Middle Earth

by 3400 3,400 words
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Middle Earth

Photo courtesy NASA

The Equator once marked the edge of the civilised world. If we put it at the centre, we might see our place in the heavens

Kurt Hollander is a writer, translator, editor, photographer and filmmaker. He lives in Mexico City.

3400 3,400 words
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Though he never actually crossed it, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras is sometimes credited with having first conceived of the Equator, calculating its location on the Earth’s sphere more than four centuries before the birth of Christ. Aristotle, who never stepped over it either and knew nothing about the landscape surrounding it, pictured the equatorial region as a land so hot that no one could survive there: the ‘Torrid Zone’. For the Greeks, the inhabited world to the north — what they called the oikumene — existed opposite an uncharted region called the antipodes. The two areas were cut off from one another by the Equator, an imaginary line often depicted as a ring of fire populated by mythical creatures.

First created in the 7th century, the Christian orbis terrarum (circle of the Earth) maps, known for visual reasons as ‘T-and-O’ maps, included only the northern hemisphere. The T represented the Mediterranean ocean, which divided the Earth’s three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe — each of which was populated by the descendants of one of Noah’s three sons. Jerusalem usually appeared at the centre, on the Earth’s navel (ombilicum mundi), while Paradise (the Garden of Eden) was drawn to the east in Asia and situated at the top portion of the map. The O was the Ocean surrounding the three continents; beyond that was another ring of fire.

For the Catholic Church, the Equator marked the border of civilisation, beyond which no humans (at least, no followers of Christ) could exist. In The Divine Institutes (written between 303 and 311CE), the theologian Lactantius ridiculed the notion that there could be inhabitants in the antipodes ‘whose footsteps are higher than their heads’. Other authors scoffed at the idea of a place where the rain must fall up. In 748, Pope Zachary declared the idea that people could exist in the antipodes, on the ‘other side’ of the Christian world, heretical.

This medieval argument was still rumbling on when Columbus first sailed southwest from Spain to the ‘Indies’ in 1492. Columbus, who had seen sub-Saharans in Portuguese ports in west Africa, disagreed with the Church: he claimed that the Torrid Zone was ‘not uninhabitable’. Although he never actually crossed the Equator, he did go beyond the borders of European maps when he inadvertently sailed to the Americas. To navigate, Columbus used, among others, the Imago Mundi (1410), a work of cosmography written by the 15th-century French theologian Pierre d’Ailly, which included one of the few T-and-O maps with north situated at the top. Columbus’s eventual ‘discovery’ of America stretched the horizons of the European mind. The Equator was gradually reimagined: no longer the extreme limit of humanity, a geographical hell on Earth, it became simply the middle of the Earth.

A T and O map An orbis terrarum (circle of the Earth) map, also known as a ‘T-and-O’ map

The Equator cuts across the Molucca and Halmahera seas, the Karimata and Makassar straits, Lake Victoria and the Gulf of Tomini, and 14 countries in Africa, southeast Asia and the Americas. Of all these nations, only one named itself after the line: Ecuador. Not surprisingly, Ecuador’s tourist industry makes a big deal of the association. The Galapagos Islands might be the country’s number-one attraction, but few visitors leave without first walking the line in Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, situated high in the Andes mountains about 20 miles north of the capital, Quito.

Tourists watch amazed as water swirls down through a plughole in different directions depending on which side of the Equator the sink is placed

The Intiñan Museum in Ciudad Mitad del Mundo is designed to educate tourists about the wonders of Ecuador. It boasts a scale model of the Galapagos Islands, installed in a fountain, and several displays about the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, including a series of paintings that illustrate how to shrink a head. However, none of these explain why busloads of tourists flock to the place. In fact, they come to witness firsthand the ‘unique forces at play’ on the Equator, which is indicated by a red line that cuts through the middle of the museum. Tourists jump gleefully from one side to another, attempt to stand an egg on the head of a nail (they receive a certificate if they succeed), and watch amazed as water swirls down through a plughole in different directions depending on which side of the Equator the sink is placed. Although it is usually defined as an ‘imaginary’ line, the Equator is indeed marked by the occurrence of unusual phenomena — though not very precisely marked, and not by the sorts of phenomena advertised at the Intiñan. The painted stripe that wends through the museum misses the actual Equator by several metres.

