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Ostrich egg globe with other ostrich eggs (image courtesy Washington Map Society)

The New York Public Library’s 1510 Hunt-Lenox Globe better watch its bronze throne because a new globe portends to be the oldest to show the Americas. And it has the curious advantage of being carved into the round form of an ostrich egg.

Ostrich egg globe (courtesy Washington Map Society)

The new research on the ostrich globe — which is believed to date to the early 1500s — was announced this month in the Washington Map Society’s The Portolan, the organization’s journal (named for a navigational chart, of course). Ostriches have the largest eggs of any (non-extinct) birds, and that apparently made them a viable medium for a globe of the New World, or at least two halves pressed together. Ostrich egg globes are exceptionally rare, although they’re not unheard of as a scrimshaw-like etching surface (check out these sweet 19th century Masonic etchings). However, as National Geographic reported, there is some skepticism. John Hessler, curator of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress, rightly noted that the radiology used to date the egg doesn’t necessarily mean the globe is also that old. “The race for the first is something I tend to shy away from, but the bigger picture of the globe is more interesting to me than the single piece,” he told National Geographic.

Nevertheless, it is a delightful geographical item decorated with “ships of different types, monsters, intertwining waves, a shipwrecked sailor, and 71 place names, and one sentence, ‘HIC SVNT DRACONES’ (Here are the Dragons).” S. Missinne, author of The Portolan article, wrote that the globe uses new evidence from explorers like Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci to put two broad islands where the Americas are, which would be a first for globes if its age is correct. The globe to have long-held this distinction is the Hunt-Lenox Globe in the New York Public Library, and there is this choice quote from the article:

There are differences between the two globes; however, when carefully considered these differences do not weigh against the suggestion that the Lenox Globe is a cast of the ostrich-egg globe.

There’s also this tantalizing bit of intrigue: that there’s evidence that the engraver of the ostrich egg globe “was influenced by or worked in the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci.” Curiouser and curiouser! Whatever the globe’s true date in history, it is a fascinating glimpse into a 16th century view on the earth, where monsters could be lurking beneath the surf and there was just a distant notion of the lands beyond the horizon.

You can read more about the globe at The Portolan.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...