Terra australis incognita

February 3, 2011

It is a notable and curious fact that Antarctica — the ‘unknown southern land’ — appeared on European maps for centuries before anyone laid eyes on it. The reason was historical and literary: ancient authorities had dilated on the appropriateness of its existence, and, having a great reverence for the ancients and no grounds on which to contradict them, medieval and early modern cartographers duly included it on their maps. Aristotle, in his Meteorologica, had written about a cold, uninhabited region at the South Pole, and Cicero, in the Somnium Scipionis, had spoken of a region “rigid with frost” at each of the poles. Cicero, especially, was influential on the medieval and early modern periods on account of Macrobius’ very popular commentary on the Somnium Scipionis, dating from the 5th century AD.

On the strength of these suggestions, it was believed that the geography of the south ought to mirror, to a large extent, the geography of the north, and since there was land in the northern regions, it would be fitting that there be land in the south as well. Those who remember the arguments Herodotus deployed, in his Histories, to generate a map of the rivers of Africa will be familiar with this sort of reasoning.

The Ulm map (1482), after Ptolemy.

In any case, the terra australis incognita was there on the maps. Sometimes it was shown as contiguous with southern Africa (as above), and sometimes not. As the years wore on, and especially after ships successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope and, later, Cape Horn, some expressed doubt as to its existence. The ensuing debate played a role in motivating the initial explorations, by Captain Cook, which we shall come to in good time.

There is a lesson here somewhere.

Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570).

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