What ‘unique forces’ are at play, then? The velocity of the Earth’s rotation varies depending on where you stand: 1,000 mph at the Equator versus almost zero at the poles. That means that the fastest sunrises and sunsets on the planet occur on the Equator, and centrifugal and inertial forces are also much greater there. Together, they produce what is known as the Coriolis effect, which largely determines the direction of weather systems, ocean currents, the east-west path of hurricanes, and the fact that tornados spin in opposite directions on each side of the Equator (it is not enough, however, to alter the equilibrium of eggs on a nail or the spiral of a gallon of water in a sink). Centrifugal and inertial forces affect the relative motion of all objects that lift off sufficiently far from the Earth, from cannonballs to missiles. Spacecraft are launched from sites close to the Equator, such as the Space Centre in French Guiana: they are already moving faster than objects elsewhere on the Earth, and the extra velocity reduces the amount of fuel needed to enter space.

Because of these same centrifugal forces, the Earth’s diameter at the Equator is approximately 27 miles (43 km) greater than from pole to pole. Instead of a sphere, our planet is shaped like an M&M (or, as New Scientist claimed in 2011, like a lumpy potato). The extra distance from the Earth’s core means that gravity is weaker at the Equator: about 0.6 per cent weaker than at the poles. And the equatorial bulge means that the Earth’s highest point, when measured by the distance from its core (rather than sea level), is not the peak of Mount Everest but that of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

The countries along the Equator are dotted with monuments that mark its location, including a large rock placed near a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer famous for supposedly uttering the insipid phrase ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’. But the world’s largest structure commemorating this imaginary line, a 100ft-high monolith with a five-ton globe resting on top, is in Ecuador, a mere 500ft from the Intiñan Museum. Built in 1979, the monument gave rise to a tiny, imitation Spanish colonial town. No one actually lives there: it closes at sundown and is full of gift shops, mostly selling miniature replicas of the monument.

Although it is marked by a long yellow line and has the latitude 0º 0’ 0’ embossed on its side, Ecuador’s Equator monument is dedicated less to the Equator itself than to a team of French scientists who came here in the 18th century to carry out geodesic observations. Two scientific teams set out from France in the 1730s, one heading to Lapland near the North Pole and the other to the Viceroyalty of Peru, to measure the length of one degree of latitude. Being able to compare the length of a single degree of latitude at the Equator to one at the poles would help to determine the exact size of the Earth, create more accurate maps and, more importantly, would finally settle an ongoing debate. French scientists of the time were convinced that the Earth swelled at the poles, while English scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton, believed that it was the Equator that bulged.

The team’s surgeon was killed by an enraged mob in Cuenca during a running-of-the-bulls celebration, and the draftsman got sick and died

The French Geodesic Mission was the first major scientific incursion into South America. The Viceroyalty of Peru was selected because there the Equator was close to a city (Quito), and was situated between two major mountain ranges running north to south, thus offering a perfect panorama in which to carry out geodesic calculations. The team consisted of ten renowned French scientists, led by an astronomer, a mathematician and a geographer. In order to gain permission to conduct their experiments in a Spanish colony, the French scientists had to bring two Spanish naval officers, notionally with specialisations in geography, though in fact they were spies. In 1736, the team arrived in Quito, where a local scientist and mapmaker made up the numbers. The party set up camp about 10 miles north of the city, in the Andes mountains.

Professional relations broke down almost from the start. The French scientists gave the Spaniards a cold shoulder. The team was poorly equipped for the altitude and weather conditions, and sickness spread quickly. Indians living in the mountains, afraid that the Europeans were dividing up the land among themselves, pulled up the stakes that the scientists were using as markers to calculate distances. Local officials accused the team of trying to steal Incan artifacts, almost running them out of town. The team’s surgeon was killed by an enraged mob in Cuenca during a running-of-the-bulls celebration, and the draftsman got sick and died. Five years before the Equatorial team could complete its work, the Polar expedition finished measuring one degree of latitude, conclusively proving that the Earth bulged at the Equator and receiving applause from the European scientific community.

The French Geodesic Mission on the Equator might not have contributed much to the advancement of science, but its presence, and the scientific methods and ideas that it brought to the Americas, were to have a profound influence. Along with the latest gadgets, the French brought the spirit of Enlightenment, a scientific worldview that would eventually lead to revolution in France and independence in the New World. For centuries, the land in which the scientists found themselves had been known as the República de Quito. After declaring independence from Spain in 1830, this newly created country chose a new name in large part inspired by its enlightened visitors, who had always referred to it as Tierra del Ecuador, the land of the Equator.

