Storytelling through Maps and Timelines

Creative Commons license: Nicholas Kenrick

Bagan today. Creative Commons license: Nicholas Kenrick

In the year 1100, the largest city, by far, was Kaifeng, which was twice the size of its nearest competitor, Constantinople, three times the size of the third city on the top five list, Marrakech, which was, at the time, about the size of Kalyan and Cairo. Never heard of Kaifeng or Kalyan? If today’s Kaifeng was located in today’s United States, it would be the nation’s second largest city; in China, where it has been a significant city for a very long while, it would be in the top forty or fifty cities. Kalyan is now part of Mumbai. A hundred years later, Bagan makes the list–it’s no longer an active city, but the site is as popular in Cambodia as Angkor Wat. Add another 100 years and the first of the European cities makes the top five list: Paris. By 1492, just as Europe is waking up to the possibility of its role as a global power, there are no European cities on the list. Instead, it’s Beijing with over a half-million people in the number slot followed by Vijayanagara, Cairo, Hangzhou, and from the Americas, Tenochtitlán.

In 1492, the world map is a fascinating place filled with vaguely familiar names. A large swath of what is now Russia was then the Khanate of Siber; the Mongols are firmly in control of the large area that is now Mongolia; the only people in Australia are Aborigines; and the Caribbean and much of South America are under the control of the Arawak people (who will be killed, in large numbers, by European invaders and their diseases, the first of whom is Columbus). You’ve probably heard of Catherine of Aragon, a Henry VIII wife (remember “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived?”–Catherine’s the one who Henry divorced, setting up a major tiff with the Pope). Anyway…Aragon occupies the eastern half of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The Inca are all along the Pacific side of what becomes South America, and the Mayas and the Aztecs are all over what becomes Central America and Mexico. Japan is Japan, Korea is Korea, and remarkably, Poland is a large country–actually a kind of joint project, so the place is called Poland Lithuania.

How do I know all of this? Because I’m having a blast browsing through a new combination of world atlas and history book. It’s called The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance and it’s been put together by research fellow at England’s Lancaster University named John Haywood.

NewAtlas World HistoryQuite sensibly, Mr. Haywood has produced a book whose broad horizontal pages alternate between an atlas view of the world at various intervals, and a timeline of significant events that describe that time in greater detail.

His story begins around 100,000 when ice sheets covered much of today’s Canada, all of today’s United Kingdom, and the rest of northern Europe. From the ancestral starting place in eastern Africa, homo sapiens migrate first into Asia and China, then across two land bridges, one to what becomes North America and the other (who knew?) across present-day Indonesia and the Indian Ocean across to Australia (which is how the place become populated with Aboriginal peoples). In fact, Europe was settled, or, at least, visited in large numbers, about 5,000 years after Australia. It took even longer for the people who took the now-Alaska land bridge to make their way all the down through the current United States and Mexico, eventually finding themselves in what is now South America.

Looking way ahead to, say, 1900, it’s again a fascinating map and story: there is no Poland, for example, because it has been obscured by the giant Russian Empire, and also, if I’m reading the map correctly, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, too. On that map, Africa is a collection of colonies belonging to Belgium, Holland, Germany and other countries whose international colonization efforts were ended by a pair of wars that provided plenty of good reason to focus on life at home.

So here’s a rough look at the 1492 map of the world (click on it to see a full-screen PDF with far better detail):

And, to accompany that layout, here’s a look at the adjacent page, this time providing a timeline view of events that mattered at the time (same story, click to see a PDF that’s easier to read):


Of course, the book offers more than just these two layouts. One of my favorites shows the migration routes to the United States, mostly from Europe, circa 1900. The same map contains the sobering stories of indentured servants leaving India for British colonies in Africa. Subsequently, a young attorney and activist named Mohandas Gandhi will understand his power by correcting the situation in South Africa (then, the Cape Colony) before returning to his native India.

So: here’s the history of the world in just over 200 pages, full-color, filled with fascinating stories told in some text, but mainly, through descriptive maps and pictures. It’s a thoroughly modern way to tell our story, and, as you might imagine, it has become a favorite. You’ll get some flavor of the work’s value by clicking on some the links on the book’s catalog page, but there’s really nothing quite like having the whole of it in front of you on a hot Sunday afternoon in the cool shade, preferably with an equally cool drink from some far-off land close at hand.

