Is it possible to determine the date of a world map?
April 7, 2016 6:26 AM   Subscribe

If you had a world map or globe that was correct and up-to-date the moment it was created, could you use one or more features on the map to pinpoint the year it was created?

I know for example if the map still showed the USSR it would have been created sometime between around 1920 and 1991. But I'm talking about a more specific detail — say, changes to borders of a country or the presence or absence of a location on the map (let's assume that the map is detailed enough to include major cities).

Even better — is there some sort of online resource out there that lists these changes that I could use to date random maps or globes that come into my possession? So for example I could go through a list of items to check that would narrow down the possible creation date?
posted by Deathalicious to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia has a good page on Timeline of country and capital changes.
posted by vacapinta at 6:28 AM on April 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

This list of countries and date of formation could also help.

The boarders of Israel could be good. Any areas with long boarder conflicts that are semi-stable long enough to make it to a map.
posted by chiefthe at 6:35 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was really interested in maps as a kid, and I found that knowledge of western and central Africa and Eastern Europe could usually get me within a couple of years for maps made between 1900 and 2000. It was a good party trick. So if you're looking for some quick dates to memorize and get you close, I'd focus on those regions.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:41 AM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

The boarders of Israel could be good.
Or, whether or not Israel is even on the map.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:44 AM on April 7, 2016

I would say for many areas you can. Some places have been stable for a long time, others haven't. I've seen many resources online that shows transforming borders and changing names of towns and places.

Here's a couple videos as an example.

As a genealogist I am researching this type of info all the time. I have people I researched that have listed 5 different places as birthplace, due to changing borders. Here a resource I was using yesterday.

People valued maps in the past, and now as antiques so they are preserved. There are also lots of Cartography hobbyists. I bet reddit has a subreddit for this and they'd jump on the change to date a map. I know I would love the challenge!
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:48 AM on April 7, 2016

I still have my old large National Geographic atlas. For several years, every year, they would send me a printed addendum of a few pages. Nearly all of the changes were flag-related, and there was always at least one city or country name change.
posted by Melismata at 6:52 AM on April 7, 2016

Note that many of the map changes in question are controversial, and so won't appear on all maps. For example:

* Many maps from the 1980s still showed Israel with its 1948 borders, since its territorial gains are often considered illegitimate.
* New maps may still show the Crimea as part of Ukraine, with no indication that it may be controlled by Russia.
* Some maps still showed "Rhodesia", with no "Southern", until the peace agreement in the 1980s.
* I seem to recall maps still using "Burma" (instead of "Myanmar") into the late 1990s.

Sometimes controversies can help with identification, though! Eg, the existence of all four "bantustans" in South Africa usually means the map was from between 1981 and 1986.
posted by vasi at 8:43 AM on April 7, 2016

You're going to be getting a composite of "when was this made" and "whose information were they using," in many cases. If I remember right, you can spot US government maps from 1945 through 1991 by the way they set aside Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia with a comment that the US doesn't recognize the claims of the USSR in that area. This doesn't consistently show up in other maps made in the US during this period. However, a lot of the English-language maps that you find online are based on the CIA maps released a year or two beforehand, and this is an easy way to figure out if that's your source material or not.

Similarly, you can narrow down the time of a map's production and it's source by how names in China are rendered, because of the extreme shift in transliteration rules. This is true for India as well, but to a much lesser extent. These aren't really name changes (like Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg) but linguistic/spelling shifts (Peking to Beijing, Bombay to Mumbai.) The British made these changes much faster than the US did, and the Russians didn't change any of their spellings at all that I've seen.
posted by SMPA at 9:11 AM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Land reclamation in the Netherlands gives some hints. For example, you can tell if a map showing the Netherlands predates the 1930s because the province of Flevoland was still under water and the Zuiderzee was still connected to the North Sea. In 1932, the Zuiderzee was cut off from the North Sea by the Afsluitdijk. This created the IJsselmeer lake. In 1975, the IJsselmeer was divided by the Houtribdijk, and the southern part was renamed the Markermeer lake. So you can tell if a map dates between 1932 and 1975 based on the labelling of those bodies of water (and, if it's detailed enough, on whether it shows the two dikes).

Pre-1930s maps will show the large Zuiderzee where Flevoland and the IJsselmeer/Markermeer are now; see this map from 1827 for an example. You can also tell if the map was created between 1939 and 1955 or 1968, because the northern part of Flevoland was drained before the southern part (which was drained in two phases); see this map for an example showing the northern part only.

Depending on the level of detail, you can look for other artificial islands and reclaimed areas such as the Maasvlakte and Maasvlakte 2 in Rotterdam.
posted by neushoorn at 5:17 AM on April 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might find Wikipedia's "List of sovereign states by date of formation" page helpful. Most of the other clues I can think of (changes to lakes & rivers, growth of cities...) will be nearly impossible to pick up at the scale of a world map.

Also, I recall reading in How to Lie With Maps that competing mapmakers and intelligence agencies will sometimes slip fake details into maps to detect copying or espionage. Sure enough, there's mention of "paper towns" and "trap streets" in the main Wikipedia article on cartography. Here's a small list of such traps, though most are at a scale unlikely to help you.
posted by richyoung at 4:22 PM on April 8, 2016

Ecuador had a long-running border dispute with Peru; for much of the second half of the 20th century the rest of the world considered it basically settled while Ecuador still claimed a big chunk of land that everyone else considered part of Peru. So you see a map that shows Ecuador containing the Napo river, odds are it was made in the second half of the 20th century, by an Ecuadorean.
posted by nickmark at 9:43 AM on April 26, 2016

Today's XKCD has a handy flowchart to answer this question.
posted by zsazsa at 7:50 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

OMG you guys...
posted by Deathalicious at 4:55 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

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