Globe on an Ostrich Egg is World’s Oldest Depiction of the New World
An elaborately carved globe made from joining the lower halves of two ostrich eggs is the oldest known depiction of the New World. The 16th century globe had become lost to the pages of history but resurfaced a few years ago at a London map fair, when it was spotted by an anonymous map collector.
National Geographic reported that the globe found its way into the hands of collector Stefaan Missine, following its purchase at the fair, who coordinated a year-long analysis of its authenticity and age.
South American continent (Terra Sanctae Crucis) The Hispaniola island (Spagnola) and Cuba (Isabel) The sea is the Caribbean / Atlantic Ocean., showing the large peninsula jutting southward at the right which is evidence of the influence of Henricus Martellus. Photo: Washington Map Society.
The globe was assessed by more than 100 map experts. Results revealed the egg map was an original and could be accurately dated to 1504, making it older than the previous earliest known globe of the New World, known as the Hunt-Lenox globe, which dates to 1510 and was made of copper.
Since the features of the two globes are identical – the handwriting, text, illustrations, and even spelling mistakes are the same – experts concluded that the ostrich egg map was used as a cast for later reproductions.
The Hunt-Lenox Globe. Credit: The New York Public Library
“Whoever made the globe had access to the latest information about explorers from all the European countries vying for world domination,” writes Discover Magazine. Many explorers were just returning from their journeys that profoundly changed the way people saw and understood the world. The shape of the Asian peninsula, for example, reflects the explorations of Italian Henricus Martellus, and the two tiny islands of North America were those happened upon by Christopher Columbus. Other details reflect the then-recent exploratory accounts of Marco Polo, the Corte-Reals, Cabral, and Amerigo Vespucci, who coined the name New World, or “MVNDVS NOVVS” as it is labeled on the globe.
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The early sixteenth-century engraved ostrich egg globe among other ostrich eggs. Photo: Washington Map Society.
The map itself is fascinating. In the Indian Ocean, a sole ship can be seen tossing on the waves, its origin and destination unknown. It is also one of only two globes that contains the phrase HC SVNT DRACONES ("here be dragons"), which appears above the coast of Southeast Asia.
The New World is extremely rudimentary. There is no North America, just a few islands. ISABEL (Cuba) and SPAGNOLLA (Hispaniola) are named; others are not. South America is labelled TERRA DE BRAZIL (Brazil), MVNDVS NOVVS (New World) and TERRA SANCTAE CRVSIS (the Land of the Holy Cross).
Detail of a ship in the eastern Indian Ocean on the egg globe. Image credit: Washington Map Society
Aside from its age and features, the globe is also a rarity due to the material it is made from. Old maps were most commonly drawn on vellum (calfskin parchment), sealskin or wood. But ostrich eggs were unheard of at the time. In 16th century Italy, the nobility often kept ostriches as a sign of their status and wealth, so the map may have been commissioned by an Italian noble family, but its exact origins are a mystery.
Top image: A globe from 1504 that may be the world's oldest depicting the New World is engraved on ostrich egg halves in this photo from the Washington Map Society