In 1929, a map was found inside Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, which had recently been converted into a museum. It was created by a Turkish admiral and cartographer named Piri Reis back in 1513, who used many sources and older maps to make it. The map is noteworthy because of its fairly accurate portrayal of the world at a time when global exploration was really just beginning to take off.
The map is also unique because it appears to detail Antarctica hundreds of years before the continent actually was discovered. What’s more, it seems to depict Antarctica at a very early age, before it was covered in ice.
So, what’s the real story behind the Piri Reis map? Does it’s accuracy, particularly its inclusion of Antarctica, provide evidence of a prehistoric seafaring civilization as some of claimed?
If pseudo-history and/or alternative facts are your thing, you might be disappointed.
Piri Reis created his map 21 years after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Unfortunately, only about one third of the map survives. However, the portion still in existence shows many parts of the world with reasonable accuracy.
The map depicts the western coasts of Europe and North Africa, and the coast of Brazil. It also includes many Atlantic islands, like the Azores and Canary Islands. It even includes the mythical island of Antillia, and even possibly Japan.
One of the reasons the Piri Reis map is so significant is that it provides a glimpse into the extent to which global exploration had taken place in the years after Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World. While not everything on the map is perfect, Reis deserves a lot of credit for his use of various different sources in creating a map that was very accurate for 1513. He used at least 20 sources, some contemporary and some that might have been earlier.
A few have even claimed that among his sources were maps found in the ancient Library of Alexandria, based on allusions to Alexander the Great that were made by Reis in the margin of the map. However, most credible scholars would point to the other notes on the map, which seem to suggest it has almost entirely 16th century origins. In fact, historians have traced much of the map to writings by Columbus.
South America and Antarctica
Despite little evidence to suggest that this map was compiled from ancient sources, that has not stopped some from believing in the map’s prehistoric origins. Much of this thought derives from depictions of what appears to be Antarctica on the map.
On the map, it seems South America is strangely misshapen. While Brazil is clearly recognizable, as the coastline moves further south, land drifts out eastward. It seemingly shows a landmass in a place where no such one exists today. Even before Antarctica was discovered, cartographers have long speculated the existence of a southern continent, known at the time as Terra Australis.
Some have interpreted this territory as being the Queen Maud Land coast of Antarctica, even asserting that the map shows how that portion of Antarctica would appear without ice.
Various pseudo-historians have concluded that Antarctica’s depiction on this map provides evidence of an ancient, undiscovered civilization with immense knowledge of seafaring and cartography. Of course, some have even attributed knowledge of this to ancient aliens. I mean, what else could explain its inclusion on the map?
Debunking the Antarctic Claim
Unsurprisingly, most credible scholars have refuted claims of prehistoric ocean explorers or extraterrestrial tinkering.
As far as the accuracy of the Antarctic coast is concerned, there are a few hard to ignore errors. First, the alleged Antarctica is hundreds of miles north of its proper location. Secondly, and perhaps even more glaring, is the omission of the Drake Passage. On the map, Antarctica is connected to Argentine coast and the Drake Passage is no where to be found. Lastly, in the marginal notes, the region is described as having a warm climate. This is hard to reconcile against the fact that the Antarctic coast is actually quite cold.
Most serious scholars would say that their is no reason to believe the map was made from any genuine knowledge of the Antarctic coast.
So no, the Piri Reis map was not derived from lost Atlantis sources, E.T., or any other prehistoric civilization. But that doesn’t mean the map is still not significant. Turkey was never a major player in the age of exploration. Piri Reis was a gifted admiral and good intelligence analyst. He drew his map almost entirely from second-hand sources, and yet, was able to produce a fairly accurate piece of work for that time. Maybe someday aliens will come from the sky and tell us all about what Antarctica looks like without ice. Until then, we’ll just continue to give Reis the credit he deserves.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.