Before leaving the country, the French erected a pyramid-like monument to the mission on the site where they had first drawn the line of the Equator. They neglected to include the names of their two Spanish officers, prompting the Spanish Crown to order the destruction of the French fleur-de-lis on its peak. And then the monument was left to crumble over the years. In 1936, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Geodesic Mission’s arrival, a stone monument topped by a brass globe was erected in San Antonio de Pichincha. Almost 50 years later, this monument was moved to a nearby town, replaced by the 100ft stone version that stands today, flanked by busts of all the members (Spaniards included) of the French Geodesic Mission.

Both the giant monument and the museum dedicated to the Equator missed the actual line by a wide margin. Yet many pre-Hispanic constructions stand directly on it. European astronomers living far from the Equator might have calculated its location scientifically (though always with a significant margin of error), but long before that, those living in the region seem to have pinpointed the exact location without the need for scientific devices.

The Incas, based in southern Cuzco, came north to invade the equatorial region in the late 15th century and, once they had dominated the local indigenous cultures, they set to work in the mountains building a series of pucaráes, huge circular structures made from stones. Ecuadorian and international anthropologists believe that these constructions, the most important Incan remains within the equatorial region, were military fortifications. Not everyone, however, is convinced.

Cristóbal Cobo stands on the line of the Equator at the giant Quitsato sundial Cobo on the line of the Equator at the giant Quitsato sundial. Photo by Kurt Hollander

Cristóbal Cobo, a deep-voiced outdoorsman in his late 40s, used to make frequent visits from his native Quito to the mountain range 10 miles to the north to go hang-gliding. His solo flights gave him a bird’s-eye-view of the area, while his use of GPS technology, GoogleEarth and Stellarium helped him to track the line of the Equator throughout the region. After mapping out the known indigenous constructions in the area, he began to use AutoCAD and other sophisticated 3D computer-imaging programs to project lines from Catequilla, the site of a large circular structure, out into the surrounding hills. This led to the discovery of several more archaeological sites. According to a map that Cobo created, Catequilla is the centre of a series of 13 pre-Hispanic constructions, all aligned along the principal geographical and celestial lines and thus all in perfect geometrical relation to the Equator.

His maps led to a bloated sense of self for the northern countries, located at the top of the map, while diminishing the southern hemisphere’s sense of size and importance

A self-taught Ecuadorian astronomer, anthropologist and geographer, Cobo came to the conclusion that these circular constructions were not forts (they were too far from any urban centres to offer much protection), but evidence of a more celestial purpose. The Incas were aware of the existence of the Equator from the reports of travellers who had seen their shadows disappear during the equinoxes. More than just imperial warmongers, the Incas were also children of the Sun (their principal deity) and avid stargazers. According to Cobo, the several pucaráes located on the Equator, in line with the major celestial bodies, were most likely observatories from which to chart the stars and the movement of the Sun.

The Catequilla construction is a stone wall, 1.8 metres high, forming an arc approximately 70 metres in diameter. It stands on the only elevated plain located directly on the Equator, affording it an unobstructed 360-degree view. From this unique vantage point, the southern and northern constellations and all of the most important archeological sites in the region are visible with the naked eye. Cobo believes that the arc in Catequilla was constructed in line with the path of the Sun above the Equator: one end of the wall receives the sunrise during the winter solstice and the other end catches the sunset during the summer solstice.

As an outgrowth of these ideas, Cobo recently created the Quitsato Project, ‘a multidisciplinary study in archeology and astronomy designed to realise the correct interpretation of the meaning and function of the pre-Hispanic cultural contexts that exist in the equatorial Andes’. As part of his project, Cobo has created a giant sundial, the only man-made object on the Equator that can be seen from space. It is located exactly on the line, a short drive from Cobo’s home in the Hacienda de Guachalá (which happens to be where the French Geodesic Mission stayed in 1736). The sundial’s gnomon is a giant vertical tube. Patterns of white rock radiate away from the centre, serving as calendar, clock and compass. For just a few seconds twice a year, the sun, directly overhead at noon during the equinoxes, illuminates a mirror at the bottom of the giant tube.

Although Cobo uses the latest satellite tracking devices and sophisticated computer programs to chart his maps of indigenous astro-architecture, he is wary of the European scientific methods and worldviews that have accompanied colonialism in its spread across the globe. The French Geodesic Mission, armed with what was then the latest gadgets and theories, not only failed to calculate the location of the Equator accurately: its enlightened culture based on science eventually gave rise to ever more efficient systems for exploiting the New World.

