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Mysterious Mapmakers: Exploring the Impossibly Accurate
16th Century Maps of Antarctica and Greenland

© 2007, Leslie Trager

European exploration began in the late 14th century and accelerated rapidly with the late-15th-century discovery of the Americas by Columbus. But there are maps, published in the 16th century, that show Antarctica and Northern Greenland—lands no explorer of that time could have reached.

Ancient maps of Antarctica show areas that were completely covered by sea ice in the 16th century, and which remain covered today. And this begs the question: From what maps did those early cartographers copy? And more importantly: Who made the surveys in the first place?


The first documented European sighting of Antarctica was by Captain James Cook in 1775. Magellan had sailed around South America in 1521, but he passed through the Strait that now bears his name and thus sailed nowhere near Antarctica. Yet there are 16th-century maps that show this undiscovered land. The most impressive of these are gores (triangular map sections pieced together to form a globe) made by an unknown cartographer in Stuttgart.

Of course, the gores do not make a complete circumference because they were designed for a globe, and not to be placed on a flat surface. In order to see the map as it was meant to be seen, I copied the gores and placed them together at the points where the land at the southern end of the gores meets. Figure 1 shows the startling result.

Figure 1. Globe gores by an unknown ca. 1535 cartographer.

Compare this gore map to a modern map showing Antarctica as it would look without ice and note the similarities. In Figure 2, the red line shows the land underneath the ice and gray areas indicate existing ice.

Figure 2. A Modern Map of Antarctica.

The modern map depicts a spit of land just south of the tip of South America, which today is called the Antarctic Peninsula. The gore map also shows a similar peninsula, and while not perfect—for example, the Weddell Sea area is depicted as a nearly closed bay—the map is fairly consistent with the area as we know it today. How was this 16th-century mapmaker able to create an accurate map of a continent that would not be surveyed for another 250 years?

Particularly striking are areas in the western and northwestern parts of both maps, and Figure 3 below presents detail views for comparison purposes. Note that Island “A” appears to be in front of the entrance to a river on both maps, and likewise Island “B” is in the same general area. Just to the north of the entrance to the Ross Sea, islands labeled “C” appear on both maps as well. Today, all these islands, and most of the Ross Sea, are surrounded by an ice shelf.

Figure 3. Detail views show the same area on both maps.

We know about the shape of the dry land only through modern technology. Certainly there was a similar ice cover in the 16th century, so it's not possible that the surveys on which the gore map was based were conducted at that time by some secret unknown explorer.

These prescient globe gores are not the result of a lone, and lucky, guesser. Other maps very similar to the gore map, although not as detailed, were made by Orontius Fineus (Oronce Fine) in 1533 (Figure 4), and by Gerard Mercator in 1538 (Figure 5).

Figures 4 & 5. Antarctica depicted by Fineus (1533) and Mercator (1538).

In addition, the Piri Reis map of 1513 appears to illustrate the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea area. Figure 6 shows a portion of this map that depicts part of western Africa, the eastern coast of South America and a contiguous land mass across the bottom. A comparison of that land mass with the modern map in Figure 2 reveals that the curvature compares favorably to the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula as it later becomes the shoreline of the Weddell Sea. Note that the islands off the peninsula and in the Weddell Sea are surrounded by ice in the modern map. But similar islands, not surrounded by ice, appear on the Piri Reis map.

Figure 6. A portion of the Piri Reis map of 1513.

The consistent similarity between these 16th-century maps and a modern map of Antarctica as if its coastline were free from ice simply cannot be just accidental. And certainly no one in 1513, or in the 1530s for that matter, could have sailed to Antarctica, much less discovered the land hidden beneath the ice shelves. Significantly, the Piri Reis map's author states on the map that it is based partly on maps going back to the time of Alexander the Great (356 to 323 BC). The only conclusion, then, is that these early maps illustrate the world as it was at a much earlier period in time—when it was warmer.

Figure 7. Antarctica Today: A NASA Satellite view of the Antarctic Peninsula.


