"FOR my part," said Herodotus, "I can not but laugh when I see so many people drawing maps of the world without any reason to guide them, showing (as they do) the ocean stream running all around the Earth, and the Earth itself an exact circle as if described by a pair of compasses with Europe and Asia just the same size."
That had been the form of all early maps which made any claim to world knowledge. The neighbors of Herodotus, living where Europe and Asia met, would show the two continents the same size. The map makers followed the same principles as the early impressionist painters of the nineteenth century. They pictured a carefully drawn focal point (the place where they lived) from which everything spread out more and more vaguely until it edged into the ocean on all sides. An extant map of Mesopotamia, shows the Euphrates running through a large circular land, the whole surrounded by two concentric circles labeled "briny waters."
Sometimes the interior of these maps, or the local maps which make no claim for world geography, show knowledge which is surprisingly exact. In 3800 B. C., Sargon of Akkad in the mountains above Babylon commanded that a map be made to show the divisions of the landed property owners in order that he might draw just tribute from them. The problem of taxation arose early. Similar property maps, eighteen hundred years later in Babylon, were made for the same purpose--that was in 2000 B. C., and in Egypt the same disputes over territories arose, though most of the Egyptian maps have vanished, and the only known papyri maps are rough drawings of gold mines established in the Nubian desert about 1300 B. C.
The first recorded explorations seem to have started from the same region as the first maps, but the travelers left no charts, and they seem to have made more impression upon the people they visited than the people they left. The Assyrians have no records extant, but the Annales of Shu King are quite specific. In the year 2356 B. C., during the reign of the Emperor Yao, envoys arrived at the eastern court bringing with them as a present a tortoise whose back was inscribed with the history of the world written in "tadpole" characters; and a little later men came wearing trailing robes. The description of their costumes is the description of robes on Assyrian monuments, and the "tadpole" writing is in all probability a picturesque account of cuneiform.
During the succeeding centuries from time to time a similar account appears in the histories, on one side of the world or the other, of the strangers who came and of the goods they brought, though it is not often that such goods include a history of the world even in obscure writing. Probably these early traders went by water, since it has always been the source of communication, whereas land with its mountain ranges always served as a barrier. But however they went, no record was left, and for a very long time maps were purely local institutions.
Immediate surroundings were always well known and carefully described even among primitive peoples. Cortez on his trip through Central America used a map made on calico by a local Indian. An Eskimo drawing of a coast line, when compared with a surveyor's map, proved substantially correct. The first of all relief maps was made by the Incas of Peru in the eleventh century A. D. Early peoples living out in the open, like woodmen of today, developed amazing faculties for retaining sense of direction. One modern rodman amused himself by pointing out the direction of north from each setup of the transit, and then checking. In each case we found his errors very small.
This knowledge of immediate surroundings was necessary, and probably directions were given in the same way that boy scouts are taught to give directions today. "Follow the Euphrates until you come to Babylon. Turn south at the Ziggurat with the hanging gardens, and follow the second road to the left until you come to Ur Junction. From there you can't miss your way."
It was the merchants who brought back the most far-flung stories. There were few like Herodotus who could travel for a single reason, "because they wished to learn." At each trading post the tales circulated, were discussed, exaggerated and carried on to the next trading post. The strangest stories therefore came first to civilized ears. Homer had heard of the pigmies who live at the source of the Nile, though he wrote of nothing else west of Sicily or east of Troy. That story may have been carried to Greece by Zeus after one of his visits to the "blameless Ethiopians" for the pigmies had never heard of the white men.