What is a map?

A map is a drawing that tells you about a place. It shows a view from above, like the view you get looking down from an airplane or a satellite.  A map also shows the view from below if it is a star map. 

“Map” comes from the Latin word “mappa,” meaning napkin or cloth, on which medieval maps were drawn.  However, maps have been made from many types of materials throughout history, including clay, stone, ivory, sticks and footprints!

Although a map is usually a flat picture, the earliest known maps are dots on the walls of the Lascaux caves in France that show stars seen in the night sky in 16,500 B.C.  The oldest known flat map is a Babylonian clay tablet from about 2,300 B.C.  

Is a map a completely realistic representation of the world?  No—no map can show every detail of an area.  A mapmaker has to choose the most important things to show on a map.  That is why there are different types of maps, to show a selection of features, such as streets, mountains, countries, oceans or stars, to name a few. 

Why draw a map?

Have you ever tried to tell someone how to get to your house?  You can give them directions—turn right, turn left or go one block past the park--but it may be easier to draw them a map so that they can see the route they need to take.

If you will be traveling this summer, why not make a map of your journey?  You can show where you start from and which places you visit.  If you are staying at home, perhaps you can make a map that shows where your favorite people, places or things are located in your home, neighborhood, world or universe.  Hmm, what route do you take from home to reach your local library?

And don’t forget that a map can be of an imaginary place, like the map of Middle Earth created by J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as of a real place.  See if you can make a map to go with a story you like or to go with a story that you have written.

Here are a few books containing more information on the history of maps and mapmaking (also known as cartography) and a lot of ideas for making your own maps:


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