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Uncommon Directions

By Robin Herbst | HUMANITIES, May/June 1999 | Volume 20, Number 3

More delicate than the historians’
are the map-maker’s colours.

--Elizabeth Bishop, "The Map"

In the beginning was…the map. "There has probably always been a mapping impulse in human consciousness," geographer J.B. Harley once wrote, "and the mapping experience, involving cognitive mapping of space, undoubtedly existed long before the physical artifacts we now call maps".

Harley’s colleague at the University of Wisconsin, David Woodward, picks up the thread. "If you look up the word ‘map’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, what you’ll find is a definition that involves some sort of representation of the Earth that is scaled, and relies on measurement, projected mathematically. That is a very Western view—also a very modern Western view, from around the seventeeth century," says Woodward. "When you look at other types of cultures—prehistoric and classical medieval in the West and non-West, then those types of parameters don’t apply. The idea of consistent measurement is not necessarily useful, and it is not the only way of representing the Earth. The OED implies some sort of physical thing that you can measure and check by walking on the land. But there are other forms of maps which chart the unseen, such as population density, the weather, or someone’s spiritual world…and that enlarges the subject."

Woodward and Harley launched a plan to generate a comprehensive reference work that would cover the history of cartography in all cultures and periods. They published the first volume in 1981. Harley died in 1991. Nineteen years and four books later, the question of what constitutes a "map" has taken center stage.

Volume 2, Book 3 is subtitled, Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies. In it, the editors and contributing scholars attempt to deal with the cartographic history of traditional societies and indigenous people ranging from inhabitants of the Marshall Islands and Aboriginal Australia to Inka and Inuit cultures.

In early discussions, Woodward and Harley focused on the need for a history that would replace earlier attempts by other scholars to catalog the development of mapmaking. Earlier volumes in the project covered prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, and cartography in the traditional Islamic and South Asian societies and the traditional East and Southeast Asian societies. Nearly from the beginning, the project raised persistent questions about the nature of maps and the human need to create graphic representations expressing their experience, history, spiritual life, and their understanding of real or imagined space. Book 3 sharply departs from a focus on Western cartographic tradition—a tradition out of which developed the modern abstract and mathematical map.

"It started when I was working on a section of Volume 1," says Woodward. "I wrote a chapter on medieval world maps…and what I had to do was to point out that the type of world that was being mapped was a spiritual world. Once that door was opened, it became apparent that there were all kinds of other spiritual subtexts to maps that people hadn’t really thought about, not just in the medieval world."

"Maps are seen through many different eyes," Woodward writes in the introduction. And with the help of anthropologists and ethnographers in Book 3 we are told we will learn to "read" maps as evidence of cognitive systems, material culture, and as social constructions. Woodward distinguishes between performance cartography (in which a society uses a performance—in the form of a dance, a poem, story or ritual—to communicate very specific knowledge about the environment) and material cartography (which not only includes the spatial "maps" Westerners are familiar with but also models, paintings, sculpture, or textiles).

Woodward, along with coeditor G. Malcolm Lewis, a former geography professor at the University of Sheffield in England, moved from the "practical" maps of the Middle Ages and detected a shift in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries toward a cosmographical subtext in Western maps.

"With the Islamic and South Asian volume, this became uppermost, the idea of cosmographical mapping," Woodward says. He adds that in studying China, which in terms of technology was a thousand years ahead of the West, he learned that Chinese maps were not constructed to express measurement or quantification. "It turns out that the main purpose of Chinese maps is much more allied to the arts of calligraphy and landscape painting.

"The lesson is that you find things you want to find—but the really close look shows a very different picture."

Take for instance the lukasa maps made by the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. This society uses mnemonic maps in the last two stages of initiation into their Budye society. In the third or lukala stage, an initiate is brought to a meeting house, where elders have drawn wall maps depicting sacred homes of the guardian spirits of Luba kingship and ancestral migratory paths, which initiates must learn. The fourth, most "esoteric" stage involves the lukasa (‘long hand’), or memory board, which is covered with beads and cowrie shells. Large beads and shells signify spirit capitals, lines of beads show migratory routes, and circles of bead refer to chieftaincies. The lukasa is read or sung to praise the region’s king, and charts his journeys and the locations of sacred lakes and trees. Different lukasas may share configurations of beads, but the interpretations of the kingship will vary with the particular praise singer. In this way the memory board resembles maps of other societies, which reflect selective omissions and inclusions by the mapmaker.

This tradition combines artifact with performance to produce a ritual device and not a map for wayfinding in the Western sense. The Luba’s memory board serves as a mnemonic for their performance, but in this case the artifact itself is used only as a cue for the actual presentation of the "map." As Woodward argues, by focusing on the physical "map" Westerners may be missing the point. In other words, "the play’s the thing"—and the physical representation takes a back seat.

