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You might call Henricus Martellus’s 1491 world map — which many believe Christopher Columbus consulted before setting out on his voyage — a symbol of the limits of human knowledge. Historians have long known it contained a bounty of information, but it had been obscured and darkened with age. Only recently have technological advancements allowed them to begin deciphering it — and its outdated details — more fully.
As reported by Smithsonian Magazine, a five-member team from the nonprofit Early Manuscripts Electronic Library has applied spectral imaging to the map, held by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, to reveal its invisible details. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and equipment from the Lazarus Project, the researchers took more than 50 overlapping photographs of the 6-by-4-foot map in 12 reflective hues of infrared and ultraviolet light. Next, they digitally combined them all to create a single image. It is, as they expected, chock-full of newly accessible information, including hundreds of names and 60 written descriptions of places.
But the world it presents seems drawn as much from fantasy as from fact. It’s inhabited by bizarre creatures like one-eyed sea monsters and beguiling sirens, as well as comically mythical foreign natives. A text box over northern Asia describes the Balor, a people who swear off alcohol and subsist entirely on deer meat. Another above southern Asia claims its inhabitants, the “Panoti,” have ears so big they can pull them down around their bodies for warmth.
It’s hard to know whether Columbus believed these tales, but he certainly seems to have used the map while planning his infamous 1492 voyage, as Chet Van Duzer, the map historian leading the project, told YaleNews. Duzer pointed to the evidence that Columbus’s son Ferdinand once recounted how his father had expected to find Japan in the west, where it appears on Martellus’s map. Also, a journal written by one of Columbus’s crew members describes southern Asia much as Martellus drew it.
Van Duzer told Smithsonian that the map is “a missing link in our understanding of people’s conception of the world.” It reveals the boundaries of knowledge in Columbus’s day and shows how misinformation can change the course of history. And given just how much bigger we now know the universe to be, it also suggests, by way of example, the potential magnitude of our own ignorance.