A Study of History & the Perils of Mapism

Historical programs on the History Channel, PBS, and Discovery are great learning tools. I understand that they must sensationalize and simplify the narratives, but I do wish they would stop the blatant mapism. What is “mapism”? It involves using modern maps to convey information about historical events. It is convenient, but misleading.

If you asked me to draw the historical borders of the United States, I would have to ask, "When?" You would not include California in George Washington's United States. People living in California, Texas or Wyoming were not part of U.S. history at that time. Countries just do not stretch back infinitely into history in general and certainly not within their modern borders.

Modern borders are often meaningless in a different historical context, and the roots of a nation may be nowhere in the modern country. One reason the Serbs hold on so tenaciously to Kosovo is because that is where the Serb nation began. Today mostly Albanians live there. The cradle of the Christian church is Asia Minor, Muslim Turkey these days. Taking our own country's example, if you were looking for the roots of American Democracy 800 years ago, you would be better off looking in Runnymede Meadow than counting mosquitoes in the fever swamp that became Washington, DC.

One of the most persistent fallacies is to assume countries occupying ancient places are connected with the ancient civilization. The most relevant current example is Iraq. Iraq is a very new country, created by the British about 85 years ago. It occupies an ancient borderland, but in all the roughly 4000 years of recorded history before that it has never been a united country. Jews, Chaldean Christians and Kurds represent the most ancient civilizations in Iraq, which goes to show what often happens to the "most ancient" civilizations.

Actually, all human societies are equally ancient ... or new. Some have developed more sophisticated structures. Some have longer recorded histories. Some have forgotten their history while others try to live off the glories of a mythical past, but much of what they know about their ancestors is probably wrong anyway.

Each generation reinterprets history in light of its present circumstances. The heroes of the past become the villains of the present and maybe the heroes of the future. History can be a guide or a burden. I understand the limitations, but I wish they would at least try to get the maps right.

Posted by Jack at December 21, 2006 10:17 PM
Comment #200139


How many of today’s children can even locate a country in the Middle East, let alone find or even name it’s historical precursor?

I suppose we should be thankful they attempt to use maps at all.

Posted by: Rocky at December 21, 2006 10:47 PM
Comment #200140

I know it is a small point. But it drives me nuts. I was watching something about the Roman Empire the other day and it talked about invading TURKEY. I am sure you know that the Turks were living someplace in central Asia at that time. None of them would arrive in “Turkey” for another thousand years.

I am not sure that being able to find a country on the modern map compensates for the disinformation.

Posted by: Jack at December 21, 2006 10:54 PM
Comment #200144


You might like to check out:


That is: “Guns, Germs and Steel” which was a PBS production.

I believe “Oh-Really” (sp) turned me onto that and I obtained the DVD and the book thru a librarian friend of mine.

What’s striking is that we (the USA) are the agressors in Iraq. Call it pre-emption or whatever we will, we are still the agressors.

Afghanistan was a different story, we had every possible justification to crush the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but Iraq was a different story.

I really do suggest you read the book or watch the DVD of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

You’ll then know just exactly why such a young nation as ours rose to such prominence so quickly. Yuo’ll also understand how we could just as easily be met with oblivion.

Politics aside this is a damn good, thought provoking article. Some things transcend partisanship. Hats off to you friend and Happy Holidays!

Posted by: KansasDem at December 22, 2006 12:18 AM
Comment #200145


You recently posted a site that put up the continent of Europe without state borders. The person at that site had to place countries into their proper location on the map. I did fairly well on it, but todays high schoolers as well as college students I don’t think would get double digits on the quiz.

What is you take.

Posted by: tomh at December 22, 2006 12:19 AM
Comment #200146


Good job of staying on topic.

Posted by: Keith at December 22, 2006 1:23 AM
Comment #200155

Ironic what picayune topics supporters of losing parties choose to discuss, as opposed to anything remotely connected to learning why they lost. Perhaps it is a normal part of the course for recovery - akin to denial after the shock of losing a loved one.

Mapism? Seems to me the topic of increasing the viewership of History channels by 1000 fold is a far more important topic to the survivability of our nation and the shape of her future.

Posted by: David R. Remer at December 22, 2006 4:49 AM
Comment #200157

Hmmm….Dictionary.com doesn’t recognize this word, neither do I. A google search produced a piece of music on an album titled “Knowledge In Bullshit Out”. I don’t know if this was commentary or not.

