When Was the First Map Produced and More Questions From Our Readers

You asked, we answered

Ask Smithsonian November 2016
Melinda Beck

In “How Data Won the West” in the July/August issue of Smithsonian, Clive Thompson wrote that “we’ve had maps for about 8,000 years.” What were the first maps ever produced?

Alex Pappas, Brooklyn, New York

There’s no definitive answer, says Jim Harle, maps curation volunteer at the National Museum of Natural History, though scholars believe there are candidates among several carvings on rocks, tusks and bones that are more than 10,000 years old. Some see maps in the more primitive carvings, others only in more complex ones. The extensive petroglyphs (illustrated above) at and near Bedolina, in the Italian Alps, include the perhaps best-known ancient topographic map; they were carved over an 8,000-year period, ending about 1,000 B.C.

How many African-American soldiers served in the Revolution? In the Civil War? In all American wars combined?

Sofia Hendrikx, Ghent, Belgium

African-Americans have served in every American war, but pre-Civil War numbers are inexact, says Krewasky Salter, guest curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. During the Revolution, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 black soldiers fought for the Colonies, and an uncertain number fought for the British. During the Civil War, more than 179,000 served in the Union Army and 20,000 to 30,000 in the Union Navy. Estimates for earlier conflicts, such as the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, are soft, so it would take a herculean effort to come up with a precise total. Anyone bold enough to try might start with the National Archives database.

Why do experts keep saying World War II ended on August 15, 1945? When the Japanese surrendered, it was August 14 here in the United States.

Kim Nofsinger, Scottsdale, Arizona

Historians usually record events based on the time and date where they occurred, says Jennifer L. Jones, chair and curator of armed forces history at the National Museum of American History. The United States is 13 time zones behind Japan. It was August 15 in Tokyo when Emperor Hirohito—having survived a coup attempt by militarists who wanted to prolong the war—announced the surrender via radio. But it was August 14 in Washington when President Harry Truman made his announcement, at a press conference.

My grandmother says letters from my grandfather in Chicago used to reach her in St. Louis in just a day. Was that possible?

Anne Conley, Portland, Oregon

Not only possible, but likely, says Nancy Pope, curator at the National Postal Museum. From 1864 to 1977, intercity mail was carried on trains and sorted by postal clerks en route for distribution to neighborhood post offices. And in big cities, mail was delivered multiple times a day. A letter leaving Chicago in the morning could be processed on the train, taken to the St. Louis post office and delivered the same day.

It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.