Why do maps always show the north as up? For those who don’t just take it for granted, the common answer is that Europeans made the maps and they wanted to be on top. But there’s really no good reason for the north to claim top-notch cartographic real estate over any other bearing, as an examination of old maps from different places and periods can confirm.
The profound arbitrariness of our current cartographic conventions was made evident by McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World, an iconic “upside down” view of the world that recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. Launched by Australian Stuart McArthur on Jan. 26, 1979 (Australia Day, naturally), this map is supposed to challenge our casual acceptance of European perspectives as global norms. But seen today with the title “Australia: No Longer Down Under,” it’s hard not to wonder why the upside-down map, for all its subversiveness, wasn’t called “Botswana: Back Where It Belongs” or perhaps “Paraguay Paramount!”
The McArthur map also makes us wonder why we are so quick to assume that Northern Europeans were the ones who invented the modern map — and decided which way to hold it — in the first place. As is so often the case, our eagerness to invoke Eurocentrism displays a certain bias of its own, since in fact, the north’s elite cartographic status owes more to Byzantine monks and Majorcan Jews than it does to any Englishman.