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If Columbus Used a Different Map, He Would Have Known He Did Not Land in India

10 October 2011

Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492 as a way to discover and establish new trade routes to India. He attempted this as he knew the world was round and wanted a quicker way to get there than going around Africa. When he discovered this new way to ‘India’, he eventually realized that he discovered new territory to explore and conquer as he had discovered the Americas. Now, what does this have to do with ancient history? Well, a lot actually.

Reading McKeown’s book (Sources) I found how Columbus’ voyage might have changed. Today, the known circumference of the earth is slightly more than 24,900 miles. What fascinated me was that Eratosthenes in the 3rd century B.C.E. (Before Common Era, which was about 2300 years ago!) calculated it to be 24,700 miles. How crazy is that! Once I read that I had to learn more about this guy, so I did some searching on the internet and found this awesome site about Eratosthenes (link is in Sources too). This website does a great job of explaining how he used the height of the sun and the distance between two cities to calculate the circumference of the earth. In addition, Eratosthenes is credited with creating the mapping system of latitude and longitude that we currently use today.

So what does this have to do with Columbus? Well, if cartography had not been dominated by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria who totally miscalculated the earth’s circumference to be only 17,800 miles, then Columbus would never have thought that the Caribbean was India. He would have realized right away that he discovered new land and a new culture when he landed in the Caribbean. He might have also been less inclined to always think that his discoveries were close to the East Indies or Asia. There might have been more competition to discover the land and treasures as a good chunk of the earth was still unexplored. Who knows, maybe other people would have tried to beat Columbus to it and we might be saying another explorer’s name instead of Columbus to day in that rhyme.

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Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greeks, High Medieval Period

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