The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps

Maps from hundreds of years ago can be surprisingly accurate… or they can just be really, really wrong. Weird maps from history invent lands wholesale, distort entire continents, or attempt to explain magnetism planet-wide.

Sometimes the mistakes had a surprising amount of staying power, too, getting passed from map to map over the course of years while there was little chance to independently verify.

The World in a Cloverleaf, 1581

To be fair to Heinrich Bünting, the creator of this map, he almost certainly knew that he was not creating a geographically accurate depiction of the Earth. He was more interested in illustrating a Christian interpretation of the world with Jerusalem as the central point of a trinity of important continents.

That said, America being shoved off in the corner and the irregular islands of England and Denmark add an off-kilter feeling of asymmetry to the illustration. Distorting geography so wildly for a metaphor definitely makes for a pretty weird map. Bünting seemed to like this kind of metaphor, however, and made a similar type of map with Europe as a woman.

Rupes Nigra, 1595

The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps

Gerardus Mercator, creator of everyone’s favorite map projection, didn’t know what the north pole looked like. No one in his time really did. But they knew that magnetic compasses always pointed north, and so a theory developed: the north pole was marked by a giant magnetic black-rock island.

He quotes a description of the pole in a letter: “In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author [Jacobus Cnoyen] years ago.”

Mercator was not the first or only mapmaker to show the pole as Rupes Nigra, and the concept also tied into fiction and mythology for a while. The idea eventually died out, but people explored the Arctic in hopes of finding a passage through the pole’s seas for years before the pole was actually explored in the 1900s.

Island of California, 1666

The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps

The Island of California was not a one-off map error; the error was so persistent that King Ferdinand VI of Spain actually had to decree that California was no longer to be displayed as an island in 1747.

The mistake was most likely propagated after a Spanish map of the area as an island was stolen in the early 1600s. Maps were closely guarded secrets, so Spain wouldn’t have wanted to correct this mistake for quite some time, even after they realized it themselves.

But it wasn’t just a geographical mistake – a romance novel characterized the region as an earthly paradise populated by women in the vein of the mythic Amazons. This depiction influenced gossip about the region for some time.

Later explorers also theorized that the channel separating California from the coast could connect to the Northwest passage. The Northwest passage was a major sticking point for explorers and mapmakers for decades.

New Holland, 1753

The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps

When this map was developed, only the western half of Australia (then called New Holland) had been explored. The eastern parts were almost entirely conjecture – something the mapmaker admits right on the map itself, and marks with dotted lines. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin also connects the eastern coast with Tasmania in the south, which is definitely not correct.

At times, people even thought there was an entire continent beyond Australia itself somewhere, large enough to balance out Europe.

Here’s a few other attempts to consider:


Alaska with Northwest Passage, 1772

The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps

Remember earlier, when we mentioned mapmaker’s obsession with the Northwest Passage? Well, here it manifests again, in this very blobby map of Alaska.

The rounded edges of coasts on maps like this (and the Australia maps) usually indicate uncertainty. And in this case, the conjectures are based off of apocryphal explorer’s tales and misunderstandings, like a game of cartographic telephone. Almost everyone exploring or charting this region was hoping to find a Northwest passage, so every time they found channels or inlets, they were inclined to predict that these would eventually join up into one. Wishful thinking at every step of the process, and the result is a map that’s full of uncertainty, but at shows the viewer what they want to see.

Mountains of Kong, 1849

The Weird History of Extremely Wrong Maps

Imagine an entire mountain range, invented from nothing more than gossip. It sounds crazy. But that’s what happened with the Mountains of Kong. Multiple explorers wrote travelogues describing these mountains, leading to their first inclusion on a map in 1798.

After the first travelogue was published describing these non-existent mountains, it’s possible that other explorers included them in their writings just to avoid admitting that they couldn’t find a major landmark. On some maps, the Mountains of Kong range far enough east to connect to the Mountains of the Moon – named so from an account by a traveling merchant. It’s possible that the Mountains of the Moon were actually the ranges of Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Amedamit, but it’s also possible that this account was fictional as well.

The Mountains of Kong even made it into Goode’s Atlas in 1995.

If you like quirky geography, check out 10 Unusual Town Names in Canada.