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This Stone Age Mural Might Be the Oldest Map Ever

But before it can be crowned oldest map, archaeologists have to figure out whether it is a map at all

Rendering of map by artist John Swogger. (Remixing Çatalhöyük )
smithsonian.com

For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been trying to find our way. Metaphorically, sure, but also literally. Even today, one of the best ways to get from one place to another is to follow a map. But humans have been making maps—some more accurate than other—for centuries, and now researchers may have uncovered the earliest map known to history. 

Michael Marshall at New Scientist explains that archaeologists had know for years about a mural created 8,500 years ago in Turkey, but that new research is suggesting that the painting is both a depiction of a volcanic eruption and a map. In a paper published recently in PLoS ONE, archaeologist Axel Schmitt argues that the series of dots on stone “depicts an explosive summit eruption of the Hasan Dağı twin-peaks volcano located ~130 km northeast of Çatalhöyük, and a birds-eye view of a town plan in the foreground.”

Schmitt has believed in this volcanic eruption hypothesis for a while. The problem was that he had no evidence that a volcano had actually erupted at that time, in that area. But in his new paper, he reveals the presence of rocks that do indeed suggest volcanic activity in the region.

While the painting is in the running for oldest map ever (if it is indeed a map), Marshall explains that it has competition:

Is the mural the oldest map? Early drawings are crude, so it is difficult to tell which truly are maps, but one putative map found in Spain (pictured below) dates to 14,000 years ago – more than 5000 years before the Çatalhöyük map. And another claimed map from the Czech Republic is 25,000 years old (see "Maps through the millennia").

Before the mural can be crowned oldest map, though, Schmitt has some work to do convincing people that it is, indeed, a map at all. Some have suggested that the series of dots are simply a leopard skin pattern. Schmitt is willing to compromise on this. "Zoomorphism could satisfy both interpretations," he told New Scientist. "Hasan Dağ could be seen as the 'leopard mountain'."

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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