In particular, Cobo has problems with the direction that mapmaking has taken. In 150AD, Ptolemy drew the first world map with north placed firmly at the top. This orientation has become the standard one for maps everywhere. The preeminence of north derives from the use of Polaris, also known as the North Star, as the guiding light for sailors. Yet Polaris, or any other star for that matter, is not a fixed point. Because of the Sun and Moon’s gravitational attraction, the Earth actually moves like a wobbling top. This wobble, known to astronomers as the precession of the Equator, represents a cyclical shift in the Earth’s axis of rotation. It makes the stars seem to migrate across the sky at the rate of about one degree every 72 years. This gradual shift means that Polaris will eventually cease to be viewed as the North Star, and sailors will have to orient themselves by other means.

According to Cobo, the best point that we can use to orient ourselves is the Sun rising in the east above the Equator. As he points out, the very word orientation comes from the Latin oriens, which means east, or sunrise, while ‘disorient’ means losing direction, losing one’s way or, literally, losing the east. In Western culture, north is used to determine all other directions, yet the origin of the word itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European prefix ner-, which means down or under, but also left, and was commonly used as ‘left when facing the rising Sun’. Thus, in order to determine north, one needs to know the direction east.

In 1569, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, the first to mass-produce Earth and star globes, devised a system for projecting the round Earth onto a flat sheet of paper. His ‘new and augmented description of Earth corrected for the use of sailors’ made the Earth the same width at the Equator and the poles, thus distorting the size of the continents. Although Mercator created his projection (still used today in almost all world maps) for navigation purposes, his scheme led to a bloated sense of self for the northern countries, located at the top of the map, while diminishing the southern hemisphere’s sense of size and importance.

The positioning of the northern above the southern hemisphere, and the distortion of their true size on most maps, has divided the globe into simplistic binary oppositions: First versus Third World; civilised versus primitive; developed versus underdeveloped countries. In fact, it would make more sense to divide the world into Aristotle’s Temperate, Torrid and Frigid zones, for it is not the southern hemisphere that has the greatest concentration of poverty, but rather the equatorial region.

From the beginning, more than being purely representations of the physical world, maps have been projections of man’s sense of self-importance onto the space around him. They have often been influenced by imperial or religious interests, props to the privileged status of certain cultures. Cobo believes that many of the geopolitical, ideological and economic hierarchies that shape our vision of the world would ‘disappear’ if the globe were laid on its side and all maps were rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise, putting the east on top of the world and north with south spread out on either side of the Equator.

It is true that in space, directions don’t exist. On Earth, however, east is our most universal orientation. One loses sight of the southern celestial hemisphere when facing north, and it is only by gazing east that one can see both the northern and southern constellations simultaneously as the stars pass by overhead. As our planet hurtles through space, whipping around on its axis, the Sun and the stars, time and the future, approach us from the east. There is nowhere we can better appreciate the movement of the skies, better understand our place in the universe, than when we stand on the line that wraps around the middle of the Earth and watch the heavens streaming towards us.

Corrections, May 29, 2013: The essay previously stated that Medieval mapmakers did not know that the Earth is round. The sentence has been removed. It was also implied that wind comes from the East. This too has been altered. 

Read more essays on earth science, history of ideas and values & beliefs


  • Gyrus

    Fascinating piece, thanks. One small point:

    Thus, in order to determine north, one needs to know the direction east.

    One of the oldest methods for establishing the cardinal directions is using a stick's shadow. Roman surveyors would place the stick in a circle and mark the points where the shadow entered then left the circle - obtaining an accurate east-west line. However, the more primitive method seems to have been to simply note the shortest shadow, determining north. This seems to have been the earliest approach, echoed in the fact that the principle street in Roman towns was the north-south Cardo Maximus (cardo originally meaning “that on which something turns or depends; pole of the sky”).

    I think there's a lot of evidence that many early cultures prioritized north as a point of orientation. However, naturally we're talking about early cultures in the northern hemisphere, and your point about this deep psychogeographic bias to global culture is well taken. The north as a point of orientation is entangled with systems of political dominance (e.g. the significance of circumpolar stars to the cult of the pharoah in Egypt, and to the mythic dimensions of kingship in ancient China). Of course, the sun (and thus the east) is also commonly rallied as an image of royal power, dominance and authority. But there's definitely something interesting in the idea of re-orienting our geographic imagination around the equator.

  • drokhole

    Great piece! The last bit reminded me of this clip from Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing":

    West Wing - Why are we changing maps?

