Review of the Historical Importance of the Oldest World Map (continued)


California Island on 1418 Map

One of the more unusual features of the 1418 map is the portrayal of the West Coast of North America as an Island (arrow). We have designated this feature as "Island California" or Diagnostic Geographical Marker #4. Some critics have suggested that the 1418 Ming Map is a "hoax" because they believe that Mo Yi-tong copied this mistake of "Island California" from a 17th century French map. Let's take a look at the evidence.


Nicholas Sanson Map 1656

This is a French map from the 17th century. As we can see, the portrayal of California Island on the French map is quite similar to the version of California Island that we see on the Ming Map. And that's about as far as the similarities go. Note for example that the French map has no Polar Islands; it has a distinct Hudson Bay that is not seen at all on the 1418 Ming Map; and the French map shows distinctly Florida, the Antilles, and the Gulf of Mexico. In each case, these accurate geographical features that were well known to 18th century cartographers the world round do not appear on Mo Yi-tong's map. Furthermore, there is no Southern Bulge on South America's West Coast; and there is no South Seas Australia. Since Island California is the only significant similarity between the French map and the 1418 Map, we can reasonably conclude that Mo Yi-tong did not borrow from the French.


Island California on Sanson's Map 1656

Let's take a closer look at Island California on Sanson's Map. There are two clues on this map that reveal the origins of this mysterious concept of Island California. At the very top of the map along the northern peninsula, we see the words: "Aquabella de Catio." My associate Victor DeMattei, a Balkans historian, informs me that this is a Venetian phrase meaning: "the Beautiful Waters of Cathay." Use of the word "Cathay" immediately brings to mind the wandering Venetian explorer, Marco Polo. There is substantial evidence that Marco Polo explored the West Coast of North America during his travels to the Far East in the 13th century. The Venetian's Travelogue refers to a Vermilion dye that was used in China; and it mentions red pearls that were imported to Japan. Both the red dye and the red pearls have their origin in the region of the Gulf of California that is clearly indicated on this French map as the "Vermilion Sea."


Marco Polo's California/Sylvanus Map, Venice, 1511

Yuan Dynasty explorers with Marco Polo produced this accurate map of the California Peninsula in the 13th century. Marco Polo brought copies of the Chinese maps back to Venice; and they subsequently were incorporated into maps by Venetian cartographers. In this example from Barnardus Sylvanus, we see the Peninsula of California within 15-degrees of the actual longitude of Baja California. The name "Zampagu" on the map identifies this as an island that the Venetians mistakenly thought was Marco Polo's "Japan." In Mo Yi-tong's day, California was known to be a peninsula of the American mainland. It therefore seems likely that he chose to portray the concept of Island California on his map because that was how it appeared on the original 1418 Ming World Map. This map and a half-dozen other early Island California maps by Bodorne, Münster, and John Dee, were the legacy of Marco Polo. He brought Yuan Chinese maps back to Venice in 1295—and these seem to have arisen at various points in time to cause great confusion among Western historians.


Africa as Temporal Marker

Africa serves as the best temporal marker for the age and accuracy of the 1418 Map. This continent was the focus of surveys by Yuan Dynasty mariners; and a copy of the Yuan map shown here (circa 1290) is well known to scholars. A subsequent Ming Dynasty map of Africa was given to the Japanese circa 1402. A composite Korean map from this time period showing Old World continents is known in Japan as the Kangnido. The important point is that the Chinese had a particular interest in making accurate maps of Africa and the Indian Ocean; and in this effort they had considerable assistance from Muslim mariners and astronomers.


Strange Africa Continental Outline before 1500

Prior to the year 1500, European cartographers made many maps showing Africa—and they all looked very strange indeed. A few examples are shown here. These examples have little relationship to that actual outline of Africa. However, there is one place where the maps seem surprisingly accurate; and that is in the region of Cairo, the Isthmus of Suez, and the Sinai Desert. This is the region of the so-called "neck of Africa" where the continent is joined to the Middle East by a relatively narrow isthmus. This isthmus is about 150 kilometers in length from north-to-south. This diagnostic geographical marker is known as "the short neck of Africa." The irregular shapes of the continent indicate that European surveying and mapping technology were at a fairly primitive stage of development in the 15th century.


Long Neck Africa—a Cartographic Transformation circa 1500

Suddenly, in about the year 1500, Europeans witnessed an incredible jump in their cartographic technology. The focus of this jump was in Lisbon, Portugal. We are aware of this amazing breakthrough because Albert Cantino, who was an Italian spy for the Duke of Ferrera, managed to abscond with a copy of the super-secret King's Map of Portugal in 1502. Incredibly, the map was found hanging in an Italian butcher shop during the mid-19th century. It is only by accident that it has survived.

This map portrayed Africa for the first time with incredible accuracy. However, there was a singular irregularity in the map. This was the first known map in the West to show Africa with a "Long Neck." In this case, the neck appears to be about 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers long—or more than ten times the actual length at the Isthmus of Suez. Most European geographers realized that this was an incredible error. So it was a very short phenomenon in the history of cartography—lasting less than 50 years.

This same Cantino Map of 1502 has a number of other characteristics that seem to have been borrowed from Ming Chinese sources. These include the concept of a Detached Labrador (10) and a Perpendicular East Coast of North America (3). At the same time, other Portuguese maps bear evidence of borrowings from another Ming Map—the Shanhai Yudi Quantu (c. 1425). There are also accounts of European spies such as Nicolo da Conti (c. 1425) and Pero de Covilha (1487-1493) operating in the Far East. Their mission was to obtain copies of maps and to find out the secrets of commerce on the Indian Ocean. Thus, we have good reasons for concluding that the Portuguese obtained charts from Ming Dynasty mariners that showed a mistaken "Long Neck" version of Africa. The similarity of the Cantino Map to the Map by Mo Yi-tong suggests that this is an accurate portrayal of the original 1418 Ming World Map. In any case, this is a temporal geographic marker that predates any possible European source.


Normal Africa after 1500

We can appreciate the sudden leap that took place in European geography by looking at some of the typical examples of how Africa was portrayed on maps after the Year 1500. Notice that the concept of a "Long Neck" Africa was quickly abandoned; while the accurate configuration of the African coast was retained. Only the Chinese in association with Muslim allies could have achieved this level of accuracy prior to the 16th century. It was certainly not an achievement of the Portuguese. Thus, we have the answer to our question of "who was copying whom." The Portuguese spies must have obtained copies of Chinese maps such as the 1418 Ming Map.

A Ming Dynasty document that is called "Shanhai Yudi Quantu" marks the achievements of the Ming Navy in the early 15th century...

©2006 Gunnar Thompson, PhD 1418 Ming Map