A Huaca, or sacred stone, in the landscape of the Peruvian Altiplano (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Last night I received an article from my local Romance Writers of America chapter about world building for writers and how making a map of a location can help to create your story and your plot. I got thinking about this and how it relates to human history. In particular I got to thinking about how some anthropologists and historians have drawn a line in the sand (the 15th Century) about when true maps came into existence. (See my last post here.) But it got me wondering whether they were short-sighted in their definition.
The authors of this theory have said that prior to the 15th century while people might have made maps, they largely weren’t made for the same purpose of orienting the landscape like maps are used for today. They talked about how maps of older civilizations presented a cosmology, not a spatial map, or were used to show relationships, which could as easily be represented in text or the spoken word. This, they posited, means that earlier map-like creations are not true maps. Whether they are wrong or right is a matter of some debate.
Trail along the Camino Inca, the path to Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
A case in point is Native American cartography. The literature about Native American maps is challenged by the fact that not only is it hard to find maps from pre-European contact (birch bark and leather just don’t stand up to five hundred years of colonization), but most of the records of native maps are colored by the perspectives of those who collected the map. The few maps that do exist require the reader to think of maps in more than one way. For example, records of a Virginian Algonquin map collected by John Smith in 1624 (while he was a prisoner), show a cosmological view of the world, but also a spatial linking of places. The map shows three concentric circles around a fire, with the first circle being a circle of meal representing the Algonquin Territory, the second being an inner circle of corn representing North America, and the third circle of corn representing the edge of the supposedly circular world. To try to understand John Smith’s origins from beyond North America, the Algonquin created a thatched stick island between circle two and three. Clearly this shows a sense of spatial distribution, even if it is not based on any scale a western European would use.
The ruins of Saqcsaywaman, Cusco, once part of the center of the Inca world. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Another interesting ‘map’ was a gesture used by a Native American Elder to describe the location of his town. The elder held his forefinger and thumb like a not-quite-closed-looped ‘okay’ symbol. The location of his town was between the unclosed tips of the finger and thumb, with Quebec, Montreal, New York, Boston and Halifax all located along the knuckles and joints of the rest of that looped finger set. This again clearly places the Native American town in relation to the major cities. So the question may not be whether Native American’s had maps, but whether they recorded their map information in a different way. Native American communities and living accommodations like the Navajo Hogan, the Pawnee earth lodge and even some longhouses could be said to be map-like in their structural symbolism of the concept of the sky dome or celestial vault providing shelter for a two dimensional geography with the four directions spreading out from a pivotal centre of the house. It might not be written on a piece of paper, but clearly there is a sense of direction and relationship to place within their sacred geography.
Finally, Petroglyphs, a primary source of pre-contact information about Native American culture, have also yielded examples of what could be maps, though there continues to be some debate. Some appear to show river routes and tributaries along with trails. Still other stone paintings appear to represent drive fences (fences used to drive prey animals into capture areas) complete with pictures of the animals that resided in the area.
Across the world we look for the sublime meaning of everything. Prayer flags, Tibetan area of Northern India, (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Which brings me back to the RWA article. It spoke about how, for a writer, a map can help you to give a greater sense of place to your writing. The writer will know where the towns and roads and lakes and mountains are in relationship to where the character is. But drawing a map can help the writer to also learn something beyond thethe lay of the land. A writer’s map can help you to understand what monsters live in what areas, what territory belongs to the enemy and what resources there are to harvest, along with your character’s place in the world. This leaves me to think the Native Americans understood modern (writerly) mapping better than the anthropologists and historians think they did, and that the modern writer’s map is based in something much deeper and perhaps more linked to the notion of a sacred human landscape. Both look for something more than just scaled lines on a page to find our way through either our imagination or the world.