  • http://twitter.com/MikeHanlon1964 Michael Hanlon

    Good piece. How we orient our maps is not something we give enough consideration to.
    Couple of gripes though:
    The north isn't important because of Polaris; it is the other way round. If there were no Pole Star there would still be a North Pole and sailors would still need to know where it was.
    Medieval mapmakers certainly knew the Earth was round.
    The Mercator distortions apply to both the northern and southern hemispheres equally.
    Put east at the top and where do you draw the new 'equator'?
    There are directions in space. The astronauts didn't fly randomly to the Moon.
    Winds do not always 'approach from the east'. Indeed, quite the opposite in many cases.

  • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

    Another way of putting the equator at the centre is to map the globe as two hemispheres side by side, north and south. This keeps things in better proportion and privileges neither hemisphere (unless you think the left is sinister).

    It also has the advantage of modelling the universe as a whole, since the surface of the globe is in one-to-one correspondence with a non-Euclidean hypersphere of positive curvature.

  • Tachyonic


  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.rudnin.5 Michael Rudnin

    Knowledge of the ancients ... hah!

  • http://twitter.com/TimInman Tim Inman

    My wife and I met in College, near Santa Cruz, California. I had a romantic idea: we should get up early, go to the beach, and watch the sun rise (over the ocean). I got an unexpected dose of humility. I remembered that the sun rises in the East when it failed to rise above the ocean as expected and was obstructed by the cliffs behind us instead.

  • Gabriel Roldos

    I like this: "mythical creatures from the ring of fire"
    I want to share the comment of my folclorist friend, Patricio Paucar: "...aidadelante una señal mas para comfirmar que en esta Era de la Claridad la verdad se impone y todo tenemos que hacerlo con energia de amor"
    thanks for the great article

  • Cristóbal Cobo

    My intention is not to
    discuss ideological point of views. Just what I am doing is providing
    a scientific support for a geographical perspective. Since from the
    space we have no directions, but in the Earth, as terrestrial
    observers , we do have directions (E, W, N and S) and the referent in
    front, is the East, due to two axioms. First, because only forward
    the East we have the only fixed point in the cosmos, is the sunrise
    at the equinoxes and second, because only forward the East we have an
    integral view of the sky as an observer. If we aligned forward North,
    we loose the perspective of the south, and vicer verse. The west is
    the worst direction, because, we cannot understand the movements of
    the celestial objects from where they disappear. So the East becomes
    the only direction that can provide us an argument for the
    Geographical Perspective.

    Cristóbal Cobo

    • Jacob Vick

      I read the whole article, and where is the pay-off? Where is the map of the world with East at the top?

      • Cristóbal Cobo

        Eastward map.

        • Cato

          Knowing India used to abut Madagascar, and that Africa's sliding north and will eventually close the Med, and that Australia will settle on top of Japan in time, and given the relative land masses "west" and "east" today on this politically correct map, it would seem much of the cultural bias discussion awkwardly stuffed into this essay is pointless and socially ironic. Not everything is useful in the fight for individual dignity and personal freedom, and this verges on satire.

          • Cristóbal Cobo

            My intention is not to
            discuss ideological point of views. Just what I am doing is providing
            a scientific support for a geographical perspective. Since from the
            space we have no directions, but in the Earth, as terrestrial
            observers , we do have directions (E, W, N and S) and the referent in
            front, is the East, due to two axioms. First, because only forward
            the East we have the only fixed point in the cosmos, is the sunrise
            at the equinoxes and second, because only forward the East we have an
            integral view of the sky as an observer. If we aligned forward North,
            we loose the perspective of the south, and vicer verse. The west is
            the worst direction, because, we cannot understand the movements of
            the celestial objects from where they disappear. So the East becomes
            the only direction that can provide us an argument for the
            Geographical Perspective.

            Cristóbal Cobo

    • Sean Westberg

      I'll humbly disagree that in space there is no direction. Yes, there is no magnetic compass directions once we leave earth, but in any given frame of reference, you only need six reference points to create a directional system.

      Axial-based maps probably are going to be the best bet too for navigational purposes. Even if you orient your maps to an East = Top of Map orientation, you're still adjusting for magnetic East/True East, and describing that to someone who is new to maps is a lot more complicated than describing True/Magnetic North or South orientation, since that has to do with the axial rotation and an east = top map is a trigonometric function of the axial rotation (a simple one, but still trig).