Mercator's famous 1569 Nova et Aucta Orbis … world map (Figure 8) shows Greenland as an island, the northwestern part of which contains a large bay dotted by some islands at its entrance. Compare this area with a modern map of Northern Greenland (Figure 9), showing Independence Fjord and the bay to the fjord with islands at the entrance. Note also the elbow at the bottom of the entrance to Independence Fjord, which appears on both maps.

Figure 8. Mercator's “Groenlant” from his 1569 World Map.

Figure 9. A modern map of northern Greenland.

Independence Fjord is slightly above latitude 82° N, and no one from western civilization had been to this area until Admiral Robert Peary got there in 1900 by sledge. Prior to his discovery of Independence Fjord, the area remained uncharted and unknown. In fact Lauge Koch, in his Survey of North Greenland, states that from 1616 to 1852, latitude 78°20' N marked the limit of western geographical knowledge of Greenland, in that it marked the limits of navigation. From 1852 to the early 1900s, geographical knowledge of North Greenland was gradually broadened, principally by sledge journeys.† Indeed, the leading geographer of the 19th century, August Petermann, believed that Greenland extended across to Siberia, based upon the fact that Siberian driftwood was found in Europe, but not generally on the west coast of Greenland itself.

Survey of North Greenland, Lauge Koch, p. 1.

Although an 1865 (Figure 10) map by Lauge Koch adheres to Petermann's theory, the theory was gradually abandoned as more information was obtained throughout the 19th century, particularly with the drift of Fridtjof Nansen's Fram vessel across the north ocean in 1894-1895. The Fram drifted from the Pacific Ocean off Siberia at the New Siberian Islands to Spitsbergen in the North Sea. The final blow to Petermann's theory occurred when Peary traveled around the north of Greenland.†

Survey of North Greenland, Lauge Koch, p. 60.

Figure 10. An 1865 map shows Greenland (red outline)
extending across the northern sea from Siberia.

So, how did Mercator obtain the information for his map, created more than 300 years earlier? He probably didn't learn that it was an island until after 1538, for his world map of that year shows Greenland as a peninsula coming out of the north (Figure 11). Clearly, Mercator did not make his 1538 or 1569 maps using contemporary information from sailing ships, because none could sail there. (Even today, with the warming of the climate in the late 20th century, the ice would still prevent sailing to northern Greenland.) And yet, not only does Mercator's 1569 map accurately depict northern Greenland, but it shows free-flowing rivers—something that did not exist in the 16th century and that today is ice and glacier. His map also shows Greenland with many offshore islands, which is also correct.

Figure 11. Mercator's 1538 map, with detail view of Greenland as a peninsula.

In short, Mercator's 1569 map of Greenland depicts the island far more accurately than 19th-century maps. With no scientific knowledge to prove otherwise, mapmakers of the 19th century simply ignored Mercator. They must have assumed he couldn't have made an accurate map of Greenland, and therefore, whatever he had drawn was simply a figment of his imagination. But details on the 1569 map are far too accurate to have been a mere product of imagination.

Sixteenth and 17th-century sailors knew that northern Greenland was inaccessible. This is shown by the Danish sailing instructions to Greenland given to Henry Hudson in connection with his voyage to Hudson Bay:

Then Gunnbiorn's Rocks lie half way between Iceland and Greenland. This course was anciently taken, but now it is said that there is ice on the rocks that has come out of the Northern Ocean, so that it is no longer possible to go that way withouth peril of life …†

Sailing Directions of Henry Hudson, Rev. B. F. De Costa, 1869, as translated for Hudson from Ivar Bardsen's Sea Card of 1490.

It should also be noted that, similar to the gore mapmapker, Mercator was not alone. Another world map of 1565 by Paolo Forlani also shows Greenland as an island (Figure 12). Greenland appears at the top middle of this map under the name “Grvtlanda.” While it is nowhere near as detailed as Mercator's map, it proves that other mapmakers of that time knew that Greenland was an island.

Figure 12. Paolo Forlani's 1565 map also shows Greenland as an island.

