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WORLD FOCUS: Mapping history

December 20, 2010
Cartography, the practice of map making has a long and intriguing history. Experts think that a wall painting depicting the ancient Anatolian city of Catal Huyuk, which dates to the seventh millennium B.C., was a map. The oldest surviving world maps were made by Babylonians in the 9th century B.C., and it is believed that some ancient charts has been used for purposes of navigation.

Continually improved technology has provided cartography an ever increasing role in the shaping of human history. During a recent presentation at the College of William & Mary, Mark Monmonier, distinguished professor of geography at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, titled, “Fear and Loathing in Geopolitics: Cartographies of Pretension and Persuasion.” explained how it happened.

Monmonier’s presentation was part of the Geopolitical Lecture Series funded by the Reves Center for International Studies and is organized annually by Prof. Brian Blouet.

What made Monmonier’s lecture fascinating was his ability to demonstrate how cartography was used through history not only to communicate spatial information effectively, but also as an instrument of propaganda to draw boundaries that caused wars, or helped perpetuate divisions among nations.

“Large and medium scale topographic maps as a group have been especially effective in promoting a diverse range of activities,” Monmonier said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. “It was used in military conquest and national defense; the development of canal, railway, and highway networks; energy exploration, the delineation and adjustment of political boundaries.”

Although maps are an integral part of governmental activities such zoning and land-use planning, environmental protection and even the design of water and sewer systems, they become notorious when their impact had grim consequences.

“Maps used in partition of Africa split tribal groups with arbitrary but easily plotted boundaries that persist in the post-colonial area, to the distinct disadvantage of ethnic minorities,” he said.

Those boundaries were outlined by Sir Halford Mackinder, an English geographer who is considered the father of geopolitics and geostrategy.

It was in 1904 that Mackinder formulated his “Heartland Theory.” But it didn’t become a guiding principle in the foreign policies of world powers until 1919. At the Paris Peace Conference geopolitical factors become an increasingly important part of negotiations..

Mackinder, in his book, “Democratic ideals and reality” postulated that “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”

His theory was interpreted as advocating the creation of a strip of buffer states to separate Germany from Russia. Those were in fact created at the Paris Peace Conference, but proved ineffective. The Nazis adopted the Heartland Theory, and to the dismay of Mackinder, used it to justify their expansionist policies.

Monmonier, a scholar who writes books that explores the impact of cartography on society, is also the inventor of “Monmomier’s Algorithm.” His invention is now being used in a new software package to identify genetic barriers.

“My algorithm is used to constructs boundaries that maximize the difference between areas on opposite sides of regional boundaries. In other words, instead of focusing on the homogeneity and distinctiveness of a region, as the traditional “Reginalization Algorithm” does, it focuses on the sharpness of their boundaries,” he said.

Another area of his studies is the understanding of lake-effect snow, a phenomenon that routinely plays havoc with travel conditions and makes people’s lives miserable. He is examining how lake-effect snow has shaped the physical and human geography of the leeward margins of the Great Lakes.

“My forthcoming book will also examine the recipe for lake-effect snow; its cartographic discovery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the development of techniques for predicting the timing and amount of snowfall; cooping strategies used by highway departments, school districts, and structural engineers; climate change and sense of place,” he said.

Monmonier’s contribution to the science of cartography may not appear to be as dramatic as Mackinder’s. Still, his work has made him a leader in the field.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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