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The Map That Named 'America' Now in Washington


Americans are celebrating a new arrival to Washington D.C. -- one that is 500 years old. VOA's Paul Sisco explains.

Across from the U.S. Capitol is the Library of Congress. Thousands of citizens and visitors to Washington D.C. use the library's vast resources every day. In addition to its millions of books and papers, there are more than five million maps, 75,000 atlases, and over 500 globes.

A celebration at the library on April 30 marked the arrival of what is being called the crown jewel of the vast collection. It is a large world map made 500 years ago.

Cartographic preservationist John Hessler explains the significance of the Martin Waldseemuller 1507 world map. "It's called 'America's birth certificate' for a number of reasons but mostly because it's the first time 'America' appears on a map." It is printed on the southern landmass in the lower left part of the map.

For scholars the map raises profound questions. "The map shows for the first time the continent of South America separated from Asia, and it shows the Pacific Ocean," says Hessler. "What's important about that, and what's mysterious about that ,and what makes scholars excited about the map, and constantly questioning what the map is about, is that that's before the Pacific Ocean was discovered."

In an accompanying guide, the 1507 mapmaker is credited with naming the continents.

"He did name America, America. It appears first in the little book which was printed 500 years ago today, in fact, May second. The map was probably printed around that same period, and in that book he gives his us his reasons for naming America and he names it after Amerigo Vespucci, the discoverer of South America."

Originally, more than 1,000 copies of the map were made from 12 wood blocks, but the Waldseemuller map is the only one known to exist. Remarkably, it is complete and in pristine condition. Waldseemuller's map of the world goes on permanent public display later this year.

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