Piri Reis Map and Claims of Antarctica

Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, also known as Piri Reis (Captain Piri).

The Piri Reis map is one that often finds its way into the fringe archaeology discussion periodically as if it’s being discovered for the first time as advocates begin their journey through the fringe literature.

Typically, there are a few key claims that accompany new internet postings or comments about this old map:

1) Antarctica was once a warm, even tropical, continent.
2) Antarctica was once the home of ancient “high civilizations.”
3) The Piri Reis map shows Antarctica before it was covered in ice.

The Map Itself

Hand drawn on gazelle skin vellum, this map was the creation of Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, a geographer and cartographer for the Ottoman Empire around the 15th-16th century. He was better known as Piri Reis, the name for which the map discussed here is associated with.

Drawing upon at least 20 other foreign maps and charts, Piri created a compendium of sorts in 1513 that included coastlines of Africa, Spain, North America, Central America, and South America as well as the islands of the Caribbean, the Azores, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands.

Maps that Piri used to create his own originated from Arab, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Indian, and Greek sources. There is even one included from from Christopher Columbus.

The map you’ll find if you google “piri reis,” and is shown in the map composite below, is but a portion of the overall map. There would have been probably 4 or more total sections. The orientation of the map seems to center it on the Tropic of Capricorn and easily recognized are the west-most coast of Africa and the east-most coast of South America. Also, the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Cape Verde are relatively correct. You can even make out the west coast of Spain.

The Central and North American portions, along with the southern half of South America is difficult to discern, however. It’s easy to imagine that Piri was using second-hand sources (perhaps even third-hand). He compiled the best navigational chart he could with the information he had and very probably expected that explorers would build upon and correct where needed.[1][2]

Piri Reis Shows Antarctica? Probably Not

At the bottom portion of the Piri Reis map is a coastline that departs at a 90 degree angle to the east from the relatively north-south running coastline of South America. There are many within the fringe that are quick to state that this is a representation of Antarctica before there was ice. There are a lot of problems with this interpretation.

1) The continent of Antarctica has been covered in ice for at least the last 15 million years. So any “ice-free” representation must have been observed over 15 million years ago. Humans haven’t been around that long.

2) The Drake passage is not represented, rather the coastline from above the equator in South America is contiguous all the way to the portion alleged to be Antarctica and beyond.

3) No known voyage to the Antarctic coast occurred prior to that of James Cook in the 1770s and the famed circumnavigation of Ferdinand Magellan didn’t occur until 1519, six years after the date 1513 Piri Reis placed on the map.

4) It was common practice for cartographers to include the hypothesized continent of Terra Australis on world or global maps. This continent was first suggested to exist by Ptolomy who hypothesized that there needed to be a counterbalance on the planet for the significant mass of continents in the norther hemisphere.

These points are problems because:

1) Assuming that the map represents an ice free Antarctica means that we must then assume human civilization not only existed but flourished in a way that allowed for grand sea voyages over 15 million years ago. This, however, is not what the fossil record shows when human evolution is examined.

Fringe proponents of “ancient high civilizations” like to claim such a thing happened, but the simple truth of the matter is there is no good reason to accept such a preposterous position without extraordinary evidence. And none has yet been shown.

2) Of course, the existence of the Drake passage would not be necessary for an “ancient high civilization” that was present 23 million years ago when the Drake Passage opened up. But, there is that baggage of additional assumptions about human evolution and their ability to record information for future generations about cartography.

In order to accept any assumption of humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) who existed 15-23 million years ago, we should demand the most extraordinary evidence. Instead, the evidence we’re provided for this very fringe idea is, very often, the Piri Reis map. Yes, that is circular evidence at it’s finest.
3) Perhaps Piri drew upon a map from someone who didn’t make it in the history books but did make the voyage around Cape Horn and along the Antarctic Coast. But, again, this is very unlikely since such a person would surely want to seek their fame and glory. If not the Captain of this expedition, then certainly a member of his crew!

4) Piri’s decision to draw the bottom half of the South America coastline as running west-east may very well have been influenced by the common practice of drawing in Terra Australis–it may very well have been already on the maps from which he drew information. Or, Piri Reis might have had a completely different reason for that coastline departure.

