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Portugal May Have Put America on the Map

Geography: A self-styled historian says a 1507 print of the South American coasts suggests that someone beat Magellan to the punch.


A fresh look at the ancient Waldseemueller Map, commonly called the baptismal certificate of America, is offering tantalizing clues that it was Portuguese navigators, and not the Spanish, who first explored the west coast of South America--a finding that could recast the early history of New World exploration.

The 1507 Waldseemueller Map--the first document that gave the name America to the New World--has such an accurate depiction of the coasts of South America that it could only have been based on firsthand knowledge of the continent, according to amateur historian Peter W. Dickson, a retired CIA analyst who will present his conclusions Thursday in a lecture at the Library of Congress.

A close reading of the map suggests that some as-yet-unknown explorer sailed through the South American straits later named after Magellan and traveled north as far as Acapulco no later than 1506, and perhaps several years earlier, Dickson said. In either case, the date is well before Magellan's discovery of the Pacific Ocean and circumnavigation of the world in a voyage sponsored by Spain that began in 1519.

The Portuguese kept the discovery secret because of their intense trade rivalry with the Spanish, who had claimed the New World as their own sphere of influence, he added.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 08, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 292 words Type of Material: Correction
Waldseemueller Map--A story in Section A on Sunday about the 1507 Waldseemueller Map incorrectly ascribed the Europeans' discovery of the Pacific Ocean to Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan was the first to sail into the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan, although Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first European to sight the ocean. The story also misspelled the name of Spain's royal map. The correct spelling is Padron Real.

Dickson's proposal, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the cartography journal Exploring Mercator's World, has not yet been widely circulated, and those who are familiar with it have mixed feelings.

"I think there is merit here," said cartographer John Hebert of the Library of Congress, which is in the process of purchasing the Waldseemueller Map for $10 million. "Until proven otherwise, his observations are correct. There is some exciting stuff on that map that really needs additional study. It shows what happens when a scholar looks at something with fresh eyes and begins asking the right questions."

Independent cartographer and map dealer Kenneth Nebenzahl embraced the idea less quickly. "My first reaction to something like this always is, here comes another quack," he said. "Then I stared at that map again, and I said 'This guy is not completely crazy.' Later, I said to myself, 'Why didn't I notice that?' "

Geographer David Woodward of the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus is still skeptical. "I would take issue with" Dickson's conclusions, he said. "I think it [the map's resemblance to the known coastline] is simply a coincidence ... I would like to see some more solid, archival evidence to back that up."

On that point, at least, everyone is in agreement, including Dickson. The Spanish and Portuguese archives have already been mined pretty thoroughly, all agreed, but now that scholars have something specific to look for, they might find some previously overlooked nugget of information that will shed more light on the map.

"This is the ultimate human artifact," Dickson said. Not only is the map the first to bear the name of America, but it is also the first to show the New World as separate continents distinct from Asia and the first to show the presence of a major ocean separating the New World from Asia.

"I don't know of another artifact that has that much information packed into it," he said.

The Waldseemueller Map is a massive work, a woodcut print on paper in 12 sections that together measure 8 feet by 4.5 feet. Before it was produced at a Catholic monastery in Saint Die in the Lorraine province of France, maps showed a world composed only of Europe, Africa and Asia, with the New World drawn only as vague appendages to Asia.

In addition to the map, cartographer Martin Waldseemueller produced a 103-page book, "Cosmographiae Introductio," which noted that the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci had recently discovered "a fourth part" of the world. "Since Europa and Asia have received names of women, I see no reason why we should not call this other part 'Amerige,' that is to say, the land of Americus, or America, after the sagacious discoverer [Amerigo]."

The name was applied only to the southern continent, with the north left unlabeled.

Hidden away for centuries in the family castle of Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg in southern Germany, the map resurfaced in 1901. Five hundred copies were made at the time, with one going to the Library of Congress. The library has been trying on and off to purchase the original, and last year struck a deal with the prince's heirs to buy the map for $10 million.

The library is still $3.5 million short of its fund-raising goal for the map, Hebert said. The authenticity of the Waldseemueller Map has never been seriously questioned.

Dickson spent 20 years as a political and military analyst for the CIA and the State Department and frequently lectures on foreign affairs topics at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington. For the last 10 years, he has devoted his free time to studying Christopher Columbus and the political impact of the voyages to the New World.

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