Oldest known globe of New World was carved on ostrich egg shells


Ostrich egg shell globe photo is courtesy of the Washington Map Society

A map engraved on the fused lower halves of two ostrich egg shells is thought to be the world’s oldest known globe of the New World.

The “major discovery” of what’s being called the Renaissance ostrich egg globe was announced this week in The Portolan, a journal of cartography published by the Washington Map Society.

The ostrich egg globe is dated to the very early 1500s—just after the discovery of the New World

Previously, the copper Hunt-Lenox Globe (c. 1510, Western Europe), housed at the New York Public Library, was thought to be the oldest known globe of the New World. Now it’s believed that the Renaissance ostrich egg globe was used as a model for the Lenox globe.

“There are differences between the two globes; however, when carefully considered these differences do not weigh against the suggestion that the Lenox Globe is a cast of the ostrich-egg globe,” Belgian scholar S. Missinne, who researched the ostrich egg globe, stated in the journal.


Ostrich egg globe shown with modern ostrich eggs. Radiology was used to determine the age of the shells used in the globe. Photo courtesy of Washington Map Society

The precise origin of the Renaissance globe remains mysterious, but evidence suggests that it came from Florence, Italy, and that the engraver was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci.

The globe reflects knowledge of fabled explorers Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, among others. (On the globe, North America consists of two fairly small islands.)

Tom Sander, editor of The Portolan, is quoted as saying: “This is a major discovery, and we are pleased to be the vehicle for this announcement.”

The globe was purchased in 2012 at the London Map Fair, and had previously been held as part of a private collection in Europe. Beyond that it’s ownership history is vague.

The current owner made the globe available to S. Missinne.

“When I first heard of this globe, I was initially skeptical about its date, origin, geography, and provence, but I had to find out for myself,” the scholar said. “After all, no one had known of it, and discoveries of this type are extremely rare.

“I was excited to look into it further, and the more I did so, and the more research we did, the clearer it became that we had a major find.”

More than 100 scholars participated in the verification of the globe’s authenticity.

Radiology comparing the density of the old shells to those of newer shells was among the methods used to determine the age of the shells used for the globe. (Loss of density in egg shells is a means of determining age.)

But there are skeptics who claim that just because the ostrich egg globe is engraved on old shells, it does not mean the map itself predates the Lenox globe. The vague ownership history has fueled this skepticism.

National Geographic quotes John Hessler, curator of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress, as saying: “It very well may be an early globe, which is interesting in itself, but provence issues come to mind. The first thing I would have wanted to know is where it came from—where it was purchased, who had it before and what collections it was in.”

The globe, with Latin inscriptions, features ancient ships, monsters, waves, a shipwrecked sailor, and 71 location names.

No names are identified in North America, while three are given for South America: Mundus Novus or “New World,” Terra de Brazil, and Terra Sanctae Crucis, or “Land of the Holy Cross.”

While cartographers have used a variety of objects on which to draw maps over the years, ostrich shells were rarely, if ever, used. That alone makes this an extraordinary find.

–Hat tip to National Geographic