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What is a Map

What is a Map?

A map is defined as a representation of the physical characteristics of a place. They provide a wealth of information and help us navigate from one place to another. As you can imagine from this definition, maps may take many different forms.

Click here for an in-depth discussion on how to communicate with maps

Types of Maps

Today, maps are grouped into either reference maps or thematic maps. Both provide information to the viewer, but with different forms of information. A reference map focuses on displaying geographical features, most commonly used for navigation purposes. As you can see in the image below, there is the EuroVelo3, one of the many cycle routes through Europe. 

Eurovelo3 cycle route map

A thematic map will display spatially referenced information. For example, statistics about a place like the literacy rate in a region, or vaccination uptake. Just as the image below shows information about Covid vaccination around the world.

New York Times world map displaying fully vaccinated status for Covid.

Elements Included in a Map

Maps will typically, but not always, include a range of important elements to help the viewer understand and process the information. Symbols will represent places of interest, geographical features, and transportation routes. These will then be accompanied by a legend to explain the symbology. 

Maps should always include some form of geographical reference, a north arrow and a scale bar. The north arrow is important for orienting the map and accurately navigating with it. A scale bar helps you understand the distance between features on a map, and provides better context for the landscape.

important elements to include in a map (

Now you understand the basic definition of what a map is, and what elements and features you can expect to find on a map. So, how far back in history have humans been using maps? How have maps and map making materials evolved throughout history?

Understanding the History and Evolution of Maps

Evidence of Early Maps

Maps have existed in one form or another for as long as humans have. We know that early humans used rudimentary maps drawn in the earth, on cave walls, tusks, or bones to provide guidance regarding routes and risk along the way. However, not many of these have survived the passage of time, and it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain whether they qualify as a ‘map’ at all.

Housed in the British Museum, London is the Imago Mundi, a clay tablet thought to be the oldest recorded map — dating from the 5th century BC. Collected from the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq, the Imago Mundi displays a map of the known world at that time. It is centered around Babylon, but includes several cities and bodies of water. The features on the map are even labeled! 

While geographical features are clear, the map also includes elements from mythology. Indeed, maps at the time were not solely focused on providing information, but also played a role in storytelling. The focus of religion in society can be clearly seen in maps where they’re either centered on Jerusalem, or indicate the direction of Mecca.

The Greek philosopher Ptolemy coined the term ‘Geography’ and established that the world was round. A critical belief that was lost (or simply ignored) over time, only to be refreshed in the Middle Ages.

In ancient times, maps were either physically constrained to cave walls, or simply too rare to be widely used. Moving into the Middle Ages, maps became more commonplace, mainly due to changing technology in map production.

The Renaissance: A Boom in Map Production and Use

When maps had to be hand painted onto parchment or paper, they were rare, and typically only for the elite of society. However, with the development of engraved printed maps they could be produced faster — and in greater numbers. 

The Renaissance period came with it an increase in ocean exploration, which coincided with the developments in mapping technology. Ptolemy’s work was rediscovered in the late 1400s, and with that, a greater understanding of map projections ensued. 

Unfortunately, Ptolemy’s navigational maps had some flaws and made sailing over oceans difficult. The Mercator projection was developed in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator, it takes into consideration the curve of the earth and meant that sailors didn’t have to recalculate their route as they sailed. 

Maps held such high value during this period, that maps themselves were considered the real prize when pirates seized a rival ship. Their value didn’t decrease over time, and certainly people began to find other uses for maps. 

Maps to Fuel the Industrial Revolution

During the industrial revolution, maps became even more common and portable. This was important to provide much needed information on train routes, which were becoming an exceedingly popular mode of transport at the time.

The industrial revolution was also a time of great focus on social wellbeing. It’s around this time that maps are first used for collecting geospatial data on demographics within society. In 1854 John Snow developed a map of the London cholera outbreak, which ended up changing how we understand communicable disease. Charles Booth created a map illustrating crime rates and income by color coding houses in the 1880s.  

Maps in the Digital Age

Fast forward to the modern age and maps are not only produced quickly but are available in digital format as well. Maps of anything and everything can be printed at home, in color, or black and white at the click of a button, depending on your preferences. 

GPS connects our devices and mobile phones so that our location can be updated, and maps can be accessed on the go, from almost anywhere. However, some now believe that this technological revolution has only served to erode our understanding of the world around us. Certainly, it’s affected our abilities to navigate without a device.

It’s not just the maps themselves that have been through a technological revolution, the use of geospatial data has gained momentum. All our devices and memberships collect spatially referenced data which can be analyzed by anything from the real estate industry, marketing, or government.  

How Maps are Made

Those that make maps are known as cartographers, and cartography is the art of map making. There’s a whole range of things to consider when making a map — including who it will be used by and what its purpose of use is. 

Early maps were mostly hand-drawn or printed, but in 1796 a new method called lithography was invented. Lithography is a printing technique that made producing maps easier, and cheaper, meaning more maps. Unlike other forms of printing, it does not rely entirely on physical contact because it is more of a chemical reaction that inhibits the ink from staining areas that aren’t included in the print. 

Today maps are made with sophisticated computer programs and the help of the global positioning system (GPS). Likewise, modern day printers are affordable enough for anyone to have at home. 

Click here to learn how maps are made in a digital age

In Summary — The Who, What, Where, and Why?

Maps have progressed from being used in storytelling and for primarily navigational purposes, to the vast sources of information we see today. They are accessible and have the ability to transform the well-being of a population or the profits of a business. 

While each map may have a different purpose, for example a reference map versus a thematic map, they all include similar features. Maps should have reference for location like a north arrow, labels and scale bar, and should have a legend to make sense of any symbology.

Essentially, everyone will use a map in their lifetime. Whether it’s to navigate a hiking trail or a road trip on holiday, or in your profession — maps are essential and a part of everyday society. While there can be complex processes behind the development of a map, they can also be very bare-bones and basic. 

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.

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