      Once you know what you're doing, then reorientation is not a difficult thing on an East = Top style map. But it runs counter to intuition. Consider a global map where East = Top vs a North = Top or even a South = Top map. What delineates the top/bottom of the map? International date line? Greenwich Longitudinal line (which makes a map even more European-centric)? 0 Longitude? These are arbitrarily made points that hold no real meaning from a "natural" scientific standpoint. They also misrepresent the general orientation of the earth's axial tilt in this manner- 23 degrees (a north = up orientation is not accurate either, but is a lot closer than East = up).

      Maps are approximations of a globe, which in itself is an approximation of the planet. I suggest a globe that is turned 90 degrees to support an East = Up configuration by default would impart less information intrinsically than the way modern globes are portrayed now: with north being "up" more or less and the axial tilt being 23 degrees off of that, which it is in nature. To be useful the altered globe would have to be accompanied by a postieriori knowledge to adjust your understanding of what you were looking at: A knowledge that you couldn't glean simply by looking at the globe. That posteriori knowledge would only be gained by breaking the frame of reference you argue to establish.

      As you move out into the solar system you start encountering planets with *really* severe axial tilts, and orientation becomes important again. To keep the severity of axial tilt relative with your East = up idea, a planet such as Uranus would have to be further altered 90 degrees and that globe would impart extremely unintuitive data.

      From a philosophical/poetic point of view I have no problem with reorienting the map. It's always better to look at things in new ways. But I shy away from the idea as anything other than a thought exercise because consistency and transparency of data communicated in as intuitive of a way possible is an underlying necessity of any model of nature.

      • Cristóbal Cobo

        Excelent your point of view. But, the main reason why I am talkin about perspectives, is because, muy proposal, is based on a terrestrial perspective. Forget about magnetism, the magnetism, never provides the true north, so it doesn't have a technical support. Now. As an terrestrial observer the only fixed point that I am going to have in all the cosmos is the sunrise al the Equinoxes. The precesional movement of the Earth, makes all the stars to have an oscillation of 25875 years, and the planets as Uranus, depends it self from its own translation on its orbit on the Solar system, and obviously, with its own variabilyties. But the Sun is the axis of the Solar System, and along the year, it provide us, two equinoxes, that provides us the real East......Remember, the magnetism, never provide us the true north,,,or south. Thank you very much for your point of view.

  • http://brightblueball.net/ JimCummings

    Per the final sentences: There's no need to travel to the "Torrid Zone" to tune into Cristobol's insight: facing east from any point on the planet (save perhaps the very far north and south) will bring you into the bodily stance in which you'ill be oriented to the heavens as he suggests. While only on the Equator will you see both full hemispheres of stars, even at your home it will bring you back to the place that includes what can be seen in both hemispheres from your latitude, as you face "forward" on the turning earth as it rolls ever eastward. (Note, though, that "forward" in our orbit around the sun varies through the day: when facing east at dawn, the earth is moving through space in a direction that's directly overhead; facing east at midnight, you get the double-dose: you're looking forward as always in the daily spinning, and also forward in space on our annual journey around the sun.)

    Also: the graphic really missed the boat: it's not centered on the Equator!

    • Cristóbal Cobo

      As terrestrial observers, at any place, Orientation is the integrative reference given that it is the direction in which we observe the heavens in its entirety. In addition, in order to understand the movements of the celestial bodies. The only way to understand these movements is from the momentum in which the heavenly bodies appear in order to study their
      transition in space. It is for this simple reason that the east is
      justified technically and scientifically to orient our maps and
      globes. This position negates the use of west, north, or south as the
      geographic reference point to understand nature or orient maps and

      And the main fact, that supports the Eastward (Orientation) proposal, is that only the sun at the equinoxes, provide us a fixed point of reference, on the sky, any place around the world.

      The stars sufferes a the precession movement. The Sun is the axis of the Solar System.

  • http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/ Tim O’Neill

    Oh dear. Anyone with any grasp of the history of geography and cartography would have got a sinking feeling when they read the words "Medieval Christian mapmakers' .... Earth was flat", knowing that after that howler, things were not likely to get much better. And they were right. I'd go through the blunders and historical distortions that pepper this rather woeful article one by one, but the history of science blogger ThonyC has already done so on "The Renaissance Mathematicus". Could someone please get Kurt Hollander to read this:


    • Gyrus

      Thanks for these important corrections. I also wondered about:

      The preeminence of north derives from the use of Polaris, also known as the North Star, as the guiding light for sailors.

      The term Scip-steorra ('ship star') is in Old English, but I wonder how far back Polaris' usefulness to sailors goes, since the further back you go, the further it is away from the celestial pole. Strangely, the period when it started getting usefully close to the celestial pole - the early centuries of the second millennium - was exactly when it started to become redundant through the spread of the magnetic compass from China.