I was drawn to this article today and was reminded of the yellow brick road and Toto. Recent discusions by the right about the virtues of an all volunteer military, the lack of need for a draft, and Bush’s “stay the course” or the “way forward” mentality, remind me of those who follow the map but still cannot see the road. Ignore the man behind the curtain and listen to the great Oz.

Posted by: gergle at December 22, 2006 7:25 AM
Comment #200158


We actually agree! Must have something to do with the season. An interesting sidebar is for me to ask the question of this group:

Can anyone identify the ONLY PLACE ON THE WORLD MAP where you will always locate the nation (to use a more modern term) correctly, regardless of historical time period?

We are talking “recorded history” here folks. Please don’t bring up “God’s giving the Holy Land to the Hebrews,” etc. etc. or other items sibject to debate. This one is obvious. Of course, someone may find another I didn’t think of …

Posted by: Steve K at December 22, 2006 8:15 AM
Comment #200164


Since we are into the study of history, let’s speak plainly about aggressors. The aggressors are often the heroes of history. I am really glad Americans were agressive enough to secure places like Kansas from the previous population.

Agression itself doesn’t bother me. It depends on who is doing it to whom and how it is working. NOT being agressive against bad guys is probably a sign of moral weakness.

To quote Cicero (and Goldwater) “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

My regret in Iraq is that it looks like we may not win. We could argue that our invasion was impractical and maybe that it was none of our business, but I have no doubt that we are on the right side.

Re Guns Germs & Steel

I read the book (and also his later book Collapse). He kind of is Arnold Toynbee for the less educated and more PC crowd. But when you are dealing with forces as great and long term as he is, the lessons are lost. While it is true that the peoples of Eurasia enjoyed an advantage of location and resources, it is definitely not true that location and resources determines success by itself or within the general divisions.

What a resource is depends on culture. Coal was not a resource to the Romans. Oil was not a resource to the Arabs until foreign technology could reach it. It is also true that some aggressive (there is that term again) cultures manage to obtain or create resources.

If resources were sufficient to create power, Brazil and Mexico would have been the powers in America. Remember that our U.S. endowment was only the eastern part of the country and the wellsprings of our country were in Virginia and New England. Neither is a place particularly well endowed with resources. The Spanish held California and Texas in those days. An observer who knew nothing of the respective cultures surely would have bet on the Spanish, not the English colonies.


Which of those parties do you officially support?

If you read back, you know that I always take a long point of view. I am not surprised the Republicans lost; I will not be surprised when they win again in 2008. In the longer term (our lifetimes is as far long as I am willing to look) I think liberty will do better than regulation, so I think the future is relatively more Republican.


As far as I know, I made the term up yesterday. I would have been disappointed had you found it in a dictionary. Look again next year.

Steve K

It depends on exactly how you define it, but I think you would find China more or less where it is today, Ethiopia and I cannot really think of a third one. Places like Greece are in some of the same places, but the Greeks were spread from Asia Minor and S. Italy, where some of the most important Greeks actually lived. Egypt is so completely changed, like every place else conquered by Arabs that it has little except the name and some old monuments. I think Persia/Iran might qualify.

Posted by: Jack at December 22, 2006 9:24 AM
Comment #200165

It bugs me when historians use modern names for ancient places or cultures. Often they include a foreward in their books saying what they are doing, but that doesn’t excuse their doing it.

Good guys, bad guys. The older the history, the harder it is to use these labels. Oh, I’m glad the Greeks held off the Persian aggressors, but you’d have to really be blind to ignore Greek actions. Alexander did some marvelous things, and had the wonderfully modern notion of trying to integrate cultures, but the successive rulers of the vast territory he conquered ran their reduced kingdoms as personal fiefdoms. The Romans were conquerors, pure and simple, bolstered by the extremely common and self-serving idea that they were superior.

Good guys, bad guys. These are labels that say much more about the perspective of the source than anything else.

Posted by: Trent at December 22, 2006 9:44 AM
Comment #200169


China is what I was thinking of. “Civilization” is probably a more appropriate term to describe the continuum. While the other places you cite have been “civilized” and inhabited since recorded history began, China has the distiction of never having its language, writing, religion, government and culture imposed from outside. That’s why Persia and Egypt do not fit. I don’t know much about Ethiopia.

Greece is arguably like China; I had not thought of that. In many ways, of course, Greek culture today is measurably different from classical Greece, much less so than Chinese Culture. Finally, Greece was never a united Greek nation until the Byzantine era.

