Cartographic Communication Dealing With Maps Term Paper

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Cartographic Communication

Early Maps of the Americas: Tools for Communication & Cultural Understanding

The very early maps that were drawn during the time of the great discoveries in and around the Americas by European explorers served several key purposes. The value of those maps was far more than just showing where the discoveries had been unearthed, where the people, lands and mountains and new waters had been found. The early maps, some considered crude by today's standards, provided a channel of communication for future explorations. Additionally, they were powerful tools in the hands of European nations anxious to expand their global territories by colonizing the Americas. Looking back into that period of history, some of the work that cartographers and explorers did through and with maps is actually remarkable in its sophistication. This paper reviews and analyzes the early maps of the Americas, the men who created them, the institutions that produced and promoted them based on data and rough maps brought back to Europe by explorers, and the purposes - especially their communicative capabilities - they served in terms of the development of colonial properties for Spain, England, and Portugal among other European nations.


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Certainly the leaders in Portugal and Spain, among the most active early exploring nations, had volumes of logs, notes, journals and other historical records of discoveries made by their intrepid sailors. but, according to Monica L. Smith, writing in Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Smith, 2005), "...the visual stimulus of a map may be more powerful than the scholarly text that accompanies it." Smith explains. Indeed, by providing a visual image "the map gives another dimension to the image it represents," Smith states in her article, "and restricts, or even overtakes, the freedom of its reader to create an image of his own"

TOPIC: Term Paper on Cartographic Communication Dealing With Maps Assignment

There are implications of "linguistics" within the creation of a map, Smith asserts, through the process of the cartographer's "consciously created and manipulated" images. But Smith, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, believes while ancient maps do communicate dimensions that are extremely useful to historians, "the understanding of maps as interpretive documents" has had "...relatively little impact on depictions of the premodern past." That is due to the fact that scholarly illustrations of historic lands and cultures "tend to be of the absolutist variety." Smith believes the use of maps in textbooks too often communicate a narrow and shallow picture of early cultural groups. One map in a text "implies that a state or empire was always growing toward its eventual borders in a kind of long-term manifest destiny," Smith asserts.

What some cartographers communicate through modern-day maps is incomplete and inadequate in terms of reflecting early cultural experience, in Smith's view. For example, the Inka (also called Tawatinsuyu) flourished in South America from AD 1400 until this culture was defeated and "subsequently controlled by the Spanish" in 1532. Meanwhile, when looking at the shaded area reflecting Inka habitation on a map of Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia, the map tends to communicate to the reader / viewer that this area was solid, wall-to-wall Inka cultural domain. But in fact, the Inka state control was "concentrated on nodes of population and economic activity as well as on the means of moving between them," Smith explains. A "network of links and nodes" - and distinctive lines indicating roads leading to centers of population - on a map of the same area communicates a far more accurate message about the Inka society. "The Inkas understood or conceived of their domain through roads, and not through provinces," Smith writes, quoting 16th Century writer Cieza de Leon.

In her Conclusion, professor Smith insists that many maps of early discoveries and cultures should be re-drawn in order to communicate, "...A more comprehensive and accurate view of the ways in which political entities managed their resources." In fact, she continues, early empires and states were "behaviorally more complex than a simple territorial outline would imply"; and hence, those states and polities should be mapped more accurately so they communicate not just "an idealized projection of state authority" but rather "a depiction of the way in which ancient political domains were actually governed."

The problem with simple "territorial maps" that are drawn by cartographers based on "sit locations or artifact distributions" is that they tend to "obscure the multilayered processes of contact, interaction, domination, resistance, and tenuous integration that characterized premodern political systems," according to Smith. New cartographic strategies are needed, the professor asserts, strategies that "recognize the situational, flexible, and changeable nature" of cultural systems that existed in history.


The Inkas of course were not the only indigenous culture conquered by the Spaniards. Native peoples in many areas - including Mexico, California, Central America and indeed South America - were dominated (often cruelly) by the Spanish armies and missionaries. In all cases, maps provided the communication link from Spain to the myriad cultures and lands that the Spanish Crown coveted. In the words of Dr. John R. Hebert, Chief Geography and Map Division in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.), maps were also "vital to Spain's world power status" (, comprehensive changes in previously-held beliefs about the shape of the world and the areas within the Americas emerged due to map-making.

Without good navigational aids, the ability of Spain to exploit and profit from its discoveries would have been limited," according to the Web site Casa de Contratacion, which reflects the activities that took place in the "House of Trade" - a Spanish government agency founded by Queen Isabella of Castile in 1503, nine years after the discovery of the Americas in 1492. La Casa de Contratacion was supported by a 20% tax on most of the goods brought into Spain during the period between the 16th Century through the 16th Century; La Casa de Contratacion (located in Seville) governed and approved "...all voyages of exploration and trade," it licensed all the captains guiding ships; it trained pilots to sail the seas; it administered commercial law in that period; and importantly, it was the agency where artists, cartographers, navigators, archivists and record keepers were the overseers, researchers and producers of maps.

Indeed, Spain counted on the map-makers and map-keepers for prominence in the world. Spain needed La Casa de Contratacion's talent pool to successfully continue its exploration and colonization; the maps communicated invaluable information to Spanish leaders and explorers. This communication tool was like a guide, and proved invaluable during the long rough ocean voyages to points of discovery and conquest as well as upon return to the motherland, with the edited, revised version of maps in hand,

Moreover, La Casa de Contratacion was the institution in Spain that produced "and managed" the official secret Spanish map that was used " a template for the maps present in all Spanish ships during the 1500s"; that secret map was called the "Padron Real," according to the Web site, and from the first version in 1508, it was "constantly being improved." The Portuguese had a similar map template based on their explorers' discoveries; it was called the "Padrao Real" and it was updated (as were all maps) regularly in the Casa da India, the La Casa de Contratacion's counterpart in Lisbon.

The chief trainer of ship's pilots at La Casa de Contratacion was renowned explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who made two voyages to the new world. Mapmaker Diego Guiterrez was named to the position of cosmographer in La Casa de Contratacion, by royal appointment in 1554; he also worked on the Padron Real and in 1562, and he published one of the most famous maps in history, called "Americae...Descriptio."

Gutierrez' map was "spectacular and ornate" according to Hebert of the Library of Congress. Moreover, the map resulted from six engraved sheets which were "neatly joined to form a single map" measuring 93 by 86 centimeters; there are two known copies of the map, one in the Library of Congress and the other in the British Library. The map clearly was intended to communicate to other European powers that Spain was in control of everything the map depicted. That included the eastern coast of North America, all of Central and South America, and some parts of the western coasts of Europe and Africa. There is no latitude scale, but the Equator and the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are shown, along with images of parrots, monkeys, mermaids, sea creatures that Hebert calls "fearsome," cannibals, Patagonian giants, a volcano in Mexico and rivers, mountains and several settlements. Remember, this map was created in 1562, and yet Gutierrez' map actually gives the very first recorded reference to California, albeit the map shows "C. California" at the extreme southern tip of what is now known as Baja, California, Hebert explains.

In fact, the map communicates strong evidence, Hebert continues, that Columbus didn't really discover America, but rather the Spanish explorer Americus Vespucci (who was mentioned as an… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Cartographic Communication Dealing With Maps.  (2007, May 26).  Retrieved September 18, 2021, from

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"Cartographic Communication Dealing With Maps."  26 May 2007.  Web.  18 September 2021. <>.

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"Cartographic Communication Dealing With Maps."  May 26, 2007.  Accessed September 18, 2021.