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Posts tagged ‘Fun with Maps’

Histomaps and Euro-Centric Histories

HistomapFinal.jpg.CROP.article920-largeBy Taylor Marvin

At Slate, Rebecca Onion highlights a gorgeous vintage poster that claims to illustrate “4,000 years of world history.” This “Histomap” — created by John B. Sparks in 1931 — attempts to show the waxing and waning power of rival civilizations graphically and, in Onion’s words, “emphasizes domination, using color to show how the power of various “peoples” (a quasi-racial understanding of the nature of human groups, quite popular at the time) evolved throughout history.” Click through to Slate for an expanded view.

I’ve previously encountered the Histomap, though I wouldn’t have remembered it until seeing Onion’s post — if I recall correctly, in 7th grade a teacher showed a copy to my class during a world history lesson. But looking at the chart today, what’s most apparent is just how dated the Histomap’s view of history is; specifically, Sparks presents an enormously Western Europe-centric view of world history. This perspective draws from the chart’s vague definitions, which allow its estimations of various people’s “relative power” to fit Sparks’, and the 1931 Western culture he represents, own biases. If relative power derives from the size of empires, why do the 15th century Incas appear so minusculely insignificant? Similarly, in the first century AD the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty both controlled roughly a fifth and a quarter of humanity. By what possible criteria could Rome hold two thirds of “world power” and China almost none? Why is the 16th century Spanish Empire, which controlled one of the largest empires in history, ranked as significantly less powerful than England?

Ultimately the Histomap reflects, of course, its author’s contemporary biases rather than any real historical realities (not that this reality would be at all possible to convey is such a simplistic format). Western civilization defines itself as the heir to the ancient Greek and then Roman civilizations through early-modern Western (importantly, not Mediterranean or Catholic) European intermediaries, a self-appointed narrative much stronger in Sparks’ era than today. It’s unsurprising, but deeply illuminating, that the Histomap highlights these cultural traditions at the expense of others.

Note: To emphasize the Histomap’s uncomfortable racial connotations, Sparks’ “Histomap of Evolution” charts the history of human civilizations as well as those of “mollusks” and “protozoa”. With the implication being that human ethic groups are as biologically separate as zoological taxa, this view of history is one of the clearest example of the Social Darwinist philosophy imaginable.

Vanished Territories, Borders, and Names

By Taylor Marvin

Today I stumbled across a friend’s copy of a 1970 edition of the National Geographic Society’s world atlas. Perhaps inspired by Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, my current read, I began noting the territories and states that existed four decades ago, but no longer. A selection of the lesser-known:

canal zone

The US Panama Canal Zone was disestablished in 1979 and fully handed over to Panama in 1999 in accordance with the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties. Incidentally, the Panama Canal Zone is also the birthplace of John McCain.


East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh after (West) Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.


British Honduras, which gained independence in 1981 as Belize, the only country in Central America with English as an official language.

neutral zone

The “neutral zone” along the Saudi Arabian-Iraqi border, implemented in 1922 and only definitively solved by the 1991 Gulf War.


The British colony of Souther Rhodesia, named for 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, unilaterally declared independence in a 1965 bid to preserve white supremacy. Unable to secure international recognition and beset by guerilla movements, Rhodesia was succeeded by Zimbabwe in 1980.

south west africa

After Germany’s defeat in the First World War German South-West Africa fell under South African administration. Apartheid South Africa’s attempts to informally incorporate the territory in the face of local independence movements proved unsuccessful, and South-West Africa declared independence as Namibia in 1990.

upper volta

Gaining independence from France in 1960, the Republic of Upper Volta (named for the Volta Rouge, Volta Noire, and Volta Blanche rivers) was renamed Burkina Faso in 1984.

spanish sahara

Following the end of Spanish colonial administration in 1975, Sáhara Español’s status remains in doubt. Today Western Sahara is divided between the Moroccan-controlled north and western coast and the partially recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and holds the distinction of being both one of the most sparsely populated territories on Earth and the most populous of the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.

trucial states

The Trucial States is an antiquated name for the British Protectorate that became the U.A.E. in 1971. Note the “Dubayy” spelling.*


A high-water mark of Pan-Arabism, 1958 saw the short-lived attempt to unite Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic. While Syria left the union in 1961, Egypt continued to use the U.A.R designation until 1971.


The Yemen Arab Republic (North) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South) merged in 1990, which observers hoped would end the Cold War-era rivalry between the two and unify the southwest Arabian peninsula. However, South Yemen seceded in 1994 and was shortly after conquered by the north, again unifying Yemen.

*Update: See comment below.