29 Ancient Maps That Show How Our Ancestors Saw The World

Published May 10, 2017
Updated January 31, 2018

These ancient world maps might be inaccurate, but they were once thought to be exemplars of cartography.

Babylonian Ancient World Maps
Hecataeus Ancient World Maps
Posidonius Early World Maps
Pomponious Mela World Map
29 Ancient Maps That Show How Our Ancestors Saw The World
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When Earth's first people looked out around them, they couldn’t imagine how far the scope of the world extended beyond what stretched out before their own eyes. Their world was the land that surrounded and fed them, and as far as they knew, it extended no further.

Eventually, the earliest human civilizations tried to measure the extent of the world and made maps that showed what, to them, was the whole world.

The first of these ancient world maps was reportedly made in Babylon more than 2,500 years ago. It shows a world that extends little past their own empire, surrounded by bitter waters and pointed islands on which they believed no man could survive.

Those waters surrounded most of the extant ancient world maps. The world, to them, was a round disc surrounded by an ocean, and a place consisting only of Africa, Europe, and Asia.

As time passed, maps slowly grew larger as humans' knowledge of what lay outside of the Mediterranean grew. The northern parts of Europe were fleshed out, Britain was discovered, and, in time, little markings were made south of Egypt warning that no person could survive beyond this point.

These ancient world maps also became more and more accurate — until Christian theologians started insisting that the world was perfectly divided in the shape of a T, centered around Jerusalem. Under such influence, ancient world maps started showing an idealized vision of the real world, charted by Biblical events and often including places like the Garden of Eden and Magog as actual locations in the real world.

With the dawn of the age of exploration in the 15th century, though, our concept of the world started to open up once more. Slowly, world maps started fleshing out the east to include China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. And, at the same time, Chinese explorers extended their world maps, expanding the tiny space they'd once given to Europe into the large continent they now knew it to be.

Soon, the first globe was made the year before Christopher Columbus returned from the New World. It showed the world as a sphere, with a great, empty ocean where the Americas would soon be discovered.

When Columbus returned, world maps started to take the shape we know today. The Americas were slowly charted, Australia and New Zealand began to appear, and explorers slowly revealed the world in its full scope.

After this look at ancient world maps, check out more fascinating maps from the ancient world, or these 33 maps that explain America better than any textbook.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Oliver, Mark. "29 Ancient Maps That Show How Our Ancestors Saw The World." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 10, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/ancient-world-maps. Accessed May 19, 2024.