just that.

Most archaeologists rely on buried buildings, bodies, ancient hearths, or iron tools, having different physical “signatures” from the surrounding soil. Ground penetrating radar, for example, pumps radio waves into the earth then measures the patterns reflected back. For example, by coupling his scanner to a special computer program anthropology professor Lawrence B. Conyers has produced striking images of otherwise invisible structures. One day, he promises, he will generate moving 3-D pictures and take us on underground video “tours” of archaeological sites.

The great English archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler used to remind his students, “The archeologist is not digging up things, he is digging up people.” Regardless of the changes in methods, archaeological aims remain the same: to illuminate the past and bring back to life the experiences and cultures of people long gone.

Anthropologists and Their People

Finding them didn’t come as much of a surprise. Not to David Roberts, anyway. Winding its way across a 117,000-year-old former sand dune was a trail of footprints made by human feet. They are the oldest human footprints ever found.

Roberts is a South African geologist. Previously, he had come across fossilized carnivore tracks in the rock fringing Langebaan Lagoon 60 miles north of Cape Town. And he had noticed rock fragments which showed signs of human use. So: “On a hunch, I began searching for hominid footprints — and found them!”

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This photo shows acclaimed paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson with the remarkable skeleton he unearthed in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974. It is a 3.5 million-year-old female Australophithecus afarensis, but you can call her Lucy.

“Hundreds of people had walked over that area and not noticed the prints,” adds Roberts’s colleague, Lee Berger. “Whoever left these footprints has the potential of being the ancestor of all modern humans.”

The prints measure eight and a half inches in length. This early person would have taken size 4 shoes.

The Beginning of Time?

When did it all begin? If you had asked Dr. John Lightfoot in 1644, he would have given you a most precise answer. The world was created on October 23, 4004 B.C.E., promptly “at nine o’clock in the morning.” Lightfoot, a Hebrew scholar, arrived at the date through exhaustive study of Scripture.

Today we know this underestimates our planet’s true age a million-fold. The earth formed 4.6 billion years ago — an almost unimaginably long time. But what of our human past? How far back does it stretch? There are several answers — a series of “firsts”:

  • 2 million+ years: First Hominids
  • 100,000+ years: First Humans
  • 9,000 years: First Settlements
  • 6,000 years: First Civilizations

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In 1572, scientists recovered a strange fossil: the skull of what they thought was an ancient Cyclops. This engraving was made to depict the live creature. As it turned out, the skull they found was simply from an elephant!

All this and more is the province of anthropology. The word means literally “the study of man.” We are a complicated species, and anthropologists poke into every aspect of our human nature.

The Caretakers of Culture

Some anthropologists live for years at a time with aboriginal peoples, recording how they organize their lives with the overlay of civilization absent. Margaret Mead, the most celebrated anthropologist of her generation, pioneered this approach in the 1920s when she lived among the Samoan Islanders of the South Pacific. She returned to tell a scandalized world that they practiced free love. Later experts have suggested her adolescent informants fooled the rather ernest young Mead. They were just leading her on.

Other researchers look to our nearest surviving relatives, the great apes, and seek clues to human behavior there. For 40 years Jane Goodall has lived alongside the chimpanzees of Gombe National park in Tanzania. Chimps may look cuddly and cute but they are not above thievery, infanticide, and murder.

Who owns the past? It may sound an odd question, but it is one anthropologists, especially in North America, are having to face. American museums are filled with the skeletons of Native Americans exhumed — looted, if you like — without the permission of their living descendants. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) ordered that this material returned to the tribes.

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This is the upper right third molar of an unidentified species discovered at the Aramis site in Ethiopia in 1992. The species was later named Australopithecus ramidus and dates back 4.4 million years.

Kennewick Man is at the center of the bitterest dispute. A near-complete human skeleton, it was found along the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, in July 1996. James C. Chatters, the forensic anthropologist who first examined it observed that is characteristics reflected European — not Native American — ancestry.

To Chatters’ astonishment when the skeleton was dated, it turned out to be over 9,000 years old. The story made headlines around the world — and a coalition of Indian tribes immediately sued for possession. Ever since the case has been mired in court.

Kennewick Man may reveal fundamentally new facts about the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. If the tribal leaders have their way, he will be reburied at a secret site and his story lost to us all forever. What’s the solution? To begin, more trusting relationships between researchers and the people they study must be forged.

Historians and Their Time

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Consider these two quotes from 19th-century philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” “History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”

“On the 24th of August … between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance…I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long “trunk” from which spread some “branches”…The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.” –Pliny the Younger describing his uncle’s death in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 79 C.E.

There wasn’t any history before 3000 B.C.E.

In a literal sense that is true. Historians mostly rely on written documents to reconstruct the past. Before 3000 B.C.E. writing did not exist, as far as we know. Accordingly, events earlier than this time are referred to as “pre-history,” before written history!

Why C.E. and B.C.E.?

You may be used to seeing dates with B.C. or A.D. (for example, 2750 B.C. or A.D. 476). So why don’t you see those abbreviations here?

