Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/September 1883/Primitive Map-Making

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THE idea of representing the surface of the earth, or even a part of it, by a map, implies a considerable advance in knowledge. Every map, even the crudest one, is in a certain sense a concentrated representation, a kind of distillation of physical and politico-geographical knowledge. The clearer and more comprehensive this knowledge, the higher is the degree of accuracy with which it can be portrayed. We are not only taught this by the history of the peoples with which we have had the most to do, that is, of the civilized nations, but it is obvious to any one who is acquainted with the lower races. The same practical reasons which urged Europeans to the pictorial representation of geographical facts have also made their influence felt in the prairies of America and the islands of Australasia; and I have seen maps prepared by Polynesian or Indian hands that would compare favorably with mediæval representations of the same kind.

As a rule, cartography begins with road-maps. Peoples whose territory is a terminating point or is traversed by important trade-routes, and who perform a carrier-service, are accustomed as a matter of course to learn to depend upon drafted representations of their roads. Appolonius Rhodius says that such maps were used by the ancient Colchians of the Southwestern Caucasus and Northern Armenia, through whose territory ran the great caravan routes from the Black Sea to the East and South. Herodotus and Xenophon describe the great post-routes of the Persians, over which the royal orders were carried to all parts of the kingdom, as systematically laid out and provided with stations and inns, and arrangements for changing horses. The caravan-roads now mark the most practicable routes for railways; and the French might make good use of the itineraries of the Tuaregs in laying their tracks across the Sahara, if they were only accessible. That the sons of the desert, who are able to speed with unerring accuracy for hundreds of miles across the ocean of sand, possess at least the capacity to make a representation of their route, is shown by the statement of Duverrier, that the Sheik Othman drew in the sand for him a plan of the central range of Hoggar.

The accounts that have been given of the map-making of the negro races have a still higher interest for us. Stanley says that the Waganda frequently have recourse to drawings which they make upon the ground to render their imperfect verbal descriptions more clear. The sand of the sea-shore has, in fact, played a very important part in the beginnings of cartography. Travelers of widely different periods, whether speaking of the German coasts or of the shores of America and Asia, have made the same observation, that the coast people, in order to give a more distinct answer to any question about the roads and paths, have spontaneously made drawings in the sand of the stretch of country they were talking of. Examples in point may be cited from the Baltic coasts, from the Island of Jesso, and from Northern Siberia. Ainos and Tunguses have directed travelers in the same illustrative way.

The more intelligent ones divide the roads which they would represent into days' journeys, and designate mountains and islands with little piles of sand, and towns and fishing-stations with sticks. Kotzebue, Chamisso, and Beechey tell stories of the same kind of peoples of the great ocean. The inhabitants of Tahiti and the Marshall Islands give, by means of stones arranged on the beach-sand, a clear view of whole groups of islands, between which they point out the navigable channels. The islanders have also a kind of portable maps of their own designing, showing, by means of strings with knots tied in them, the direction of the principal currents. According to Captain F. H. Witt, the Micronesians of the Caroline and Marshall Islands make a frame of ribs of palm-leaves, across which they weave the blades to serve as the foundation for their map. The islands are then represented by fastening at the proper places shells or pebbles of sizes proportioned to the magnitude of the islands to which they are intended to correspond.

In some of the Australasian islands the tattooing of the body is made to bear a geographical significance. Lütke remarked in 1828 that on some of the Caroline Islands the chiefs had lines tattooed on their bodies, with each of which they associated the name of some island or group. Thus, these savages carried around with them on their own persons geographical directories that could not be lost—certainly one of the most original geographical and mnemotechnic devices of which we have any record.

These incidents point to a peculiar capacity or sense of the relation of directions on the part of the people of the islands of the great sea, which is manifested in many different ways. These people do not have the materials which we use for such purposes; but, when they are furnished with them and have learned to use them, they soon acquire facility in making maps according to our ideas. Their capacity to accomplish this can not admit of dispute, when it is remembered to what immense distances they are able to go straight with their little narrow canoes. Every European seaman must admire the skill of the Caroline-Islanders, who succeed in traveling with such sureness over the length and breadth of their group, through spaces in which one of the islands may be more than eight hundred miles from its neighbor. There are numbers, not of theoretical geographers, but of practical sailors, who are acquainted with the islands, and have observed the achievements of the natives, who will bear me out in this. There are now in existence a few maps made by Polynesians with European writing materials that afford a permanent testimony of the clearness of mind with which these "wild" people control their sea-voyages. The most famous of them is the one made by Tupaya of Tahiti, a man who went with Cook on his first voyage through the main part of the Australasian Archipelago. It comprises not less than forty degrees of longitude, extending from the Panmotu Islands in the east to the Feejee group in the west. While the most striking feature of this work is the great extent of what is correctly and plainly set down, some New Zealand maps attest the special knowledge the makers had of the details of their native land. One of these was compiled in 1798, before any European colony had been founded in New Zealand; another was published by Shorthand in 1854.

The Esquimaux have contributed important service to the enlargement of knowledge by the aid they have given to the older and the more recent explorers, from whom their achievements in cartography have received special praise. They have supplied European and American sailors with most valuable directions by drawings on both sand and paper. They are accustomed to designate with great care all the projecting points of the land, even the smallest ones, but all of their works have an important defect, which strikes the eye at once. They can not comprehend the great changes in the trend of the land toward the different points of the compass; but represent everything as running generally in the same direction. The student must, therefore, make himself accustomed to this straightforward mode of projection, in order to understand them aright. Abundant evidence, nevertheless, exists of the value of these maps in perfectly unknown regions. C. W. Parry acknowledges his obligations to a remarkable Esquimau woman, Iligliuk, for a map by the aid of which he discovered the Fury and Hekla Straits, sailing north from Hudson's Bay. Dr. I. I. Hayes speaks of a rude map of the coast from Cape York to Smith's Sound, on which all the inhabited places of Western Greenland were marked, that was made for him by the guide Hans. Franklin states that in his second voyage the Esquimaux, when inquired of, drew the outlines of the coast on the sand, divided it off by days' journeys, indicated the islands and their size and shape by heaps of gravel, marked the mountains with sand and stones, and inhabited places with sticks, and exhibited so much anxiety to be correct as to consult with each other on points respecting which any of them had doubts.

