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Cartographic Connections: What is a Map?

What is a Map?

A map is defined as a representation of the whole or a part of an area. Maps are usually prepared on a flat surface, but globes are also maps in that they represent the entire earth. Although we think of maps as depicting geographical areas, they can also be used to represent other areas, such as the heavens or parts of the human body. We therefore say that explorers map the earth, astronomers map the heavens, and geneticists map chromosomes. For our purposes in Cartographic Connections, we consider a map any representation of a geographic area – that is, a part or all of the earth’s surface. That surface usually contains many things that the map maker wants us to see in one image, for example, roads, cities, and lakes. Maps above all help us to graphically display spatial relationships. By using a map, we can show the relationship between one feature -- such as a mountain -- to others, such as rivers or cities. Maps can depict many types of phenomena in the encounter between people and place. They may reveal natural encounters as people represent the physical environment, cultural encounters as they show where two or more groups of people interact, political encounters as two or more nations come in contact, and technological encounters as a result of humankind’s ingenuity in developing transportation systems, agricultural areas, and mining locations.

Maps are most often drawn or printed on paper, but they may also be produced on any surface. They may be drawn in the sand or on leather hides. In some parts of the world, people make maps out of anything handy, for example, sticks or other objects. As long as they show a place, and can help people understand the relationship between spatial phenomena, they are really maps. Some maps take even more unusual forms. Certain archaeologists believe that some petroglyphs (images incised into rock surfaces) and pictographs (images painted on rock surfaces) may be maps because they appear to show information about places, such as hunting areas, water holes, and routes of travel. Because all people think in terms of where things are in relationship to where other things are (for example home in relation to school) we should realize that many maps are never produced in flat form at all but are only in our minds; these are called “mental maps.”

We commonly use them to communicate graphic information about places to others. Maps are used for many purposes in daily life -- to help people navigate from place to place, to identify real estate, to indicate areas where certain things (like coal or oil) are found. Politicians use maps to show territories of their political constituents, and advertisers may use maps to direct us to their products and services.

Cartographers make maps. You become a cartographer when you draw a map to help someone find your home. This happens when you translate your mental map into a graphic representation by taking pencil to paper and showing where things are in relationship to each other. Because you draw that map by hand and make only one copy, it is considered a “manuscript map.” If you were to produce a number of copies (on a printing press or your computer) it would be a “printed” map.

When you draw a map, you become part of a long tradition stretching back thousands of years. You join other cartographers in the field called cartography – the art and science of map making. Although we may be prone to associate maps with particular periods in world history, such as the age of European exploration, it is safe to say that all peoples make and use maps of some type.

For more information on the basics of cartography, see:

Brown, Lloyd A. The Story of Maps (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977).
Thrower, Norman J. W. Maps and Civilization 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
Wilford, John Noble Mapmakers 2nd edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).