      • http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/ Tim O’Neill

        The main "star" that Anglo-Saxon and Viking navigators used was the sun - giving them an east-west orientation to work from. Polaris was sufficiently close to indicating north when sailing at night for their purposes to maintain their bearings. The minor variation in its position due to the precession of the equinoxes (bizarrely misnamed "the precession of the equators" in another of the article's many blunders) was not significant for this use.

        • Cristóbal Cobo

          I must say, that there are indeed some errors of historical data in the article, it should be revised. However, the intension is to present a proposal with regard to the geographic orientation, and I would like to have specific views on the proposal. I am sorry for my English, I'm Ecuadorian and my language is the Spanish.


          Geographical orientation: An integrative geographical perspective

          The present study expounds upon the theoretical bases of such an integrated geographical visualization of the world, offering theoretical and scientific support for this re-orientation.

          The Issue of Perspective:

          Visual perspectives of the Earth:

          We will briefly analyze three visual perspectives of the earth in order to differentiate the positions of the earth with respect to the sky, cartography, globes, topographic cards, and other types of models.

          The spacial perspective: In outer space there exist no cardinal directions. Therefore, we might imagine observing the earth from any angle whatsoever.

          The heliocentric perspective: From the sun, we can imagine observing the earth with an inclination of 23°26'29”, which is the inclination of our planet with respect to the plane of its orbit in the solar

          Terrestrial perspective: This refers to the perspective that we have of our surroundings from any point on earth's surface, on which we orient ourselves according to the cardinal directions.

          The geographical perspectives in history:

          Before the Middle Ages arrived in Europe, the ancient cultures were accustomed to observing the world from different perspectives. For example, there exists evidence that the Egyptians developed maps with south as the principal reference. The majority of Arab maps during the rise of Islamic powers in the Middle East (c. VII to XIV) placed south as the uppermost direction (Wikipedia, 2009). For the Maya of Mexico, east was the principal cardinal direction (Shele and Freidel, 1999). North has been used predominantly as the principal direction for navigation (Mexía, 1542).


          The use of North as the principal direction has predominated until today because of the navigation and cartography needed a fixed reference point in the sky and the North Star of the Litte Dipper served as just that.

          However, this did not represent a fixed point in the northern sky given that the earth moves due to the axial precesion (Bakulin, P., E. Kononovich, and V. Moroz, 1987), which completes a cycle around the northern pole every 25,875 years. Therefore, about 4 thousand years ago the northern reference in the northern sky was Thuban, the alpha star of the Draconis constellation. Currently, it is the North Star and it will become Errai, the lambda star of the constellation Cephei.

          North, an unsustainable geographic reference:

          “North” comes from the old English word “noro,” which in turn derives from the proto-Indoeuropean word “ner,” meaning “left,” given that north is left for an observer who faces the sun in the morning (Wikipedia, 2009).

          The use of north as a geographic reference is nothing more than a historical custom that arose due to need in early navigation and cartography. However, there do not exist technical reasons to justify scientifically the use of north as the principal directional reference. In addition, if we direct our view to the north, we will lose sight of the southern sky.
          The same would happen with the south, where we would lose sight of the north. These are biased and incomplete geographic perspectives.

          Using north as the principal reference is not only unsustainable due to a lack of technical and scientific arguments, it is also a historical construct that has generated confusion for all everyone who uses maps or globes given that north is used as the superior reference. This breaks with a natural comprehension of the earth's movements with respect to the stars. Thus, it becomes more difficult to understand the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies. Everyone who uses north as a reference suffers from an absurd confusion by breaking with the natural perspective of our surroundings. Our relationship with nature falls apart and the understanding of the seasons, the weather, the wind, calenders, and time become enigmas for the vast majority of humankind.

          Other problems that we face by using the north as our superior referent include the ambiguity generated by historical conventions with distorting consequences in socio-cultural, geo-political, and even class terms due to the fact that the majority of people understand the north as being upwards, better, developed, and wealthy and the south as being downwards, inferior, and under-developed. In the area of development work, “south” refers to a group of countries with lower per capita incomes. In this sense, it has become synonymous with “poor countries” (Wikipedia, 2009).


          The etimology of the word “south” can be traced to the origin of the hindu name Surya, which means sun due to the fact that this star indicates the southern cardinal point when it is observed to the north of the Tropic of Cancer (Wikipedia,2009).

