September 29, 2023


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Old map of Africa – 1550

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One of the first maps of the entire African continent – Sebastian Munster

“Elephant & Monoculi” on the map

Europeans had only recently understood the coastal contours of Africa. Bartolomeo Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, while Vasco da Gama reached India by sea a decade later. The lower left cartouche shows navigation instructions from Lusitania (Iberian Peninsula) to Calcutta. The Portuguese caravel in the Gulf of Guinea represents trade and navigation and the lower left cartouche describes the voyage.
The map is richly illustrated with vignettes including tropical birds from southern Africa. In contemporary Nigeria and Cameroon, there is a Cyclops, or one-eyed man, a reference to the legendary *Monoculi* tribe. In southern Africa, an elephant with impressive tusks faces the Indian Ocean.
The map shows many kingdoms marked with a scepter within a crown. There are cities and towns all over the continent, especially along the northern coast and the Nile. These include Meroë, where the Nubian kings are said to be buried, and the legendary settlement of Prester John. The Nile originates from two lakes and a mountain range. While the mountains here are not labeled, they are recognizable as the mountains of the moon. Ptolemy describes such an arrangement of lakes and mountains in his works, although the precise identification of the mountains of the moon may have been a fourth-century addition to his text. 16th-century cartographers, including Waldseemüller and Münster, chose to follow the Ptolemaic model. This was typical of the cartographers of the time, who had abandoned Ptolemy’s coasts in favor of more recent Portuguese outlines, but who also stuck to Ptolemaic toponyms for the interior of Africa well into the nineteenth century. Münster also speculates on the sources of the Niger and Nile rivers, locating a curious forest in the middle of the Sahara desert, near the nome of Libya. However, a desert forest isn’t the most interesting geographic feature on the map. There is a curious bend in the Senegal River, which is actually the true path of the Niger River. However, the ring disappears on later maps and is only confirmed, in a modified state, by the expedition of the Lander brothers in 1830.

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