Posted by: Steve K at December 22, 2006 9:56 AM
Comment #200172

Looking at the last few topics, I’d have to say that the bloggers in the Red Column sure seem to be tap dancing as fast as they can to distract readers from talking about big issues like Iraq and dishonesty in the current admnistration (and yes, those two ideas are closely linked).

Posted by: LibRick at December 22, 2006 10:39 AM
Comment #200173

Steve K,

The Mongols invaded 1271 and were successful in China for 100 years.

The British (Opium Wars) and the Eight Nation Allience, including America (Boxer Rebellion), tried to impose themselves on China, during the 19th century.
We and the Brits didn’t leave until the Japanese invaded.

Posted by: Rocky at December 22, 2006 10:40 AM
Comment #200177


You’re 100% correct but the Chinese civilization survived. During those periods (Mongol, European), the Chinese culture wasn’t swayed by the newcomers. Similarly, the government, with their new rulers on the throne, managed to continue through the bureaucracy. Also, I don’t believe the Mongols controlled all of China.

Posted by: Steve K at December 22, 2006 11:09 AM
Comment #200179

“Good job of staying on topic.”


I’m scatterbrained sometimes.

Actually Jack’s article made me think about how vastly “mapism” has changed throughout the centuries and how agression has effected that.

I just did a bad job connecting the two.

Posted by: KansasDem at December 22, 2006 11:33 AM
Comment #200180

Jack: I think your mapism is a reflection of the dying art of Geography. Part of the problem is that you have to buy a new world globe nearly every year just to keep up. On a recent TV show, 7 out of ten people living in NYC couldn’t find New York on a map.

Possibly the oldest civilization on Earth, dating back nearly 9000 years, was located in what we call Iraq today. They called their city state’s The Land of the Civilized Lords.

Coal was never a resourse to the Romans or the Arabs is true if one considers it as a major source of energy such as for the idustrial revolution. But that good Damascus steel and those Roman swords weren’t pounded out of meteors. Many a Roman soldier threw a lump of coal in the fire on many a cold Britain night.

Posted by: jlw at December 22, 2006 11:35 AM
Comment #200181


Don’t worry. We will very soon have a lot to write about re dishonesty and incompetence in Congress. You do not realize that we are in a time of transition between you being able to kick us around and us putting on our shoes to give it back. I have had some fun with Pelosi already and expect a lot more.

Steve K

The Moguls controlled almost the whole place, but your meta point is valid. You also, of course, have the Tang and the Manchu (or whatever the new term is for them) who were not Han Chinese, but were just absorbed the the population.

The more I think about it, the more I think Persia/Iran deserves to be on the list. It is not quite as old as China, but it has been roughly the same heartland for more than 2500 years and they still speak the successor language to Cyrus the Great.

Actually, if we date China from the Chin, Persia is a little more ancient.

Posted by: Jack at December 22, 2006 11:41 AM
Comment #200182


I do not think the Romans knew coal made a decent fuel, but I really do not know. I know they did not make widespread use of it and that Marco Polo was surprised to see the Chinese burning “rocks”. Roman blacksmiths used charcoal made from wood. If you have any information re, I would be interested.

re Iran - see above. I also would be interested in Persia before Cyrus the Great if you have any recommendations.

Posted by: Jack at December 22, 2006 11:47 AM
Comment #200186

“Agression itself doesn’t bother me. It depends on who is doing it to whom and how it is working. NOT being agressive against bad guys is probably a sign of moral weakness.”


I understand what you’re saying, and yet I can’t help but hope we’ll someday evolve toward peaceful coexistence. I’m certain we’ll not witness such in our lifetimes.

You recently wrote about how smart a leader must be. I had no good answer then, but I would hope that any world leader, especially ours, would have an exceptional knowledge of history.

I like your word “mapism”. It may well become a contender for word of the year.

Posted by: KansasDem at December 22, 2006 12:04 PM
Comment #200188


You make many valid points. Both Persia/Iran and China survived through various foreign incursions and occupations over thousands of years, and many aspects of the civilizations/cultures survive to this day.

I guess the best test would be to speculate on how much a person from say, 1000BC would recognize his/her society if they were magically transported in time to today. I speculate that the Chinese person would much more than a Persian because of religion’s important role (among other things). But, I know precious little about both cultures.

Signing off for the day — Happy Festivus everyone!

Posted by: Steve K at December 22, 2006 12:18 PM
Comment #200189

Coal WAS a resorce for the anchient Romans> Actually a vital one,used in making iron.

