Why Do Maps Always Have North at the Top?

(Last Updated On: March 26, 2018)

Why Do Maps Always Have North at the Top?
In 1979, Australian Stuart McArthur released the “McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World.” The map depicts the world as “upside down,” and was designed to challenge the idea that European views should be universally accepted by everyone. It also shows how arbitrary map orientation really is.

Despite this visual representation of the world, most modern maps still are created with north at the top, and south at the bottom, but why is that? Why do maps always have north at the top?

There really isn’t one single explanation for this. As we will see, maps from different places and time periods have shown many different directions at the top. It hasn’t been until more recently that the north-up orientation has really stuck.

North, South, East, West

When it comes to maps, it is important to remember that “up” is a human construction. A map with the Northern Hemisphere at the top is no more accurate, correct, or right than one with the Southern Hemisphere at the top.

Maps throughout history have shown various orientations, which were largely influenced by the people that made them. Cartographers of the past, in general, had a tendency to put the place they lived at the top or the center of the map. Early Egyptian maps, for example, displayed south as up, as did many Arab and Chinese maps. In other places, like Europe, it was common to have the east at the top of the map.

The Age of Exploration

How did the north-up orientation come to dominate modern maps?

One common theory holds that the invention of the compass helped put the north on top. The Chinese invented the compass during the ancient Han dynasty, but compasses did not gain widespread use throughout Europe and the Arab world until about 1300 AD.

A compass points to magnetic north. Before the compass, mariners used the stars to figure out directions, with one of the most significant being the North Star. People had long known that the Earth spins on an axis pointed towards this star. So perhaps the importance of north in navigating, along with the fact that we see stars when we look up, influenced some cartographers to start orienting their maps with the north as up.

But this seems to be only part of the explanation.

The arrow of a compass can just as easily point south, since the magnetized metal needle simply aligns with the earth’s magnetic field. The Chinese supposedly referred to their first compass magnets as south-pointing stones. So while the compass may have played a role in influencing north-up orientation, it wasn’t the only factor.

Beyond the Compass

Even after use of the compass became widespread, maps continued to be made with all sorts of different orientations. Some stuck to the old European method, with the east on top, others preferred the south at top. Some put the north at top, in keeping with the point on the compass.

One other possible influence of the north-up orientation comes from the 2nd century AD. A Greco-Roman intellectual named Ptolemy made many well-organized maps, some of which included lines of longitude and latitude. His work would inspire cartographers for years after, including many important map makers of the 15th and 16th century. And for whatever reason, Ptolemy put north at the top of his maps.

Future European cartographers, like Gerardus Mercator, would use many of Ptolemy’s methods when creating maps, including sticking with his north-up orientation, and they would use the newly invented printing press to help disseminate these maps across Europe.

By the 16th century, the Northern Hemisphere was pretty much settled in its position at the top of maps.

The Role of Egocentricity

Even if compasses all pointed south and Ptolemy had gone with a south-up orientation, it seems likely that north would have still ended up on top. Why is this?

We mentioned earlier that throughout history, maps have been influenced greatly by the people that make them. This relates to the concept of egocentricity. In cartography and geography, an egocentric society is one that places itself in either the center of a depiction of the world, or at the top. Information at the top of a map is more visible, and to the map maker, perhaps more significant.

By the 16th century, many nations in Europe were world powers. They would explore and colonize much of the globe. European mapmakers, maybe even instinctively, put the Northern Hemisphere at the tops of their maps. These maps have influenced the maps of today, which continue to be made with the north-up orientation.

Why Do Maps Always Have North at the Top?

Ultimately, there is no one answer to the question of why the north is at the top of maps. There are many different possible theories and factors that may have played a role. In the end, it may have simply come down to a combination of tradition, technology, politics, and chance.

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.