Debate continues over truth behind ‘oldest’ Australia map

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A map which appears to cast doubt on when Europeans discovered Australia has been described by a historian as “fanciful”.

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Dr Simon Sleight, a lecturer in Australian history at King’s College London, told historyextra the map “says far more about imagination than reality”.

Novae Guineae Forma and Situs, a 1593 map that depicts a giant, unnamed landmass, believed by some experts to be Australia, pre-dates the earliest confirmed map of the continent by more than a decade.

The map, which will go on display on Thursday in Brisbane, Queensland, shows a southern continent below New Guinea complete with people, monsters, a snake and Australia’s most substantial mountain range, the Great Dividing Range. It was created by Cornelis de Jode.

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But Dr Sleight, whose PhD won the Australian Historical Association’s biennial Serle Award for best doctoral thesis in Australian history in 2010, told historyextra: “The 1593 map is certainly an intriguing document, though of course it says far more about imagination than reality.

“Europeans had long believed that a great southern continent must exist to balance the density of land in the northern hemisphere, and projected these convictions in cartographical form.

“It is of course possible that the coastline of what would later be called Australia had been glimpsed by European (or indeed Chinese) sailors earlier than usually stated.

“But snake and mountain ranges aside – each detail perhaps coincidental to the material facts – the depiction is fanciful.

“Had the sailors set foot upon the island continent, it is highly unlikely that they would draw on the map a white figure with bow and arrow, to say nothing of course of the griffin.

“Aborigines had been occupying this land for many millennia, and anyone sailing in close sight of the shoreline would likely have seen Aboriginal fishermen or activity on the foreshore, as well as distinctive flora and fauna.

“The search for ‘firsts’ and ‘discoveries’ should rightly be directed towards the arrival of the First Australians, the Aborigines; the story of later journeyings is really only embellishment.”

The map, which can be viewed here, is part of an exclusive collection of the nation’s earliest chartings that will be exhibited by the National Library of Australia.

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Other maps due to go on display include the first European atlas of China, created in 1655, and a shark skin pocket globe from 1791.