Big History

After admitting that we cannot yet answer the  obvious–and seemingly unanswerable–question about how and why everything   began, University of Sydney Professor David Christian begins with the creation of the universe about 13 billion years ago. It’s not every historian who would admit, simply:

About the beginning, we can say nothing with any certainty except that something happened.”

He continues explaining this madness: “We do not know why or how it appeared. We cannot say whether anything existed before. We cannot even say that there was a ‘before’ or a ‘space’ for anything to exist in (in an argument anticipated by St. Augustine in the fifth century CE) time and spare may have been created at the same time as matter and energy.”

After that, the big news is not so much the Big Bang Theory (explained here in detail that can be easily understood), but the shift to a neutral electrical charge, enabling the creation of atoms, first simply (mostly, hydrogen and helium atoms), then, in increasingly complicated ways. I like this quote:

Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, changes into people.”

Leaping ahead, the sun and the planets show up around 4.56 billion years ago, and, helpfully, Professor Christian helps us to understand an earth bombarded by small planetesimals (excellent word, new to me) and without much atmosphere.

The early earth would indeed have seemed like a hellish place to humans.”

As the mix of gases shifted from methane and hydrogen sulfide to carbon dioxide, the early atmosphere would have appeared red–that is, the sky would have seemed to be red, not blue. The blue sky came about because the new oceans–made possible by a drop in temperatures below 100 degrees celsius–allowed oceans to form, and those oceans absorbed much of the CO2.

How about the question of the beginning of life on earth? Again, Christian offers a coherent answer:

Living organisms are constructed, for the most part, from compounds of hydrogen and carbon. Carbon is critical because of its astonishing flexibility. Add hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur, and we can account for 99 percent of the dry weight of all organisms. It turns out that when conditions are right and these chemicals are abundant, it is easy to construct simple organic molecules, including amino acids (the building blocks of proteins, the basic structural material of all organisms) and nucleotides (the building blocks of genetic code).”

Of course, it’s one thing to assemble the building blocks and another to assemble these parts into a wooly mammoth, or even an amoeba. Christian admits that this is the tricky part: complexity is the appropriate term that causes contemporary scientists to scratch their heads and wonder. The pieces seem to be there, but the complexity of their union and the spark of life may not be so simple.

Maps of Time

Book: Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History by David Christian

Sure, multi-cell animals are interesting footnotes, but really, isn’t history all about us? Not exactly, not according to the good professor. Turns out, we are just one of many species, and in the scheme of big history, humans are a kind of, well, a kind of weed. We just keep growing, taking everything over, killing off other species, treating the whole earth as our own private amusement park. Within our lifetimes, there will be 10 billion humans on earth, an astonishing increase given that there were, in 1800, just a billion of us. Every dozen or so years, we add another billion or so.

As humans began to migrate into Europe and Asia from their original home in Africa, large animals became extinct because we hunted them down, ate them, used their hides for clothing, used their bones for tools. Giant sloths in the Americas, giant wombats and kangaroos in Australia, mammoths in Siberia. We killed them faster than they could reproduce, and so, they’re gone.

So what makes us so special? Is it really all about thumbs? Sure, thumbs make a difference, but it’s something else entirely. Professor Christian uses the term “collective learning” to describe our “pooling and sharing of knowledge…the types of knowledge that, over time, have given humans their unique power to manipulate the material world. Two factors stand out: the volume and variety of information being pooled, and the efficiency and speed with which information is shared.” Here, he’s not referring to the digital age, but the era before we developed any meaningful form of writing, drawing, or communicating with anything resembling a modern language.

By now, we’re about halfway through the book. Next will come the domestication of animals–in which humans figure out that an animal that is killed for its meat is useful only in the short-term, but an animal that is kept alive for its milk is useful in the long-term. This concept of domestication applies not only to meat/milk animals, but to others whose wool, or other production, can be used not only to satisfy basics needs, but also for exchange to other humans. In time, it’s the idea of exchange that becomes the driver, resulting first in local trade between tiny settlements, then trade routes as fewer people are tied to subsistence farming or hunting/gathering and more are available (typically, more men are available) for pursuits involving trade, travel, and, in time, the accumulation of wealth.

