Who says North is up?
Upside Down maps (also known as South-Up or Reversed maps) offer a completely different perspective of the world we live in.
Technically speaking, even referring to the earth with words like “up” or “down” or comparing places with words “above” or “below” is flawed, considering that the earth is a spherical body (it’s actually slightly “fatter” at the equator) and flying through 3 dimensional space with no reference of up or down. However, the issue of “up” and “down” does become an issue when viewing the surface of the earth projected onto a flat piece of paper (a map). And the effect of the orientation of a map is more significant than you might realize.
As all maps require orientation for reference, the issue of how to layout the map orientation is as old as maps themselves. As map orientation is completely arbitrary, it is not surprising that they differed throughout time periods and regions.
The convention of North-up is usually attributed to the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (90-168 AD). Justifications for his north-up approach vary. In the middle ages, East was often placed at top. This is the origin of the term “The Orient” to refer to East Asia. During the age of exploration, European cartographers again followed the north-up convention…perhaps because the North Star was their fixed reference point for navigation, or because they wanted (subconsciously or otherwise) to ensure Europe’s claim at the top of the world.
In modern times, reversed maps are made as a learning device or to illustrate Northern Hemisphere bias. Different from simply turning a north-up map upside down, a reversed map has the text oriented to be read with south up.
The famous “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth taken from on board Apollo 17 was originally oriented with the south pole at the top, with the island of Madagascar visible just left of center, and the continent of Africa at its right. However, the image was turned upside-down to fit the traditional view.
While the orientation of a map might seem harmless, it can have a significant effect on one’s perception of the world, and the relative importance of the different place in it.
In speech, we often refer to places being “above” or “below” others. Think of how you would say you’re about to travel to the state or country to your north or south (to go “down” to Kentucky from Indiana, or “up” to Canada from the US). Without even mentioning geography, ask any grade school student whether Mexico is “above” or “below” the United States. We’re all familiar with the “land down under”. As we often correlate importance to relative height (think how a citizens of a country will fly their flag higher than all other flags), the north-up convention reinforces the idea that northern bodies are more important than their southern neighbors. Suddenly, traveling “down” to the South might have an inference much deeper than geographic location.
After looking at the map more closely, you may realize that the South-Up orientation may change your perception of the relative status of different places. For example, South America suddenly looks to have more prominence, and Africa and the Middle East completely dwarf Europe. Likewise, tucking Northern Europe, Canada, and Russia away at the bottom of the map, subconsciously takes away their status.
To summarize, unconditionally accepting the north-up map convention without at least appreciating the effect stands at odds with viewing all people and places within the world equally. x x