An autograph map by an Esquimau of his own home may be seen in the Royal Hand-bibliothek at Stuttgart, where it is catalogued under the name of "Niakuntigok"; and I have noticed other drawings of Esquimau maps in Hall, and in the journal "Globus" for 1877.

Drake, in his "Book of the Indians," gives several examples of maps by the North American aborigines. The efforts of these people are of interest enough to deserve a more special account. Drawings in the sand are frequently mentioned as made by them; as, for example, by Mackenzie, by Lieutenant Whipple of the Kiowumis, and by Captain J. Jacob of the Haidas on Vancouver Island. The Indians have not, however, rested satisfied with these primitive methods of representation, but have, like some Esquimaux and Polynesians, made the great step of the discovery of portable maps, and have even made more advanced efforts in this art, and far more extensive applications of it, than the others. Their maps furnish correct data with reference to the roads and coast-lines, and also to whole districts, with the rivers, mountains, towns, and the connecting roads, and have the days' journeys carefully marked on materials of the most diversified character. Heckewelder and De Smet describe maps that were made with ashes and coal on pieces of bark and deer-skin; Hunter saw in Carolina plans of whole districts on the blankets of the chiefs, with the boundaries of the different hunting-grounds carefully marked off. The chiefs of many tribes were in the habit of keeping portable maps filed, and already attached great value to them when they first came in contact with Europeans, certainly before they had had an opportunity to learn the use of maps from them. Travelers of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, among them Le Clerc, La Hontan, and Lafiteau, attest this fact with a host of examples, and other notices of such maps are given by Cop way and Schoolcraft.

A much greater advance in map-making had been made in Mexico and Central America centuries before the European immigration. The whole Aztec kingdom was registered and mapped off at the time the Spaniards came into the country. In the plat-books the crown land was colored violet, the land of the nobles red, and the common lands yellow; and the plats were so carefully executed that they were to a certain extent accepted as evidence under Spanish rule. These books, a remarkable result of a highly developed civilization in an Indian state, were of great importance in processes, and it is possible to obtain satisfactory information from them even now. Thirty-six of the registry-maps are still left in the "Codex Mendoza"; Alexander von Humboldt publishes in his "Atlas of New Spain" a representation of a carefully delineated estate concerning which an action was brought; and Brasseur de Bourbourg and Prescott speak of maps in the archives of the Aztec princes, which represented in regular order the mountains, woods, rivers, cities, boundaries, roads, and coast-lines, and contained valuable statistical and other information on their margins. Alexander von Humboldt saw, in the hands of a native of a town near Tetlama, a geographical map that had been hidden in the woods from the Europeans, which was made before the landing of Cortez. The conquerors of Mexico themselves received from the king a plan of the coast with its rivers and capes painted on cotton cloth, and from the natives another map that indicated all the rivers, mountains, and large towns from Xikalanko to Nicaragua. A fragment of a very interesting historical document still exists in the library of the city of Mexico. It is the ground-plan of Tenochtitlan, the estate in which Montezuma II entertained his guest Cortez, and which the latter knew so well how to plunder. Bullock saw it, and had a copy taken of it, in 1824. Aubin had in his possession, in 1860, twenty-five leaves of the Mexican land-register, with portraits of the kings of the last period of independence, and texts added from the years 1539, 1573, and 1599, with what is more important for us, three maps by the last Aztec prince, Guatemozin. It was copied at his command, in 1533, from older maps, and contained data from 1361. Three other maps of the same brave but unfortunate ruler, which go back to 1438, were copied in 1704 by the royal Spanish interpreter, Manuel Mancio. Finally, Peter Martyr describes a similar map, painted on white cotton cloth, that was not less than thirty feet long.

Squier and Davis state that the Toltec states Nicaragua, for instance had books written on deer-skin, in which were marked by the elders of the towns, in black and red, the boundaries of the districts, the rivers, lakes, woods, and even single estates. In Peru relief-maps were made with skillfully drawn lines, and impressed with stone, clay, and straw. Garcilasso de Vega, in his "General History of Peru," composed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, gives a well-drawn plan of the city of Cuzco, with representations of the streets, squares, and brooks, which was made at Muyna; and he tells also of representations of entire districts. The beauty of these works is attested by several Spanish authorities. Balboa speaks of a plan of the besieged fortress, Pomacocha, which was sent to the war council at the capital. Bastian had made for the Royal Museum in Berlin a copy of the plan of an ancient Inca city which he saw at Cuenca, a picture of which was published in the "Zeitschrift für Ethnologie," in 1877. The squares and public places and the royal palaces were indicated by the arrangement of blocks of wood.

The Polynesians, the Esquimaux, and the Indians, have all thus given us the marks of the different degrees of advancement they have independently made in the use of this, the most important of geographical aids. In their ignorance of the art of writing, and their want of suitable writing materials, they have made use of the same primitive methods as the people of the German coasts still employ. When the progress from tribal communism to a formulated state-life and the transition from trivial, groping essays to a public provision for a system of written records are consummated, well-executed maps appear among the evidences of the degree of civilization that has been reached.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.