How Early European Mapmakers Used Animals to Document the World

Explore the variety of ways in which animals helped early mapmakers understand the expanding world of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries

By Harvard Library

Les Marins Monstres & Terrestres from La Cosmographie Universelle (1565) by Sebastian MünsterHarvard Library

Early European mapmakers charted various aspects of the world including geographical features, fabled histories, constellations, and animals. These maps were important not only for navigating the globe, but also for explaining new environments, warning about dangerous and unknown territories, and highlighting key historical events

Islandia (1598) by Abraham OrteliusHarvard Library

In his detailed map of Iceland, Abraham Ortelius depicted a number of terrestrial and aquatic animals, which were potential threats to humans.

Notice the fantastical creatures depicted in the waters south of Iceland. A bear-like fish has sharp, protruding teeth, while a winged fish on the left eats another smaller fish.

In the upper right-hand corner, polar bears dominate the scene. They scurry and wrestle over various blocks of broken ice.

The imminent dangers posed by the environment are emphasized by the explosive volcano Hekla at the center of the map.

Hemispaerium Scenographicum Australe Coeli Stellati et Terrae (1708) by Andreas CellariusHarvard Library

Andreas Cellarius mapped the constellations of the southern hemisphere based on classical treatises and observations from 16th century Dutch explorers such as Pieter Keyser and Frederick de Houtman.

We can find "New World" creatures such as a chameleon about to enjoy a flying insect...

...or a toucan!

Alongside more classical figures such as the bull (taurus).

Asia recens summa cura delineata (1632) by Hendrik HondiusHarvard Library

Many early mapmakers struggled with charting not only well-documented territories, but also areas to which few Europeans had travelled. Without reliable information, many mapmakers added creative embellishments and fictive geographical features to fill in the large stretches of unknown territory.

In this region outlined in green, cartographer Hendrik Hondius depicted the Chimay Lake, the fabled source of the Ganges River, which historians now know never existed.

Fear about the unknown and unexplored territories around the Indian Ocean is further highlighted by depictions of horn-playing mermen luring ships to their doom.

Guinea (1708) by Peter Schenk & and G. ValckHarvard Library

Animals were depicted on maps not only to highlight unique features of the environment, but also for their economic value.

Elephants on the right-hand side of this map of western Africa were considered important commodities because of their valuable ivory tusks.

Aquatic-legged cherubs in the lower left carry a giant tusk, further highlighting its importance in trade.

Africae Nova Tabula (1657) by Hendrik Hondius and Johannes JanssoniusHarvard Library

What animals and other anomalies can you find on this 17th century map of Africa?

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