A map created by Turkish admiral and cartographer Piri Reis in 1513 has intrigued scholars both mainstream and alternative since it was discovered in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace in 1929. On the alternative side, it’s said that this map may show Antarctica hundreds of years before the continent was discovered (it was discovered in 1818). Furthermore, it is said to depict Antarctica as it was in a very remote age, before it was covered with ice.
In short, it could indicate advanced knowledge passed down from a prehistoric sea-faring civilization. Mainstream scientists refute this hypothesis, but remain intrigued by the mysteries this map presents.
Enough has been written about this single piece of etched gazelle skin to fill multiple books. Here we will highlight some key points of the Piri Reis studies, charting our way through its mysteries much as the navigators who used it would have traveled through the wide world they were just getting to know.
What’s Known About the Sources of the Map
Piri Reis wrote in an inscription on the map that he used 20 source materials (charts and maps) from various cartographers, combining the information to create his own. Among the sources were contemporary Portuguese maps as well as some that may have been passed down from the time of Alexander the Great or earlier.
Whether the source materials are as old as Piri Reis thought is a matter of debate. Gregory C. McIntosh, a leading expert on the Piri Reis map, wrote in his book, titled “Piri Reis Map of 1513,” that, “Arab writers often confused Claudius Ptolemy, the geographer of the 2nd century C.E., with Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals and the first Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, who reigned from 323 to 285 B.C.E.”
“Piri Reis has undoubtedly made the same error, resulting in his believing the charts and maps were from the time of Ptolemy I instead of Claudius Ptolemy,” McIntosh said.
If, however, Piri Reis was not mistaken and the maps are from General Ptolemy’s time, some say the maps may have come from the famed Ptolemaic Library of Alexandria. Could sources from a much earlier age than Piri Reis guessed have come to him from that Library?
How South America and ‘Antarctica’ Are Depicted by Piri Reis
On the Piri Reis map, it seems South America is strangely misshapen. While Brazil is clearly discernable, as the coastline is traced further south, it juts out east, seemingly depicting a landmass in a place where no such landmass exists today. This is the purported southern continent, also known as Terra Australis, or what some say is Antarctica.
So if this is really Antarctica, why doesn’t it look like Antarctica as we now know it? And why is it connected to South America?
To answer the first question, it’s said to accurately resemble part of Antarctica without ice. Today, more than 98 percent of the Antarctic continent is covered by glacier ice, according to Olafur Ingolfsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland.
Captain Lorenzo W. Burroughs, a U.S. Air Force captain in the cartographic section, wrote a letter to Dr. Charles Hapgood in 1961 saying that the “Antarctica” depicted on the Piri Reis map seems to accurately show Antarctica’s coast as it is under the ice.
“The Princess Martha Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, appears to be truly represented on the southern sector of the Piri Reis map. The agreement of the Piri Reis map with the seismic profile of this area made by the Norweigan-British-Swedish expedition of 1949 … places beyond a reasonable doubt the conclusion that the original source maps must have been made before the present Antarctic ice cap covered the Queen Maud Land coasts,” Burroughs wrote, as recorded in Dr. Hapgood’s 1966 book “Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings.”
Dr. Hapgood (1904–1982) was one of the first to publicly suggest that the Piri Reis map depicts Antarctica during a prehistoric time. He was a Harvard-educated historian whose theories about geological shifts earned the admiration of Albert Einstein. This brings us to the second question of why “Antarctica” is connected to South America in the Piri Reis map.
All maps from this time contain some inaccuracies. Coastlines were often exaggerated in size, for example, because navigators needed to know in particular detail what they would encounter there. It’s possible cartographers also supplemented what hadn’t actually been observed with what they imagined should be there. For example, Piri Reis’s depiction of North America is very inaccurate, but it provides the same information as many other maps of the time. One theory is that these maps show Asia where North America should be, since hopes were still high that a route to Asia may be found through the Atlantic, though Europeans had begun to explore the continent standing in their way.
We will discuss some of the accuracies and inaccuracies of this map in further detail later, but for now, it may be noted that Piri Reis’s compilation of various sources, combined with the imprecise methods of mapping in his day, could produce a map with an accurate coastline of Antarctica (taken from one source) and an inaccurate placement of that coast (taken from another source).
Also to be taken into consideration, when a 2-D map is made, the spherical geography of the Earth is distorted. Piri Reis’s method of mapping and how this relates to the distortion is a matter of debate among researchers.
Distortion, however, is not the explanation Hapgood gave for the northern positioning of Antarctica. Hapgood hypothesized that the land masses shifted.
He said a rapid 15-degree pole shift may have occurred some 11,000 years ago. In an introduction to Hapgood’s book “Earth’s Shifting Crust,” Albert Einstein praised Hapgood’s theory and explained that these shifts could “produce a movement of the Earth’s crust over the rest of the Earth’s body, and this will displace the polar regions toward the equator.”