Another Clue

There’s another clue that might also explain Piri Reis’ decision to bend the coastline 90 degrees. The margin note for the elbow of the bend reads (after translation):

On the way to the vilayet of Hind a Portuguese ship encountered a contrary wind [blowing] from the shore. The wind from the shore . . . [illegible] it [the ship]. After being driven by a storm in a southern direction they saw a shore opposite them they advanced towards it [illegible]. They saw that these places are good anchorages. They threw anchor and went to the shore in boats. They saw people walking, all of them naked. But they shot arrows, their tips made of fishbone. They stayed there eight days. They traded with these people by signs. That barge saw these lands and wrote about them which. . . . The said barge without going to Hind, returned to Portugal, where, upon arrival it gave information. . . . They described these shores in detail. . . . They have discovered them.[3]

Of the four Portuguese maps Piri used as sources, one of them included the information in the quote above. The assumption might have been that the ship, being blown south by the storm, may have encountered land to the south where they could anchor and weather the storm.

This assumption might have originated from the Portuguese sailors, disoriented by the storm; or it might have originated from Piri Reis himself, misunderstanding the Portuguese account. The translation above is from Arabic. Piri would have used an original Portuguese source which he translated to Arabic first. The phrase “lost in translation” suddenly becomes twice as probable!

Falkland Islands Makes the Case

The most interesting thing about the Piri Reis map is how much information he was able to accurately obtain. The west- and east-most coasts of Africa and South America are in amazing detail when you consider how few people had actually sailed these waters.

River systems are included on both continents that are relatively correct at their mouths to the Atlantic and some not terribly wrong within their continents. And many islands are rendered relatively correct with regard to their geographic positions and the patterns of their clusters. As expected, the North American and southernmost portions of the South American continents are the least trustworthy. They’re also the least explored within this map extent by 1513.

Interestingly enough, however, there is an Island that might be in its relatively correct spot along the southern coast of South America. Assuming, of course, that the 90 degree departure was an error–which it clearly is. If you look at the map I provided at the bottom of this section, you’ll see a sketch I made of the Piri Reis coastline and the Piri Reis Map itself, both overlaid on a larger world map.

Take note of the green highlighted areas on all three maps. If you can imagine bending the Piri Reis coastline back from its 90 degree departure, straightening to its original roughly north-south orientation, you’ll notice the Falkland Islands will probably match as well as the Canary, Azores, or Cape Verde.

Piri Reis Composite Map
Composite map showing the coastline of the original Piri Reis (right) overlaid on the Atlantic Ocean (left). Green highlights show the Falkland Islands.

Conclusion

The Piri Reis Map is definitely a cool map. It was created at the very beginning of western civilization’s foray into the new frontier of the high seas and exploration new lands. How good or bad that venture was handled can certainly be debated, but the fact remains that Piri Reis recognized the need for the best information possible for those daring to venture forth into a new frontier. This early map is something to be admired and treasured.

But as to the claims about Antarctica listed at the top of this article, there simply is no good reason to accept any of them.

1) The last time Antarctica was ice-free was over 15 million years ago. Millions of years before humans could even be considered H. sapiens.

2) The claims of “ancient high civilizations” are not supported by credible evidence. It would be nice to find that such a civilization did once exist, but to date no artifacts or features have been found that support the notion nor does the hominid fossil record support it.

3) The Piri Reis map drew upon sources that were less than a few years old at the time it was drafted. It drew upon no “secret ancient sources” nor are any mentioned in the margin notes were the other sources are given deference. And none of these sources made mention of an ice-covered land or continent. They simply did not go there.

The Piri Reis Map simply does not include a representation of Antarctica.

References and Notes:
  1. Afetinan, A.; Yolaç, Leman (trans.) (1954), The Oldest Map of America, Drawn by Piri Reis, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi []
  2. Dutch, Steven (1998). The Piri Reis Map, https://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/PiriRies.HTM []
  3. Turkey in Maps: Piri Reis Map of 1513, http://www.turkeyinmaps.com/piri.html#VIII. []
About Carl Feagans 330 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply