350 - Accidental Maps: Cartocacoethes or Blatant Pareidolia?

I learned a new word today, but the condition it describes has been with me for quite some time: cartocacoethes – the compulsion to see maps everywhere. More on that here on the excellent blog Making Maps. Turns out that the famous Çatalhöyük map, dating from around 6200 BC and often called “the oldest map in the world”, might not be a map after all (and thus a prime example of the aforementioned condition).


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Be that as it may, the existence of that condition does not negate the fact that some non–cartographic visual stimuli really do look a lot like the familiar shapes of countries or continents we know from our atlases. Or, to quote Kurt Cobain on a related phenomenon: “Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.”

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In its most general definition, this experience of seeing patterns in random data is called apophenia -  a term that also covers the phenomenon of ‘false positives’ in statistics, for example.

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A more specific type of apophenia, appliccable here, would be pareidolia: perceiving significance in stimuli that have none. This perceived significance is usually more revealing of the perceiver than of the stimuli,which is why this principle is used in Rorschach (i.e. inkblot) testing. It also might explain why it’s often the devout that see images of Jesus on a piece of toast.

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But, as mentioned before, sometimes the stimulus is just too convincing, the pareidolia too blatant. This blog already covered a few examples of cartographic pareidolia (Britain in a cloud, #154, and Jamerica, #268). Here are a few more examples that have trickled into the Strange Maps mailbox over the last few months, and a few others found adrift on the internet. If you have a nice picture of a cloud that looks like Denmark, an Alaska-shaped inkblot on your school book, or any other form of accidental cartography, please send it in and I will add it to this post!

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  • Another Britain-Shaped Cloud
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Cornwall has hypertrophied and the southeast looks rather vague, but Scotland is quite solid and just about right, while even the Shetlands put in an appearance. Found here on the website of the truly awesome Cloud Appreciation Society.

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  • The United States of Naan
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“While enjoying a meal at a local Indian restaurant a few nights ago, I began to tear my naan bread then looked down stunned to find a very proportionally accurate map of the US,” writes Simon Wood of Wellington (NZ). “What was even more remarkable was the tear seemed to correspond really well with the Mississippi River. I realise people might call shenanigans on this, but it was entirley coincidental. I was happily nibbling away with no idea I was creating some my very own atlas out of garlicy bread.”

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“The straight Canadian border along the top was where the Naan was cut in two by the chef, and you can still see the original half-circle shape along the West Coast. Granted, Florida has been pushed up a little and the distinctive features of New England and the Midwest are all but missing, but all of my dining companions knew straight away what they were looking at.”

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  • Mexican Paint Job
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This Mexican paint job gets two things right which typify the geographic shape of Mexico: the Baja California peninsula on the Pacific coast¨, and the bending shape of its southern part as it narrows to become the Central American isthmus, further down (map here).

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  • Africa In A Milanesa
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“I was cooking this typical Argentinian food called milanesa, when I found the map of Africa in my saucepan,” writes Manuel Barcia from Argentina. “This typical dish is made out of a cut  meat from the back of the cow, called nalga, covered with a mix of mashed bread and eggs and then fried. I always say that each piece of meat looks like an undiscovered island or some unknown place, but this looked just like Africa.” 

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  • The Puddle of the United States
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“Being a cartographer and all I could not help, but notice the puddle of the United States forming in my carport this past Thanksgiving weekend and thought it would make a great addition to the collection,” writes Chris Jackson of Atlanta (GA).

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  • A Meat Map of Argentina
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This simulacrum is quite apt, since Argentina is a huge exporter of beef (photo found here).

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  • China Set in Stone
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“A rare natural stone with detailing that looks like a map of China on it was recently found in Jiaozuo City, central China’s Henan Province,” relates this story on the website for the English service of China Radio International (link found at Making Maps, cf. sup.)

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“Local newspaper the Orient Today reported that the football-sized black stone has on its surface a vivid yellow-coloured China geographical map. Places like Taiwan Island, Hainan Island, north-east provinces and Bohai Bay can all be clearly seen on the surface.”

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“Zhang Jian, the owner of the stone, who got it at a public market, highly appreciates the natural beauty of the rare find.”

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  • Australia As A Puddle
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Quite accurate, and quite ironic, since Australia has been particularly badly drought-stricken of recent (map here on a fauxtography and other myths-debunking message board at snopes.com, the urban legends website; for the record, the majority opinion of the posters seems to be that the picture is real).

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