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Waldseemuller Map: Definition & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Most people know that Columbus thought he had found Asia, but that Europeans eventually realized it was a new continent. In this lesson, we'll examine the document that defined this change in attitudes and literally re-drew the map of the world.

Mapping the Americas

It's really no secret today that Christopher Columbus didn't know he had landed on an entirely new continent in 1492. He thought he was somewhere in Asia, maybe Indonesia or the islands off of southern China. While that tale is well known today, there's more to the story. Specifically, when did Europeans actually realize that the Americas were not Asia? The answer lies with a very important world map.

Background

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. By 1500, all of Europe was abuzz and trying to figure out where in the world Columbus went. From 1499 to 1502, Italian merchant and explorer Amerigo Vespucci sailed along the coasts of this strange shore and began to map it out. He proposed in his subsequent publications that this extensive shoreline may not be part of Asia at all but rather part of a new world; a catchall term at the time for any lands previously unmapped.

Around 1504, Vespucci's published letters were picked up by a scholar from the Alsace region of France named Matthias Ringmann. Ringmann, like others of the time, had studied the ancient Greek and Roman works on geography and realized that they did not have enough room for Vespucci's coastline. The map was too small and needed to be redrawn, and so Ringmann commissioned German mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller to publish an updated edition of Ptolemy's class textbook, Geography.

Martin Waldseemuller
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The Waldseemuller Map

As Ringmann and Waldseemuller studied the maps that existed, as well as the accounts of Columbus' and Vespucci's travels, they came to a radical conclusion. This coastline was not simply a new part of an existing continent. It had to be a new continent altogether, halfway between Europe and Asia. They switched projects and began working on a new world map with a fourth major landmass accompanying Africa, Europe, and Asia. This map, printed on carved woodblocks, took up 12 sheets of paper with final dimensions of 4.5 x 8 feet. Upon its completion in roughly 1507, Waldseemuller and Ringmann published about 1,000 copies of it. This was the Waldseemuller Map, the first to present the Americas as a distinct continent, disconnected from Asia.

The Waldseemuller Map
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America

The Waldseemuller map is significant for presenting the Americas as its own continent, but is famous for another reason as well. It was on this map that this new continent was first labeled. The name that Waldseemuller and Ringmann selected for it was America.

But why America? To answer that, we must look to an obscure book also published in 1507 named Introduction to Cosmography. While the authors of this book are unnamed, historians today firmly believe that the book was written by Ringmann and Waldseemuller. In it, the authors first describe the coastline of Vespucci as being a continent distinct from Asia, surrounded on all four sides by ocean. It's important to realize that at this time, the continents were labeled on all maps as Europa, Africa and Asia, all feminine words in Latin. The authors of the Introduction to Cosmography claim that since these continents were named for women, this new continent should bear the name of a man, presumably the man whose works inspired this map. That man was Amerigo Vespucci.

To that end, the authors proposed two names for the new continent. First was Amerigen, the land of Amerigo. Scholars believe that this name may have been proposed by Ringmann, who was a big fan of puns. In Greek, the suffix -gen can mean born, while ameros means new, literally making Amerigen a new born land, a new world. At the same time, the Greek word meros can mean place, in which case a-meros-gen becomes the no-place-land, which is a fitting name for a continent the authors know nothing about.

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