In 1719, when cartographer John Senex was drawing a map of the English empire in America, there was still a lot that was unknown. The little information about this “new land” that he did have came from the accounts of various Jesuit and French explorers, and not much of it matched. So, he did what all artists who have ever tried to put a face on what’s “out there” had always done: he invoked his creative license.
Senex filled in part of this unfamiliar territory with a nicely drawn mountain range that extended from the northern tip of Michigan down to Florida. It converged with the Appalachians in the environs of about present-day Tennessee. The map looked good, so the topographical error continued to show up on maps well into the 19th century.
Today, however, in a world of widespread, digital photographic images documenting everything we do and everywhere we visit, it’s hard to imagine a time when we depended on artists to tell us what exotic and foreign places looked like. But drawings—no matter how fantastic or flawed—sometimes have the power to inspire our wanderlust more than any realistic photographs can.
The shape of things to come
When the first Neanderthal—the original explorers—remains were discovered in Germany in the mid 19th century, scientists excitedly began to attempt to reconstruct their skeletons. The task of showing us what our ancient ancestors really looked like, though, fell to the paleoartists who were charged with adding their flesh. Because of them, for years, we believed that Neanderthals were hairy, thick, bull-necked people, who brandished crudely hewn, stone clubs and trekked through what is now Europe on crooked knees.
Of course, no artists create in a vacuum, and they are always influenced by current cultural trends, fashions and beliefs. Today, with DNA evidence, we know that Neanderthals had bigger brains than ours (although with smaller frontal lobes); were not covered in fur; and carved intricate tools, many of which have survived to the present day. The idea that they walked around on bent, chimpanzee-like knees derives from the fact that one of the first Neanderthal skeletons ever discovered was from an individual who had a defect that scientists were later able to attribute to a severe case of arthritis.
As a case in point, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, two paleoartist brothers who live in Arnhem, Netherlands, created a version of Otzi, the Iceman (his 5,300-year-old, mummified remains were discovered on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991) that depicted him as an aging, brown-eyed, grizzled man. A previous paleoartist had shown Ötzi as youthful and handsome, with blue eyes and a six-pack—a sort of Nordic, action-figure hero. I wonder how these disparate views of Ötzi‘s looks affect our imaginings of his exploration activities.
In the Costa Rica chapter of the book An Adventurous Nature: Tales from Natural Habitat Adventures, guide Jeff Otico, who is originally from Massachusetts, begins his adventure story by saying:
“As a young boy, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and the images of them in books, where they usually loomed large in front of a prehistoric volcano with a red, glowing peak and billowing smoke. Little did I know that one day I would actually see a volcano erupt and watch lava race down its slopes in the darkness of a warm, tropical night.”
For many of us, a fascination with the world unknown began with the pictures of huge, glowing-green dinosaurs in children’s books.
Recently, in an article titled “New Glimpse of the Color Palette of Long-Extinct Creatures” that was published by National Geographic NewsWatch, it was announced that for the first time researchers are able “to chemically map the presence of specific elements and compounds that correlate with the residue of pigment in several extinct species. Not only can we map the presence of specific pigments but we also can map their concentration, so this enables us to generate an image of the distribution of pigment patterning in extinct animals.”
Will our enchantment with these long-ago creatures be diminished if we find out in a realistic, photographic-sense that they were colored a dull gray? In other words, does an artist’s imaginative drawing have the power to arouse our sense for adventure more than a photograph ever could? Have you ever been enticed to visit a place by either a photo or an illustration?
It’s interesting to note that during the 1700s, cartographer Senex also drew maps that showed that California was an island.
Just imagine the travel possibilities!
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,