Mapism? To quote Cheech Marin,”Hey man,We did not cross the border. The bordor crossed us.”

Posted by: BiilS at December 22, 2006 12:24 PM
Comment #200190

OOPS. I may stand corrected. The Romans did encounter coal usefor heating in Britania and made jewlry from it. As to widesread use looks like a no.

Posted by: BillS at December 22, 2006 12:37 PM
Comment #200191

Nice article Jack, and talkng about how many of today kids can locate other countries, problem is a lot of them can not even id the 50 different states and tell where they go.

Oh, yes one more thing:
History is written by the victor.

Posted by: KT at December 22, 2006 12:51 PM
Comment #200194

Jack: Our ancestors that forged civilization were every bit as intelligent as we are today. Probably the first use of coal was by hunter gathers who used black rocks from an outcrop to ring their fire. After Women discovered the ability to create agriculture, we started our climb upwards. Accidents, observations and the ability to accumulate and store knowledge is why and what we are today.

Posted by: jlw at December 22, 2006 1:05 PM
Comment #200196

I believe modern ignorance of geography is largely the result of modern disinterest in it. If people are willing to learn about it, they will learn about it. Our culture should motivate people to learn about more than just the latest fashion, fad, or clothing. I recently read a Scientific American article that said one of the keys to expert learning wasn’t so much talent as effortful study- working at a subject that’s just beyond your abilities until you’ve learned it.

What we tend to encourage is for people to take an attitude that such education is unnecessary, even burdensome to a person in our culture. That’s for stuck up people who can’t have fun, they say.

Our culture has to mature for itself.

It doesn’t hurt for history to be as much about the land as the nation. After all, I live in a state that once WAS a nation. Ours is the only flag I know of that can actually be flown at equal height to the American flag.

Six Flags over Texas is more than an amusement park, it’s a historical reality. The territory has been ruled over by a number of governments, from the Spanish to the Confederacy to the good ol’ US of A.

People need reference points. I think one of the big problems of history is that people are often left trying to confront it all at once, instead of trying to build up a framework of cues and patterns. If somebody tries to get you to pick out your state on a globe, and you didn’t bother to learn how it fit in to the rest of the country, of course you’d miss it.

We can’t get smart all at once. We have to work at it, and have a culture that places a premium on working on it. People can get pretty smart if they put their minds to it.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 22, 2006 1:19 PM
Comment #200216


This map shows 5000 years of history in the Middle East. Mapism, good word Jack! I could not find a world map like this one. But you can see Europe with this one as well.

Posted by: VOR at December 22, 2006 6:40 PM
Comment #200220


That is great and a great illustration of mapism.

Everybody has been conquered and probably most people have been among the agressors at one time or another. I always hate that BS about Muslims still fearing a crusade.

Posted by: Jack at December 22, 2006 8:26 PM
Comment #200257

I hate that CS about Christians not wanting another crusade.

Posted by: jlw at December 23, 2006 3:35 PM
Comment #200390

Maps convey the information the author wants. Accuracy and Interpretation of that information is subject to both the authors and readers abilities.

The maps of war site is interesting (I’d call it a movie shaped like a map :-). Yet the author bias of Bagdad/Jerusalem is interesting, since that is a very short term contemporary focus. One might want to observe the impact of Persia and Europe on the chains of empires displayed.

Also, if you want to see what a really good map can show, see Minard’s map of Napoleans Russian campaign. Perhaps a similar map will be drawn showing America’s influence under Bush II’s Iraq campaign? Or, perhaps, the return line grows under President Obama after ‘08…

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at December 26, 2006 10:31 AM
Comment #200419

A vaguely related issue that bugs me; Datism. Those ancient guys must have been really smart to know they were born in 373 B.C. (for example). How about some education on various calendars that were used on these history shows?

Posted by: Martian at December 26, 2006 1:57 PM
Comment #200427

martin, lol

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at December 26, 2006 3:35 PM
Comment #200449

It appears the liberals want us to talk about present corruption.

Name me a man who took more abramoff money than any other democratic senator…and refused to give any back….a man that made a million bucks on some ifluence peddling land scheme this year in Vegas, a man whoes kids are lobbiests. Corrupt as can be and the leader of the democrats in the Senate.

Harry Reid! Can you say: “Democratic Party Culture of Corruption”???

Posted by: stephen L at December 26, 2006 6:42 PM
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