"A lot of mapping in these cultures is not reliant on producing an artifact. Map as artifact is a Western idea. The process or performance of a map is more important to the people than the artifact."

Book 3 also deals with forms of mapping by Aboriginal Australian societies. According to Peter Sutton, the author of this section, most of these topographical representations—in the form of bark painting, rock art, or sand sculpture, among others—have religious content. The words "land," "country," "camp," and "home" are expressed using a single term in Aboriginal culture, and indicate a widespread and deep involvement with the landscape as home—made intelligible by ancestral pathways; a narrative embedded in the land. The stories these maps tell involve what’s been translated as the "Dreaming"—ancestral beings who travel the landscape along Dreaming tracks (popularized by Bruce Chatwin’s best-selling The Songlines). Dreamings are not idealized mythical beings but exhibit "all the faces of human virtue, vice, pleasure, and suffering," writes Sutton. "Although most are characterized as the animals and plants of Australia (e.g., Kangaroo, Long Yam), or as heroic individuals…some are less readily grasped as totemic beings by outsiders—Cough Dreaming, for example, or Dead Body Dreaming….Dreamings clearly are not just things that are good to eat. As totemic beings they are rather, as Claude Levi-Strauss has put it, ‘good to think [with].’"

Using natural pigments applied in a complex process to prepared bark, Aboriginal artists depict Dreaming sites schematically, rather than as actual copies of land forms. Often they are simply drawn, belying, according to Sutton, their "embodiment of complex social, ceremonial, and mythic meanings."

Elsewhere in Australia, toas, or waymarkers, are small sculptures depicting typical Aboriginal iconography, attached to a piece of wood that fits into the ground, and symbolizes a named place in the region. Usually a toa symbolically refers to a location’s natural features and the mythological events tied to that region. One toa, made of wood, string, and gypsum painted in ochres, depicts Lake Gregory. There are two protruding pieces of wood that represent peninsulas. The rest is painted with red stripes (depicting red stones), circles (swans’ nests), black tips (black stones) and white stripes (showing the boggy ground on the island).

Physical artifacts are used as mnemonic devices for more concrete purposes in the Marshall Islands, in the form of mattangs or stick charts. These are complex abstract devices for teaching the principles of swell refraction and intersection, and are used by the islanders as crucial navigational tools. "It’s an interesting example of one island group that uses an artifact as a memory tool," says Woodward. "The charts represent offshore ocean swell patterns refracted by island groups to form a sort of lattice. It’s similar to a radar navigational system—looking at two intersecting swells, you can get an idea of where you are. The Marshall Islands are the only group that uses them. Other island groups use systems of chanting, or things called star compasses which are laid out on the sand and poems are learned." The "sticks" that form the chart are the midribs of coconut leaves curved around a central point to model how swells from opposite directions refract around an island and intersect in nodes. As Ben Finney, the author of this chapter, points out, most of the charts that exist in museum collections today were collected in the nineteenth century, when islanders were frequently visited by Western ships: "…we must consider the possibility that these surviving examples may display Western influence."

These are only a few of the many map forms that Book 3 treats. It describes map-like artifacts ranging from khipus (knotted string devices used by the Inkas of the Central Andes to organize tribal and hierarchical data through a decimal system) to representational artifacts such as the Codex Xolotl. This cartographic history from Mesoamerica, dating from 1542, uses the Valley of Mexico as a backdrop to depict the narrative of Xolotl, a legendary thirteenth-century warlord. It indicates topographic and hydrographic features by hieroglyphic names of locations in the valley and beyond, and was painted on amtl paper, showing dim footprints along its edge that mark the path of Xolotl’s travels to create the boundaries of his future realm.

Writing a separate series of volumes for so-called "traditional" cartography might, says Woodward, appear to create a dichotomy between Western and "other." The problem, of course, is whether it is ever possible to treat another culture’s artifacts "on its own terms." Woodward admits that "the vast majority of evidence from traditional cartography comes from the encounters these societies had with the West, with inevitable acculturation." Still, he argues that the authors have been able to "glean clues" to the evidence and substance concerning "precontact" graphic and spatial representations.

Woodward says, "There’s been an explosion of interest in the map in the past twenty years. I think the culture in general is becoming more visual. People are waking up to the idea that the environment is important, and they’re interested in articulations of that environment."

The 639-page edition represents the midsection of this vast project. As Woodward writes in the preface, the twenty-year Cartography Project "has been rather like attempting to map a large mountainous, forested island without the benefit of a view from above….We may have climbed high enough that we will soon be able to see the whole island. But now," he continues, "there lurks the growing realization…that when we reach the summit it will become abundantly clear that our ‘island’ is firmly attached to a massive continent."

About the Author

Robin Herbst is a writer in Annapolis, Maryland.

Funding Information

The History of Cartography Project has received support from NEH for the production of Volume 1 and Volume 2, books 1, 2, and 3 since 1981.