The Waldseemüller Map: Charting the New World

Two obscure 16th-century German scholars named the American continent and changed the way people thought about the world

The Waldseemüller map, printed in 1507, depicted the New World in a new way. (Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)
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This was an astonishing statement. Histories of New World discovery have long told us that it was only in 1513—after Vasco Núñez de Balboa had first caught sight of the Pacific by looking west from a mountain peak in Panama—that Europeans began to conceive of the New World as something other than a part of Asia. And it was only after 1520, once Magellan had rounded the tip of South America and sailed into the Pacific, that Europeans were thought to have confirmed the continental nature of the New World. And yet here, in a book published in 1507, were references to a large world map that showed a new, fourth part of the world and called it America.

The references were tantalizing, but for those studying the Introduction to Cosmography in the 19th century, there was an obvious problem. The book contained no such map.

Scholars and collectors alike began to search for it, and by the 1890s, as the 400th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage approached, the search had become a quest for the cartographical Holy Grail. "No lost maps have ever been sought for so diligently as these," Britain's Geographical Journal declared at the turn of the century, referring both to the large map and the globe. But nothing turned up. In 1896, the historian of discovery John Boyd Thacher simply threw up his hands. "The mystery of the map," he wrote, "is a mystery still."

On March 4, 1493, seeking refuge from heavy seas, a storm-battered caravel flying the Spanish flag limped into Portugal's Tagus River estuary. In command was one Christoforo Colombo, a Genoese sailor destined to become better known by his Latinized name, Christopher Columbus. After finding a suitable anchorage site, Columbus dispatched a letter to his sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, reporting in exultation that after a 33-day crossing he had reached the Indies, a vast archipelago on the eastern outskirts of Asia.

The Spanish sovereigns greeted the news with excitement and pride, though neither they nor anybody else initially assumed that Columbus had done anything revolutionary. European sailors had been discovering new islands in the Atlantic for more than a century—the Canaries, the Madeiras, the Azores, the Cape Verde islands. People had good reason, based on the dazzling variety of islands that dotted the oceans of medieval maps, to assume that many more remained to be found.

Some people assumed that Columbus had found nothing more than a few new Canary Islands. Even if Columbus had reached the Indies, that didn't mean he had expanded Europe's geographical horizons. By sailing west to what appeared to be the Indies (but in actuality were the islands of the Caribbean), he had confirmed an ancient theory that nothing but a small ocean separated Europe from Asia. Columbus had closed a geographical circle, it seemed—making the world smaller, not larger.

But the world began to expand again in the early 1500s. The news first reached most Europeans in letters by Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine merchant who had taken part in at least two voyages across the Atlantic, one sponsored by Spain, the other by Portugal, and had sailed along a giant continental landmass that appeared on no maps of the time. What was sensational, even mind-blowing, about this newly discovered land was that it stretched thousands of miles beyond the Equator to the south. Printers in Florence jumped at the chance to publicize the news, and in late 1502 or early 1503 they printed a doctored version of one of Vespucci's letters, under the title Mundus Novus, or New World, in which he appeared to say that he'd discovered a new continent. The work quickly became a best seller.

"In the past," it began, "I have written to you in rather ample detail about my return from those new re­gions...and which can be called a new world, since our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and they are entirely new matter to those who hear about them. Indeed, it surpasses the opinion of our ancient authorities, since most of them assert that there is no continent south of the equator....[But] I have discovered a continent in those southern regions that is inhabited by more numerous peoples and animals than in our Europe, or Asia or Africa."

This passage has been described as a watershed moment in European geographical thought—the moment at which a European first became aware that the New World was distinct from Asia. But "new world" didn't necessarily mean then what it means today. Europeans used it regularly to describe any part of the known world that they had not previously visited or seen described. In fact, in another letter, unambiguously attributed to Vespucci, he made clear where he thought he had been on his voyages. "We concluded," he wrote, "that this was continental land—which I esteem to be bounded by the eastern part of Asia."

In 1504 or so, a copy of the New World letter fell into the hands of an Alsatian scholar and poet named Matthias Ringmann. Then in his early 20s, Ringmann taught school and worked as a proofreader at a small printing press in Strasbourg, but he had a side interest in classical geography—specifically, the work of Ptolemy. In a work known as the Geography, Ptolemy had explained how to map the world in degrees of latitude and longitude, a system he had used to stitch together a comprehensive picture of the world as it was known in antiquity. His maps depicted most of Europe, the northern half of Africa and the western half of Asia, but they didn't, of course, include all the parts of Asia visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century, or the parts of southern Africa discovered by the Portuguese in the latter half of the 15th century.


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