Imagined Territories around the South Pole: The Southern Ring Continent, 1515-1554

by Chet Van Duzer

The maps in this group relate to a purely hypothetical continent in the southern Polar Regions that appeared on maps in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Since classical antiquity, some had believed there had to be a southern continent; not because of any early discovery of Antarctica or Australia, but based on ideas of symmetry. The maps in this group relate to a specific version of that southern continent on the ring of land around the South Pole, with open water at the Pole itself. The first illustrates one of the sources of this hypothetical continent: it is a map of the world according to the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, who not only believed there had to be a southern continent, but that the Nile had its source there. The other two maps, both from the sixteenth century, contain examples of this “southern ring continent,” one forming a complete ring around the Pole, the other with a break in the South Pacific to accommodate the cartographer’s theories about oceanic currents.

[Map of the world in hemispheres]

[Map of the world in hemispheres]. Michele Tramezzino. Venice: [1554]. Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

The map depicts a ring continent lying right along the Antarctic Circle, labeled “Terra Incognita” (Unknown land), with various unnamed mountains and rivers. It has an opening approximately 60° wide into the South Pacific, and this opening is aligned with the strait that separates eastern Asia from North America. The anonymous cartographer seems to imagine a flow of water from one pole to the other, something hypothesized by the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214-92), and this connection with Bacon is confirmed by the projection on which the map is based, which is precisely which Bacon had recommended. Bacon, however, does not mention a southern continent, so the cartographer imagined this continent through a combination of Bacon’s work and sixteenth-century maps and globes that depict a ring of land around the South Pole.

Antiquissima Orbis Delineatio

This “Very ancient map of the world” shows the earth according to the ideas of the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela (first century CE). Mela believed there was a large continent to the south of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and that this continent was the solution to one of the great geographical mysteries of antiquity, namely, why does the Nile River flood in the summer, when there are no rains. One theory held that this was because the river had its source in the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are the opposite: the river flooded when it rained at its southern source. This map thus shows the traditional source of the Nile, the Mountains of the Moon, in that southern continent: it was believed that the river flowed under the ocean from the southern continent to Africa, and after surfacing in Africa, continued its northward course to the Mediterranean. This imagined continent was thus invoked to solve the mystery of the Nile’s flooding.

[Anonymous world map in Ptolemy’s Geography c.1530. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana’s MS Urb. lat. 274.]

This map is remarkable for its huge, undulating southern continent that forms a ring around the southern polar region. Although labeled “Terra Inchognita Australe” (Unknown southern land), it is dense with place names, including six red city symbols in the southern part of Africa. The eastern block of the continent is labeled Regio Patalis, a name that comes from a misinterpretation of a passage in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Many of the other place names are invented, but the peninsula that juts northward toward southern Asia has names and phrase derived from Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage (1502-04). This same misplacement of Columbus’s discoveries so far to the south is also displayed on the Jagiellonian Globe of c. 1507, in the Jagiellonian University Museum in Kraków.