The abbreviation B.C. stands for “Before Christ,” and A.D. stands for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, which means, “the Year of Our Lord.” Because history belongs to everyone, and because not everyone is a Christian, many historians have been using the new terms, B.C.E. and C.E

The abbreviation C.E. stands for the “Common Era” and is used in place of A.D. For example, 1492 C.E. is the same as A.D. 1492 (which is sometimes incorrectly written as 1492 A.D.). The abbreviation B.C.E. stands for “Before the Common Era,” and is used in place of B.C. The year 1625 B.C.E is the same as 1625 B.C.

Clay and the Sumerians

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The Sumerians were among the first people to develop a written language. They recorded events and religious information on wet clay tablets using styluses. Note: This picture goes to the free New York Times website which requires registration. Ask your parent or teacher for help.

The Sumerians invented the first writing system. At first they used pictographs to represent words — little pictures drawn on wet clay. A picture of a bird represents mushen, “bird;” a fish, the word ha, “fish.” Sumerian scribes quickly discovered how to write new words by joining pictures together: the signs for “woman” and “mountain” produced geme, “slave-girl” — the Sumerians took their slaves from the mountain tribes to the east. Eventually the pictures evolved into abstract patterns made by a wedge-shaped stylus. This is called cuneiform writing, from the Latin word cuneus = “wedge.”

What did the Sumerians write? Mostly lists. Inventories of people and possessions, of goods to trade, of food rations for slaves. There are legal documents: marriage records, wills, contracts, deeds of sale — and tax returns by the score (one Sumerian proverb reads “You can have a lord, You can have a king, But the man to fear is the tax collector”). Of the 1500,000 clay tablets recovered so far, 75 percent deal with such matters.

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Did they have laptop computers in 480 B.C.? Hardly. The youth in this image is writing on a folded tablet using a stylus (sort of like an ancient fountain pen).

Scattered amongst them, though, are poems and epics — the world’s first literature. There is a farmer’s almanac, even recipes. This one comes from Akkad around 1700 B.C.E. It is for “Tuhu Beets” — beets boiled in beer (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it), and begins: Tuhu shirum saqum izzaz me tukan lipia tanadi tusammat tabaum… Roughly, you boil beets with onions in beer, add herbs, mush everything into a porridge, then sprinkle with raw shuhutinnu . What’s shuhutinnu? — “an unidentified member of the onion family.”

The Sumerians never wrote history in the sense of trying to explain how the past happened, by the deed of men and women, economic factors, natural disasters or pestilence. They believed their society had been there since the universe began, planned and decreed by the gods. It never occurred to them that their land had once been scattered villages occupying desolate marshland, its greatness coming from human toil, invention, vision and determination.

Interpreting the Past

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Herodotus is widely credited as being the first historian. He traveled widely in the Greek world and wrote down what he saw and the stories he heard. Herodotus coined the word history, which is Greek for “inquiries.”

Credit as the First Historian goes to Herodotus, born c. 484 C.E., who lived in Athens while the Parthenon was being built. He seems to have been a trader, a compulsive story-teller, who traveled widely throughout the Greek empire. He must have made an enchanting companion, engaging in conversation everyone he met. “My business is to record what people say,” he explains, “but I am no means bound to believe it.” Officially he wrote an account of the war between the Persians and Greeks. Along the way he found time to be fascinated by ancient Egyptian religion, the flooding of the Nile — and gnats, on which he offers sound advice:

Everyone provides himself with a net, which during the day he uses for fishing, and at night fixes up around his bed, and creeps in under it before he goes to sleep. For anyone to sleep wrapped in a cloak or linen would be useless, for the gnats would bite through them; but they do no even attempt to get through the net.

“What made him the first serious historian,” says classical scholar and poet Peter Levi, “is his combination of great scope and precise focus, his imaginative power as a story-teller and his rationalism, his concern with truth.”

Vesuvius: A Case Study in History

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It might not look like much, but this 316-pound rock was to the ancient Greeks what the Heisman Trophy is to a collegiate football player. The inscription reveals who won the weight lifting competition in one of the first Olympics: “Bybon has lifted me over his head with one hand.” Did Bybon know his victory would make for some heavy history over 26 centuries later?

In Roman times, Pliny-the-Younger proved a worthy successor with his brilliant description of the eruption of Vesuvius quoted above. He was just 17 years-old when the volcano exploded, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. His account has helped modern volcanologists reconstruct the event. It lasted about 18 hours, Pliny tells them. There was a cloud shaped like “a pine tree” — a dense column of hot gas, rock and ash, tossed 20 miles up into the sky. After about 12 hours, the force of the blast slackened. The column collapsed hurtling a gigantic surge cloud of hot ash down Vesuvius’ western slope at 100 mph. Within 4 minutes it reached Herculaneum, blasting buildings, burning or suffocating the people. A second surge devastated Pompeii.

