Royal Geographical Society

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be invited to the Royal Geographical Society up in Kensington by the Chilean tourist board. They are promoting the Araucania region as the hot new destination in Chile, though to be honest, we've been in love with the area since we started 12 years ago.

Basically it's the area in and around Pucon in the Chilean Lake District, home of the Mapuche people (the largest indigenous group  in Chile) and also to the Monkey Puzzle Tree. It's in the Andes just above Pucon that you can hike through forests of the things.

But I digress, what was possibly most interesting about the night was our being taken down to see the private collection of artefacts relating to Chile. There were tables full of 19th century photos of the Mapuche and of the landscapes, wonderful maps drawn by hand and, in pride of place, this atlas.

It's one of the first atlases in the world. Believe it or not, it dates back to 1570. The pages are plate printed but then hand coloured, it really is a work of art.

As the curator said, an atlas in those days would have been an object of enormous strategic value. They were very expensive and really ownership limited to governments and private business interests, presumably shipping companies and the like.

If you can imagine getting your hands on a map of the world back in the 16th century would have been quite a coup while everyone else is stumbling around the globe bumping into landmasses here and there, you've got the map.

What's particularly impressive though, is just how spot on they seem to have got the Americas. If you look over to New Guinea to the left of the picture, it's not overly impressive but the Americas are essentially spot on, less than 80 years after the first European landing, they have the entire coastline of the continent mapped.

They haven't quite got the bottom edge of the map right, Antarctica is on the march or perhaps that's just the edge of the world - quite frankly if you've sailed the Drake Passage you'll understand that it's quite believable that the vast expanses of stormy waters are at the edge of the world.


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