          The south is one of the four cardinal points located over the horizon, diametrically opposed to the north. It is 90° from the east. Thus it is denominated as a cardinal point, direction, and inferior type of country or region according to eurocentric convention.


          East is a spacial orientation; the position of a point, place, object, or person over the earth's surface with respect to a reference system. The term “orientation” comes from the Latin word for “east,” “oriens, -entis”, which in turn comes from the verb “oriri,” meaning “to appear” and which designates the place where the sun appears, as opposed to the west, which comes from the Latin verb “occidere,” meaning “to fall,” indicating the place where the sun sets.(Encarta, 2008; Arnal, Mariano, 2009; Wikipedia, 2009).


          Again, the west indicates that which opposes the east.

          East as the integrative geographic reference.
          If we want to orient ourselves, we must direct ourselves to the east, as the Latin meaning of east indicates. This is the technical and scientifically sustainable reference or geographical direction due to the fact that it is the direction in which the earth rotates. It is, in effect, the direction in which the heavenly bodies, stars, planets, moon, and sun appear to us.

          From a theoretical-scientific framework, this is the integrative reference given that it is the direction in which we observe the heavens in its entirety. In addition, in order to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies, we must understand their true movements, though they may not be perceivable by the naked eye. The only way to understand these movements is from the momentum in which the heavenly bodies appear in order to study their transition in space. It is for this simple reason that the east is justified technically and scientifically to orient our maps and globes. This position negates the use of west, north, or south as the geographic reference point to understand nature or orient maps and globes.

          A properly oriented view ought to be applied to the study, calculation, and measurement of horizontal coordinates, topographies, and heavenly bodies, in addition to the use of geographical projections, with the objective of integrating our knowledge of nature and giving scientific support to the production of geographic information in general.


          ARNAL, MARIANO.
          2009 El Almanaque, Internet.

          Editorial MIR, Moscú.

          2008 Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation.
          Reservados todos los derechos.

          1996 UNA SELVA DE REYES,
          Fondo de Cultura Económica, México.

          Mexía, Pedro
          1542 "Silva de varia lección", Tomo II- Cap XX, Ed. Cátedra Letras hispánicas.

  • witheo

    No mention has yet been made of language and how the human brain makes sense. Words cannot convey meaning. A speaker relies on a competent listener to make sense. Up and down, East and West have meaning only when and where “I am” to make the observation. Language cannot create meaning. We do.

    When we read or listen, the brain makes sense of raw sensory stimuli (bearing no logical relationship to words, sentences or books). If we all saw and heard the same things, we would all make the same sense of one “real world”. Of such assumptions is “common sense” made.

    Illusions are no bad thing. Most of what we know is fiction. All language is ambiguous. Human knowledge is based on elaborate narratives, essential for a sense of “reality”, to get along.

    Rather than five senses, the brain relies on far more complicated data. Like GPS, without a reliable means to locate the centre of the Earth, we could not stand, walk, nor make sense of everything we see and hear. Balance, the legendary sixth sense, provides our built-in compass.

    The inner ear, responsible for sound detection and balance, consists of the bony labyrinth, a hollow cavity in the temporal bone of the skull with a system of passages comprising the cochlea for hearing and the vestibular system, the region of the inner ear where the semicircular canals converge, close to the cochlea.

    The vestibular system is responsible for the sensations of balance and motion. By means of fluids and hair cells, information is sent to the brain about the attitude, rotation, and linear motion of the head. The type of motion or attitude detected by a hair cell depends on its associated mechanical structures.

    The vestibular system works in concert with the visual system to keep objects in focus when the head is moving. Which is why, if we can’t see the horizon, we get seasick below decks on a rolling ship. Joint and muscle receptors also maintain balance. The brain receives, interprets, and processes the information from these systems to control balance.

    We believe there’s only one dominant narrative. We send children to school, drive at speed, believe a green light and expect to arrive safely when we board a plane. But we know it’s not true. If we all saw the same world, there would be no need for language, religion, lawyers. But the “real world” is not made of cold, hard facts. We take each paradigm as we find it from our own point of view, each constructing a different narrative. Much of which seem to overlap, like holiday snapshots. Only the faces look different.

    Our world is not governed by dictionary definitions and the laws of physics and math. We make sense of an immensely complex, constantly changing and ephemeral web of interconnected relationships. We talk about objects, people, events, invoking specific definitions. But no two people can agree in detail on what each label should mean. Meaning cannot fly through the air. “Communication” is not exchanging information, but irritating each other’s brain to make sense of what we see and hear.