The North Pole, Land of Pygmies and Giant Magnets

According to Mercator, the North Pole was marked by a giant black magnetic rock


Somewhere in the 14th century, a Franciscan from Oxford, a ‘priest with an astrolabe’, writes a travelogue about his discoveries in the North Atlantic, calls it the Inventio Fortunata (‘The Discovery of Fortunata’) and in 1360 presents it to the King of England.

This book has been lost since the late 15th century.

However, a Jacobus Cnoyen from the city of ‘s Hertogenbosch (in present-day Netherlands) summarizes the contents of the Inventio, related to him in 1364 in Norway by another Franciscan who had met the author. Cnoyen’s own travel-book is called the Itinerarium.

This book has also been lost.

All this we know by the extensive quotes from the Itinerarium in a letter by the Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator to his friend, the English scientist, occultist and royal advisor John Dee. That letter, written in 1577 and now in the British Museum, mentions that:

“In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone (…) This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author (i.e. Cnoyen) years ago.”

A giant magnetic rock, exactly at the North Pole… well, that would explain why all compasses point north, wouldn’t it? Alas, the ominous magnet (described in the letter as “black and glistening” and “high as the clouds”) is a bit too fantastic an explanation for the phenomenon of magnetism. For even back in the late 16th century, mariners often found that their compasses increasingly deviated from ‘true north’ as they approached it.

But only later did the separate (and wandering) location of the magnetic poles become common knowledge. In the intervening Age of Exploration (and sometimes Fabulation), Mercator cites an author who clearly hadn’t seen the North Pole with his own eyes – nor had the author he quoted, nor in fact would anyone for centuries to come.

In the meantime, the invented geography in the Inventio Fortunata that came to us via that one letter greatly influenced cartographers’ views of the Arctic region. For if no other knowledge of yet-undiscovered lands is available, there’s really not much argument against unbelievable stories.

And so, the Black Cliff, the four countries and the whirlpool are evident in Martin Behaim’s globe (1492), which predates Mercator’s map. In 1956, a letter surfaced written by the English merchant John Day in 1497 or 1498 to ‘the Lord Grand Admiral’ (probably Columbus), with Day expressing regret that he hadn’t been able to find the Inventio Fortunata for him. In a marginal note on one of Johannes Ruysch’s maps (from 1508), the Dutch cartographer even mentions that two of the continents surrounding the North Pole are inhabited.

Mercator’s late-16th-century Arctic map (Septentrionalium Terrarum, ‘Of the Northern Lands’) was the first ever to be centred on the North Pole itself. It was a mix of fact and fiction, showing some recent discoveries but also the four fanciful countries surrounding the Arctic whirlpool with in its middle the Rupes Nigra et Altissima (‘Black and Very High Cliff’), supposedly responsible for animating navigators’ compasses.

On the subject of mixing fact with fiction, Mercator incongruously includes in his map two other magnetic poles, along the 180° meridian, indicating that he did know of the magnetic deviation from the ‘true North’, but wasn’t yet prepared to ditch the preceding fabulation (thanks to Greg for pointing this out).

Mercator’s map was included in the last of three volumes constituting his ground-breaking work (the first geographic tomes to be called an Atlas). The cartographer didn’t live to see it published: the last volume was brought out by his son Rumold in 1595, the year after his death.

In 1604, cartographer Jodocus Hondius acquired the printing plates of Mercator’s Atlas, and over the years improved on the Arctic map (and others) as explorers and whalers came back with ever more accurate descriptions of the coastlines, in the case of the Arctic map especially those of Spitsbergen and Nova Zembla (also, and more correctly known as Novaya Zemlya, ‘New Land’ in Russian).

Mercator’s authoritative (but wrong) depiction of the North Pole persisted well into the 17th century, only to be dispelled gradually by real discoveries.

On the map, the Rupes Nigra can be seen surrounded by the four countries, all of which are labelled with Latin texts, some of which I can make out:

• The island on the bottom right is labelled: Pygmei hic habitant & ad summum pedes longi quem admodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant. Which translates as something like this: ‘Here live Pygmies and (something about long feet), like those in Greenland that are called Skraelinger’.

• The island to the north of Pygmy-land is labelled: Hic euripus habet ostia et propter angustiam ac celerem fluvium nunquam congelatur. Which goes something like this: ‘This narrow channel has a harbour and due to its narrowness and swift current never freezes’.

Let me know if your Latin is better than mine...

Map found here at Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Maps #116

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.