Maps and Myths

Map and map-forms have typically received less attention in anthropology compared to other modes of visual media, as I discussed in my previous post. Yet, there is great scholarly and public interest in maps. A digital search for publications in English on maps and myths yields, amongst other items,  “Myths on Maps,” a digital project by Laurel Bowman on Greek and Roman texts that identifies specific geographic locations in and around ancient Greece as well as Hawes’ (2017) edited volume on the ‘storied landscapes’ of ancient Greece. “Myth-making” is exemplified in Seaver’s (2004) exposé on the ‘Vínland Map’ and its public reception as historical evidence for pre-Columbian, Norse expeditions to the eastern coastline of Canada and the United States. Alternatively, “maps embedded in myths” take center stage in Havrelock’s (2011) critical narrative on conceptualization of the Jordan River as a cartographic line that divides the “ordered world to the west” from the “apparent chaos to the east.” In The Phantom Atlas,  Brooke-Hitching (2016) tells us about cartographic “phantoms”—that is, the “world as it was thought to be” through “myths, lies and blunders” on maps.

Anthropologists have the opportunity to position themselves to further engage with cognitive neuroscientists and linguists, ecologists and geographers.

The social life of maps is a recurring theme in these works, reminding us that these visual media are made by individuals with specific social and political interests, for social groups with similar interests in a given society. Map making is therefore influenced by societal factors, national styles of science, competing research traditions, and culture—themes that are often examined by historians of science, such as the History of Cartography Project.

Myths about Maps

In this post, I focus on myths about maps (broadly defined). Making explicit prevailing ideas and concepts about maps can help us to understand better the graphic summaries of spatial information in digital environments, how these models are made, why they work, and how we might critically assess maps and map-forms to gain deeper insights into complex phenomena.  

Here is a list of just a few myths about maps that we must shake loose in an era of growing geographically-referenced digital information, spatial modeling, and cyber-infrastructures:

Myth #1:  Maps are objective, value-free representations of real world phenomena

Representations of real world phenomena are, by nature, generalizations of a complex reality. Humans make the models to draw attention to some particular facet or phenomena of interest (Figure 1).  If we had wanted to ‘show everything,’ a map-model would not be needed; we would do better to see ‘every detail’ in the real world.

Figure 1. a. From a Munich city map with streets and locations of points of interest such as museums, to b. ‘mapping the Infrared Universe’ (NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team). Neha Gupta

A map is a graphic summary of spatial information (MacEachren 1995), created for the specific purpose of representing some aspect of a detail-rich, complex 3D world onto a sheet of paper (2D space) or a digital screen. The map-model is necessarily selective and value-laden, as I will discuss in detail later.

 Myth #2:  Maps do not lie

This myth, taken from Monmonier’s (1996How to Lie with Maps, is meant to promote healthy scepticism when we look at a map, much in the same way that we must think critically when evaluating numerical and verbal information (Levitin 2017). Each and every map that exists today, and others that we have yet to create, has at least one author, if not more. As Monmonier has convincingly demonstrated, these authored works are subject to ‘distortions,’ some that reflect ‘ignorance,’ others that are deliberate, and yet others that are malicious. This situation is best exemplified when we have multiple people with different goals and aims utilizing the same spatial data.

Myth #3:  Maps are just pretty pictures 

This remark is commonplace in many disciplines, typically where geospatial tools and technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) are employed. In this conceptualization (Figure 2), visualization falls within a hierarchy of GIS tasks; the most complex and prestigious are analytical tasks, followed by data management in second position, with visualization as the least prestigious and most simple of tasks. Traditional simple map visualization capabilities in GIS are downplayed as basic communication tools. This typically means that data analysis offers ways to explore and generate new knowledge. This view precludes the recognition of information visualization as a process for generating knowledge, something that is now acknowledged in many fields of study, including the digital humanities and geography.

Figure 2. Maps are typically conceptualized as simple tasks that have little or no prestige, a tool for communication rather than for building knowledge. Neha Gupta

Myth #4:  Maps represent things as they are

Maps, like other material culture in human societies, are most effective when they serve specific interests (Wood and Fels 1992). Under this model, the map reflects the social and political interests of authors who often have access to specialized tools and technologies, suggesting the highly structured nature of social groups, of which map-makers are members. In this context, authored works tell us what particular social groups thought the world was, based on their aspirations and anxieties—that is, how groups perceived their world to be. Putting maps back within their social context by acknowledging these factors opens conceptual space to better understand what makes some maps and map-forms more effective than others.

This view creates opportunities to ask how early human ancestors conceived and conceptualized their world, and whether they created map-forms that might be recovered and documented through archaeological investigation.

More fundamentally, with growing interest in geographic and spatial methods, anthropologists have the opportunity to position themselves to further engage with cognitive neuroscientists and linguists, ecologists and geographers, amongst others regarding issues of visual and spatial thinking, cognition, and territoriality. 

Got a map myth? Share it! Neha can be found on Twitter @archaeomap

Neha Gupta is a recent Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) postdoctoral fellow in geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

Kathryn Sampeck is contributing editor for the Archaeology Division’s AN column.

Cite as: Gupta, Neha. 2017. “Maps and Myths.” Anthropology News website, November 10, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.680

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