How would you define a map? A type in a popular search engine beginning with ‘G’, has a familiar definition, “a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.”, and indeed the word map derives from the word ‘mappa’ meaning sheet/napkin. However, ironically though ‘map’ isn’t restricted to this two dimensional version we can fold up; as we all know, we live a digital age where you navigate the world around you with your laptop or smartphone too. But what happens if you live somewhere with little to no mobile internet signal and sub-zero temperatures most of the year round. And what are those odd, suspiciously shaped lumps of wood in the picture above?
Those are maps. Greenlandic wood maps to be precise, and rather than a true to scale, visual representation of the area, like a contemporary map would attempt, this provides a tactile, physical representation of the coastline. As one can see from the useful diagram below, this isn’t a crude attempt at carving the island of Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat, but traces the contours of the same part of the coast of Greenland, up and down the same piece of wood. This is a much more resourceful and useful map, once you understand, which is adapted to the climate of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture that once existed, in some places still does exist. So what’s the point in showing this? Okay, it’s not quite as interactive and different to most things in map blogs, but it’s quite interesting – it shows that long human desire and need in any culture or time to explore, map (used as a verb now), and have geographic knowledge of the world around us, something which didn’t just start with a Belgian mathematician called Gerardus Mercator.
But it also displays another thing. The outsider perspective of Greenland is stereotypically remote, snow, glaciers and inhospitable. Even modern maps of Greenland digital or paper, somewhat reflect this with a vastness white expanse of isolation with small settlements clinging to the coastline. And in many respects this is a fact, it is a sparsely populated part area. However, while for many any outsider, there may be little in the way recognisable features and easy to get lost, as Muller-Willie (1990) mentions in his work on place names and cultural geography in the Canadian East Arctic, for indigenous peoples the geography is imbued with culture and aural tradition. Records of these place names in the modern world of gazetters, like Arviliit (“the ones with blue whales”), places with no distinguishable features but recognisable from aural tradition, are now down in writing where they were once cultural geographical knowledge. They have mapped what is useful to them and through their cultural lens – just like Mappa Mundi had Jerusalem at the centre of the map of ‘Christendom’, where ‘accuracy’ wasn’t the only motivator.
But why is this relevant today as geospatial hobbyists and/or professional?
Although we practice a supposedly objective, to coin a recent and apt catchphrase, ‘the science of where’; we are from a subjective backdrop, where we can map both quantitative (and sometimes qualitative) data, but not in a neutral or cultural vacuum. What we choose to map, represent or analyse has a message behind it. Look on OpenStreetMap, where Oxford and York are usually placed in priority before Swindon and Bradford respectively, despite the latter being larger populations (not to mention better football teams) and by this logic arguably should show up, but cultural and historical significance persists. There’s the well known bias towards Europe against Africa in size proportions with Mercator projection. Even funky 3D analysis viewshed, flood mapping etc, has some cultural instinct to a lesser degree, as we choose which areas we are concerned studying and where impacts may hit. It is not to be afraid or worried by this, but to be aware of this, as I’m sure you already are! But it’s fun to think about.
So what is a map? Sure it’s a diagrammatic or scientific representation, but it’s a cultural one too.
PS: If this interests you in any way, similar to this are Polynesian stick charts – (see here)
Credits: Dr Colleen Morgan (see more here), Müller-Wille, L. (1990) “Place Names, Territoriality and Sovereignty: Inuit Perception of Space in Nunavik (Canadian Eastern Arctic”, Schweizerische Amerikanistein-Gesellschaft Bulletin, 53-54, pp.17-21.