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How a German christened America

The American continent might have been named ‘Columbia’, after Christopher Columbus, were it not for a sixteenth-century German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller.

On a global map produced in 1507, Waldseemüller famously dubbed the New World ‘America’ — in honour of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, whom he mistook as having discovered the continent. In 2007, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the precious, three-square-metre wall map to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. 

But today librarians at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich, Germany, announced that they have just discovered, between the pages of an otherwise unremarkable antique geometry book, a different version of that map (picture), also printed in 1507. It is one of the very few surviving ‘globe-segment’ maps, of which 100 or so may have been produced in Waldseemüller’s workshop in the monastery of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in Alsace (now part of France). Only four copies were previously known to researchers — one is now in Minneapolis, Minnesota; two are in Germany and the fourth was sold at auction in 2005, for US$1 million.

Segment maps were important for the dissemination of the still-rudimentary geographical knowledge during the sixteenth century. The chance finding in Munich depicts the world in 12 individual segments on a single sheet, which can be arranged to form a small globe.

The three right-most wedges show a small boomerang-shaped landmass, labelled ‘America’, placed in the middle of a large ocean.

By the early nineteenth century, Waldseemüller’s groundbreaking cartographic work had fallen into obscurity. The map appears to have been stored away around 200 years ago by librarians who had no idea of its significance.

“Even in our digital age, originals have lost none of their significance and unique fascination,” says Klaus-Rainer Brintzinger, the director of the LMU library. Yet his team is working hard to make the map accessible to the public — in time for the US Independence Day celebration on 4 July — in digital form.

Images: LMU

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    Ricardo Costa de Oliveira said:

    Learn now and forever that America is a Continent and not a Northern country geographically non-existent and not represented in the first map of America ! Scientifically speaking the original and authentic name America had been invented and still is below the Equator ! Amerigo Vespucci had been in the Litoral of Brazil to name the new Continent of America ! South America has the historical copyright for the name America as the registered trademark of the mass of land described by Waldseemüller in the map of 1507 ! We can share the name for the entire Continent !

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    Philip Baker said:

    It is interesting that the origin of the name America is simply taken for granted in the media, despite very persuasive arguments and evidence against the Vespucci theory, for many years. For me once of the most convincing arguments is perhaps the most obvious: had the continent been named for Vespucci it would surely have been Vespuccia (you do not suggest that it might have been Christopheria!). Perhaps the most compelling and plausible theory is that America was named after Richard Amerike, which is explained in
    ‘Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name by Rodney Broome’; but theories that the name derives from the Viking era are also very interesting.

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