Along the way, humans attempt to understand how and why their world works. Since the ground, the soil, the earth provides the food we eat, we begin to explain the world in terms of an earth spirit. Similarly, the sky seems to contain the origins, the mystical, the unknowable, and so, this, too, becomes a kind of spirit. In time–and mostly within a period of just a few thousand years, mostly in southwestern Asia–we gather these beliefs in the form of religions.

As we, as contemporary, educated humans with every conceivable benefit, attempt to understand our world, and its big history (now a common term combining history and science, by the way), Professor Christian readily admits to what he has done. He has wrapped our beliefs, our knowledge, our stories into what calls “a modern creation myth.”

Digital Travel Guides and the Future of Publishing

As the Kent & Sussex chapter of a traveler’s eBook begins, the page shows the current temperature. Just a hint of what’s to come in digital travel guides…

Not enough room in the suitcase? Maybe it’s time to ditch the travel guidebook and try the eBook version instead. I did, and learned a lot about what a traveler’s eBook ought to be.

Travel guides are very different from other types of fiction and nonfiction books. They are only partially read. They are intensely used, but only for a few weeks. They are out of date shortly after they are published. And if you’re doing a lot of traveling, they can become quite heavy.

An eBook on an iPad? Less weight. Full color. An opportunity to integrate with digital maps and Trip Advisor, build an itinerary, make reservations, maybe connect with chapters in history or nature books.

Well, we’re not there yet, but we are seeing the beginning of a new era in travel guides.

Lonely Planet has yet to make its big move into iPad publishing, but they offer one excellent idea: the purchase of individual chapters as PDF files for just under $5 a piece. For example, Lonely Planet’s digital England book can be purchased for $17.49, or you can buy the Devon & Cornwall chapter for $4.95. Either way, it’s mostly well-written text with very helpful guidance, plenty of links, and, take note, designed for iPhone with only with 2x magnification feature on.

Fodor’s London Travel Guide is a full-featured app with plenty of maps, color images, lists with links, and easy access to places to visit, lodgings, restaurants, and nightlife. In fact, the app is organized so that it’s easy to read the text blurb about the London Zoo, then quickly refer to a restaurant map to find Lemonia, a highly-regarded Greek restaurant nearby. Read the description of Portobello Market, click, then there it is on a full-screen map. It’s easy to use and effective.

Working with an eBook design firm called Inkling, Frommer’s offers a more ambitious take on the digital travel guide. The eBook is organized in chapters, but each chapter begins with several points of entry: favorite moments in the region, a three-day trip, a five-day journey, favorite sites to visit, popular destinations in detail, and more. Choose the Cotswolds village of Moreton-on-the-Marsh and there’s a well-written description of the village, tips about what’s nearby, quick access to area maps, and an overall design that’s clearly designed for digital devices. This series is called “Day by Day”, so I expected an itinerary planner to coordinate with my iPad’s Calendar app. That’s not yet a feature, but I suspect it was discussed during this superior product’s design phases.

I used all three guides, often and successfully, and never once missed the books that I did not carry with me. My favorite: Frommer’s. But I suspect that next week’s BookExpo will find publishers to introducing the next generation of interactive travel guides.

What’s next? Certainly, full integration with Google Maps, Trip Advisor, Kayak and other reservations systems, Calendar, email. Those seem to be within reach, but they only scratch the surface of what could be done. There’s a gigantic social network opportunity here, whether it’s couch surfing or house swapping, or simply asking whether anybody in the Pembrokeshire area feels like taking a hike today. Right now, publishers are cautiously experimenting with books that become books on screens, but this caution may result in the demise of yet another industry. Travel publishers possess a unique opportunity to bring places to life, to involve community members (think Zagat’s but on a massive scale), to truly invent the future of publishing on a large, interactive scale. It’s interesting to contemplate whether this work can be done, or will be done, by travel publishers owned by much larger publishing conglomerates, or whether smaller, more flexible and potentially more innovative publishers will map this particular journey into the future.

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