Modern studies refute Hapgood’s theory to a certain extent, but they do show that such movement in the Earth’s crust can occur, especially pushing landmasses from the poles toward the equator, just as Antarctica would purportedly have been pushed toward the equator.
John A. Tardunu, a geophysicist at the University of Rochester, has said the poles have not deviated by more than 5 degrees over the past 130 million years. True polar wander is generally held to occur at a rate of 1 degree per million years.
But, 800 million years ago, it seems a 50-degree shift took place, according to Adam Maloof, an associate professor of geosciences at Princeton University. This shift happened over the course of perhaps 10 million to 20 million years, Maloof explained in an interview with NPR.
The crusts shifted at a rate of about 20 inches (50 centimeters) a day, compared to the rate they are shifting today of 4 inches (10 centimeters) a day. He explained that the globe shifts its weight toward the equator to maintain equilibrium as it rotates.
“And what was particularly bizarre about this shift [that happened 800 million years ago] is that it was a there-and-back-again motion. It seemed to rotate one way, and then rotate back,” Maloof said.
So, Hapgood’s timeline of 11,000 years ago doesn’t match up with current data, and a shift of tens of millions of years is considerably more leisurely than Hapgood’s idea of rapid shifts within thousands of years. But, Antarctica may have moved up closer to the equator at some in the Earth’s history.
For this to fit with the theory that a prehistoric civilization mapped the Antarctic coast where it is shown in the Piri Reis map, we’d have to place that civilization much further back in time, or learn something new about how the Earth’s crust shifts.
Latitude Described in Anomalous Manner
A note inscribed by Piri Reis opposite South America translates as: “It is related by the Portuguese infidel that in this spot night and day are at their shortest of two hours, at their longest of 22 hours. But the day is very warm and in the night there is much dew.”
This description suggests a far more southern latitude than the Portuguese or anyone else is known to have sailed by 1513. McIntosh wrote: “The latitude indicated by the number of daylight hours given in the inscription would be between 60 degrees and 67 degrees south, depending on whether the edge, center, or entire disk of the sun were being sighted. This range of latitudes, in Drake Passage south of Tierra del Fuego and the Plamer Peninsula in Antarctica is further south than the Portuguese or anyone else is known to have sailed until the next century.”
McIntosh is not a proponent, however, of the theory that Piri Reis attained information about Antarctica from a prehistoric source map. He believes the southern continent depicted in the map is one produced by imagination. From the time of the ancient Greeks, a southern continent had been discussed, though not actually observed, said McIntosh during a presentation at a 2013 conference at the Turkish Embassy in London celebrating the map’s 100-year anniversary. Many maps, not only Piri Reis’s show a southern continent in various forms.
For McIntosh, these maps all show a fictional continent and do not provide evidence of voyages to Antarctica. Ancient maps are often said to show imaginary or mythical creatures and places, though some argue these myths contain a grain of truth. Famed author and researcher Graham Hancock is a proponent of the theory that advanced civilizations existed in prehistory. For him, the multiple maps support the veracity of Piri Reis’s Antarctica. Hapgood and the Air Force cartographers had also analysed, for example, the 1531 map of Oronce Finé and found the same purported accuracy in tracing the Antarctic coastline as it would appear without ice.
Surprising Accuracy in Other Regards
It wasn’t until 1790, with the invention of the marine chronometer, that navigators and cartographers could pinpoint the longitude of a given position with accuracy. Yet, Hancock noted in an interview for the 1996 NBC special series “The Mysterious Origins of Man,” that the Piri Reis map shows the coastlines of Africa and South America within a half a degree of longitude—stunning precision.
Not all aspects of the map are so precise, but the equator is also well-placed and some surprising details are given.
Steven Dutch, a natural and applied sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, does not believe the map accurately depicts Antarctica, but he does note the mysteries it presents: “The map seems to show more detail than Europeans were likely to have in 1513. Pizarro hadn’t been to Peru yet, so how did Piri Reis know about the Andes? Did somebody hear tales of mountains far inland? Also, the detail on the South American coast seems a bit rich for 1513. Was the map begun then and completed later? Was the map copied later and the date miscopied?”
Dutch suggests the southern tip of South America may be distorted, bending east where it shouldn’t; thus, the landmass said to be Antarctica would actually be a warped depiction of southern South America. McIntosh does not believe this is the case, but does not rule out the possibility.
Is the southern landmass depicted by this 16th century cartographer, whose skills were of high repute in his day, a mythological continent, a misguided depiction of South America, or a true—and perhaps astoundingly old—depiction of Antarctica’s coast?