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The Fourth Part of the World

The bizarre story of how the planet Earth came to be represented on paper.

By Justin Moyer / December 17, 2009



“You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners ... they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave....” (Plato, The Republic, Book VII)

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Even on our 21st-century, plugged-in, wired-up, Googleable globe, Plato’s allegory of the cave – a Philosophy 101 workhorse that articulates human beings’ futile attempts to understand their universe – resonates. Climate change is real, until deleted Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change e-mails raise the possibility that it’s not. The moon is lifeless and barren, until NASA finds “bucketfuls” of water near its south pole. Pluto is thought to be a planet, until it’s proved not to be a planet, and then, apropos of nothing, the Illinois state legislature votes to make it a planet again.

If there is an end to this stumbling in the dark that passes for reasoning, don’t look for it in geography. As told in Toby Lester’s compelling The Fourth Part of the World, the bizarre story of how Planet Earth came to be represented on paper would be funny if it hadn’t inspired and been inspired by genocide, slavery, and religious war.

Lester, an Atlantic and This American Life contributor, sets out to memorialize the 1507 Waldseemuller map – a cartographic Holy Grail uncovered in 1901 that first bestowed the name “America” on the massive land mass that frustrated European traders trying to reach the spice-rich West Indies. Lester is drawn to the folklore and folly that shaped pre-Enlightenment Europeans’ view of the world and their place in it: “[T]he more I looked at the map itself, the more I saw, and the view quickly became kaleidoscopic: a constantly shifting mosaic of geography and history, people and places, stories and ideas, truth and fiction.”

Fictions, at least, abound. In crude 13th-century “T-O” maps (so called because they were drawn with a T inside an O), Europe, Asia, and Africa – the three known parts of the world – huddle at the center of a circle surrounded by ocean. Anyone seeking more information about this planet could look only to the Bible.

The Torah inspired detailed medieval mappa mundi that showed the Garden of Eden not as a Freudian creation myth, but as a physical place at the eastern limits of Asia beyond the lands of the “monstrous races” – neckless, one-eyed, or dog-headed creatures that roamed terra incognita in the Southern Hemisphere or in the East where the sun was born. The mappa mundi, beautiful and ridiculous, “traced the march of human history – scripted in advance by God at the beginning of time,” Lester writes. “They portrayed the world as God had created it, and as God alone could see it.”

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