During the 1981 eruption of Mt. St. Helens scientists were amazed at the speed and power of these so-called “pyroclastic flows.” They overturned forests and engulfed a car speeding away at 80 mph. Pliny reports one of these surges and was fortunate not have perished in it: “I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land… The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them…” His uncle was not so lucky and died across the Gulf of Naples at Stabiae.

Vesuvius will erupt again. The only question is when. Millions of people now living in the shadow of the volcano will be at risk.

The philospher George Santayana remarked: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.” Henry Ford dismissed history as “bunk.” Edward Waldo Emerson maintained “There is no history; only biography.” Percy Bysshe Shelley put it poetically: “History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man.” Shakespeare is briefest: “The past is prologue.” The future begins here.

Herodotus, the first historian, claimed modest goals for his work: “that the doings of men may not be forgotten.” On the title page he wrote Historia, Greek for “inquiries” or “researches.” Inquiring into the past has been called history ever since.

Geographers and Their Space

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The desire to know how people in distant cultures live is an ancient one. Before photography, the internet, and airline travel, how did people learn about far off lands? During the Renaissance, mapmaking was the answer! An explorer would chart his path, bring home the information and hire a mapmaker to bring his memories to life.

They set out on April 7, 1805, from Fort Mandan, North Dakota, near present-day Bismarck. Two young army captains, 28 year-old Merriweather Lewis and his partner William Clark, rounded up their party and headed west. With them they took a map showing just three points — the Mississippi as far as Mandan, the position of St. Louis and the location of the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. It was Lewis and Clark’s task to fill in the rest.

“Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy,” President Thomas Jefferson instructed. “In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner.” To this end, the expedition’s supplies included 4,600 sewing needles, 144 small scissors, 8 brass kettles, 33 pounds of colored beads, and a quantity of vermilion face paint.

Traveling with Lewis and Clark were 32 men and a young Indian woman named Sacagawea. When the expedition limped into St. Louis on September 23, 1806, it had covered 8,000 miles, bringing back priceless information about the rivers and mountains of the region, the plants and animals and people.

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Based on this picture of a woman in a traditional Russian coat, do you think the weather in Russia is more tropical or wintery? Do you think it is that way all the time in Russia? How would you find out?

Humans are curious creatures, always wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Lewis and Clark did not describe themselves as geographers, but they might well have. Geography is the study of the surface of the earth. It is about people and places. It is about the physical character of a country, its climates and landscapes, and its biological environment.

Eratosthenes was the first to use the word “Geographica” as the title of his book in the 3rd century B.C.E. Eratosthenes figured out the size of the earth. His method was rather simple. He knew that on the summer solstice in Aswan, the sun shines directly overhead at noon. In Alexandria, 500 miles to the north, he found it cast a shadow, giving an angle of about 7.2 degrees. Assuming the sun is sufficiently distant that its rays are parallel, he calculated the earth’s circumference by the ratios: 7.2/360 = 500/x. His figure of 25,000 miles was very close to reality.

Mapping the World

The geographer’s most important tool is the map. Mapmaking went through a revolution in 15th and 16th centuries when a marvelous age of exploration dawned. Bartolomeu Dias, who discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, was followed by Vasco da Gama, who pioneered the route to India. In 1492, Columbus crossed the Atlantic. And in 1519, Magellan set out on his ambitious voyage to circumnavigate the planet.

Magellan’s venture was not a happy one. Approaching the tip of South America his crew mutinied, terrified by ferocious weather. Magellan executed some, imprisoned others, and marooned the ringleader on a remote shore of South America. Rounding Tierra del Fuego — the southern tip of South America — Magellan headed into the Pacific. He trusted his maps and thought it would take only a few days to cross. But his trip took four months. Drinking water became putrid and turned yellow. The crew almost starved. They were reduced to eating sawdust, leather strips, and rats.

As sailors returned and more information came in, more of the earth needed to be mapped. Cartographers — or mapmakers — faced a fascinating problem. How could the three-dimensional surface of the earth be represented on a two-dimensional page? They learned it could not be done without sacrificing shape, direction, or size.

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Have you ever been lost? How did you find your way back home? Did you ask someone, consult a map, or wander around until you recognized something?

Mercator Plots the Course

In 1569, Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish mapmaker, devised a brilliant solution and produced the earth’s most famous map. On a globe, lines of longitude meet at the poles. Mercator opened them up to make them parallel, intersecting at right angles with lines of latitude. In another adjustment, he placed latitude lines farther part as they approached north and south.

The map had certain drawbacks. Regions near the poles suffered gross distortions. Greenland, for example, appeared several times the size of South America. Sailors, for whom the map was prepared, did not much care. What mattered was that the map offered a simple way to plot a course.

In 1585, Mercator began to publish his maps in book form. Engraved on the title page appeared the Greek god, Atlas, carrying the earth upon his back. Ever since, a book of maps has been known as an atlas.

The science of mapmaking has continued. Cartographers followed in Mercator’s footsteps, continually trying to represent the earth on paper. Although few have had the adventurous spirit of Magellan or Lewis and Clark, The work of cartographers has led to improved communications and a broader understanding of the earth’s physical features.

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