Some uses of maps have remained relatively unchanged through the ages. We still use them to find out where we are and how to get somewhere else. Governments still use them to say “this is mine, that is yours”. But as our planet has now been pretty comprehensively mapped, we don’t use them to say “I got here first” that much anymore.
Which makes maps that prove that someone really did get there first extremely coveted and extremely valuable in about equal measures. The combination of value, national pride and good old human greed also makes early maps a fertile breeding ground for trickery and fakery.
The discovery of the fourth continent, after Europe, Asia and Africa, seems to have had more than its fair share of controversy.
Popular opinion holds that Cristoforo Columbo, better known as the anglicised Christopher Columbus, got to America first in 1492. Of course first is a loaded term; Columbus may have been the first European to set foot in the Americas but he certainly wasn’t the first human on the continent. But did Columbus get there first?
Probably not; there’s now growing evidence that a Norse expedition, led by Leif Ericson, landed on what is now Newfoundland in the 11th Century after being blown off course by a storm when travelling from Norway to Greenland. According to the Book of Icelanders, compiled around 1122 by Ari The Wise, Ericson first landed on a rocky and desolute place he named Helluland or Flat Rock Land, which may have been Baffin Island and then sailed for a further two days before landing again in a place he named Vinland, often mistranslated literally as Wineland but more likely to mean Land with Great Grass Fields.
Of course it would help if there was a map of Vinland, to underscore the I got there first point.
Luckily in 1957 a map of Vinland came to light, as part of short medieval text called the Hystoria Tartaorum (The Tartar Relation). The Vinland map seemed to be dated from the 15th Century and in true mappa mundi tradition showed the world as it was known then, with Africa, Asia, Europe as well as a landmass labelled Vinland to the South West of Greenland. Coincidentally, three years after the Vinland map emerged, an archeological dig uncovered a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Surely this proved the authenticity of the Vinland map?
In the years since, the Vinland map has attracted controversy with as many people believing its authenticity as those who thought it a fake.
Enter John Paul Floyd, a Glaswegian researcher who seems to have proved that the parchment the Vinland map is drawn on is a genuine 15th Century relic. That’s the parchment, not the map though. Floyd has discovered that the Hystoria Tartaorum was displayed at an event in 1892 and again in 1926 and on both occasions the document was conspicuously map free. Add to this the fact that the Vinland map uses textual idioms more consistent with the 17th Century than 200 years ealier and that the map includes characteristics found in 18th Century reproductions of a 1463 world map and all the evidence is pointing to the Vinland map being a fake created sometime between the 1920s and the 1950s.
Leif Ericson may have been the first European to visit and colonise the Americas, but there still seems to be no map known that says he did it first.
If you’re one of the people who have a Times and Sunday Times paywall account, there’s more coverage on the Sunday Times website; for the remaining 99.999% of the population, there’s additional coverage over at BoingBoing.