It would seem that the source for these maps was neither the 16th century nor any of the centuries recently before, but at a far earlier time when the climate was sufficiently warm to have permitted sea travel in the northern latitudes.

The Warm Periods

Recent studies of Greenland ice cores show that decreased levels of chloride correspond to warmer temperatures in the North Atlantic, and reduced sea ice. Since the last ice age, maximum warmth occurred during the period 2200 to 1800 BC (4,200 to 3,800 years before the present).† These cores further show that the sea became colder for the next 900 years, and then almost as warm again as in the earlier period from about 900 BC to 600 AD. The Historical Atlas of Canada states: “Between 5000 and 2000 BC climatic warming reached a maximum: lichen woodland and boreal forest extended north of their modern limit; grassland, parkland, and deciduous woodland were more extensive than now.”‡

The Ice Chronicles, Paul Andrew Mayewski & Frank White, p. 121.

Historical Atlas of Canada, Vol. I, Harris, 1987, plate 4.

Thus, Greenland could have been circumnavigated during two different periods within the past 6,000 years. Given what is known of early civilizations, the most likely period when someone might have sailed around Greenland would have been during the second warm period from 900 BC to 600 AD. Presumably, during this period both the North Sea and the waters surrounding Antarctica were warmer.

While the Viking perod of 800 to 1100 AD was warmer than recent times, it was colder than the above-mentioned periods. And while it might have been possible for the Vikings to sail around Greenland, there is no indication that they did so, and the Vikings are not known to have made maps. No Norse sagas suggest that the Vikings went to Antarctica.

Amazing Anachronisms

There are many other map mysteries that also appear to relate to earlier voyages. To name a few, the Waldseemüller map of 1507 illustrates the western side of South America and shows it accurately with regard to longitude. But the first known western explorer to reach beyond the western side of the continent was Magellan, in 1521. (He did not explore the western side of South America, but headed directly for Asia.) There are maps showing Hudson Bay going back to 1540 and perhaps 1507. Henry Hudson didn't arrive there until 1608, and his men didn't return after his death until 1611. The portolan maps of Western Europe going back to the 13th century are accurate for longitude—something western Europeans could not determine on a regular basis (without an eclipse) until after Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in 1610. It was not until the end of the 17th century that sufficient studies of these moons had been made to use them as the timing device for obtaining longitude in mapmaking.

The 16th-century maps of Antarctica and Greenland appear to represent sophisticated voyages and mapmaking from a time long before western Europe begain its era of exploration in the late 14th century. The maps showing the polar regions at a time when the Earth was warmer demonstrate the antiquity of the origins of these maps. Perhaps modern science will take these maps as further clues to our meteorological past, and future explorers will discover the true origins of these anachronistic sources.

Illustration Credits

  1. Globe gores (unknown cartographer), ca. 1535. Stuttgart, Germany: Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Württemberg State Library).
  2. Antarctica. Modern Map, New York Times archives.
  3. Orontius Fineus (Oronce Fine), 1494-1555. Noua, et integra uniuersi orbis descriptio / Hermannus Venraed, ad Lectorem, en tibi Candide Lector Geographian hactenus non uisam, accurate[que] impressam Orontius Fineus Delphinates lepido uultu offert …
    Washington, DC: Library of Congress
  4. Gerard Mercator, 1538. World Map. In Fite & Freeman, A Book of Old Maps. 1926. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  5. Piri Reis, 1513. Portion of a world map. Istanbul, Turkey: Topkapi Palace Museum.
  6. Antarctic Peninsula, 2007. Google Earth view of NASA Image.
  7. Gerard Mercator, 1569. Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usam Navigantium Emendate Accommodata. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Maritiem Museum Prins Hendrik.
  8. Northern Greenland, modern map.
  9. Lauge Koch, 1865. Greenland map. Figure 20 in Survey of North Greenland.
  10. Gerard Mercator, 1538. World Map. In Fite & Freeman, A Book of Old Maps. 1926. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  11. Paolo Forlani. Published by F. Berteli, 1565. Vniversale descrittione di tvtta la terra conoscivta fin qvi.
    Washington, DC: Library of Congress.