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HomeNewsOldest globe reveals dark side of human exploration – DW – 08/11/2023

Oldest globe reveals dark side of human exploration – DW – 08/11/2023


As a child, a globe gave me my first idea of our planet, even before I started school. The rotating sphere my father bought was made of plastic and could light up from the inside. Whether it was intended as a lamp or as an inspiration for a curious mind, mattered not. In any case, the globe as a lamp took away my fear of the dark hallway in the evening.

Sometimes, pointing at the globe, I would have my father show where we lived. He would point to a spot that was not surrounded by turquoise. Turquoise, I already knew that much, stood for the sea. “And where does Mother Teresa live?” At the time, I had a burning interest in where personalities of her ilk could be found.

But before all the countries and seas could be mapped correctly on globes, the world had to be explored, from the discoveries of seafarers from the 15th century to the dark side of the onset of colonization, all the while as the world seemed to get ever smaller.

Oldest preserved globe comes from Germany

Little did I know at the time that the world’s oldest globe sat right here, in Germany.

But had I seen the globe produced by Martin Behaim at the end of the 15th century, I might have noticed a glaring absence: The continents of the Americas and Australia are nowhere to be seen, neither of which were known to central Europe at the time of its creation.

The Behaim Globe: The world's oldest globe
The Behaim Globe date back to the late 15th centuryImage: Daniel Karmann/dpa/picture alliance

The globe, also known as the Erdapfel, now resides in the Germanisches Nationa Museum in Nuremberg. Shortly after its completion, which has been dated somewhere between 1490 and 1492, the Italian-born Christopher Columbus became the first European to reach America, which marked the beginning of modern globalization. Australia was first reached by the British navigator James Cook and his crew in 1770.

“What you can see clearly, and what is depicted very precisely, is central and southern Europe, the Mediterranean region and Africa. The further you go away from this region, the fuzzier it gets,” says Sonja Missfeldt, press officer at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

This year, the globe was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World register as an outstanding testimony to how the world was imagined at the time.

For Jan Mokre, Head of Map Department and the Globe Museum of the Austrian National Library in Vienna, its listing as part of humanity’s documentary heritage also represents an appreciation of the efforts of museums to preserve such valuable historical objects of cultural heritage, to have them professionally restored when necessary, and to make them accessible to visitors.

Behaim Globe
The Behaim Globe is missing two continents that were unknown to the creatorImage: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

‘Pioneering work’

For Sonja Missfeldt, the Behaim Globe is a “pioneering work of cartography.” 

It is made of various materials. The sphere, which is hollow on the inside, is covered with painted paper. A wrought iron frame holds the globe, which could originally be rotated, surrounded by a brass horizon ring.

Many people were involved in its making. Martin Behaim, who came from a patrician family in Nuremberg, had commissioned the globe. It is not quite clear why. It is possible that the specimen on display in the town hall at the time was intended to attract sponsors for global trade.

Behaim was himself a traveling merchant who is said to have participated in exploratory voyages along the coast of Africa in the 1480s.

Various ancient depictions and words on the Behaim Globe.
The Behaim Globe was arguably the conveyor of fake news, as the shadow-footed animal in the center of this picture showsImage: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

In addition to land and water masses, the globe also contains information about foreign peoples, exotic animals and raw material deposits. Even places where goods such as spices could be extracted have been noted.

In addition, figures reminiscent of mythical creatures are depicted. Shadow-footed creatures, also called sciapods, are one example. According to Missfeldt, the depictions represent a widespread belief at the time, that there were people living in more remote regions in Africa who had only one leg and a large foot that stretched upwards.

“The Behaim Globe is an object that stands, as it were, between the times. In terms of its image, it actually represents the medieval image that Europeans had of the earth, and does not yet point at all to the new era,” explains Mokre.

It was created at a time in which the Europeans strove for supremacy in the world, by discovering unknown countries and parts of the world, where raw materials were plundered and inhabitants turned into slaves before being shipped across the world.

A sailing expedition is depicted on an ancient world map, the Behaim Globe.
A sailing expedition is depicted on the Behaim Globe Image: Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

A testament to conquests and slavery

For the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, the globe “reminds us of European conquests,” while it is also “a memorial to African slaves who played a decisive role in the creation of our modern world,” says Mokre.

At the time of the Behaim Globe’s creation, serial production was still a long way off. Spherical models of our world had existed since Greek antiquity, but the production of each individual globe was still a challenge for the craftsmen involved. 

“People didn’t have any comparable systems to draw on, but started thinking about how to vividly represent the world in 3D,” says Sonja Missfeldt of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Today, the term globe is synonymous with a model of our earth. But there are also celestial globes and those of other planets and the moon.

“Between 1520 or so and 1850, it was common to make terrestrial and celestial globes as a pair, to sell them as a pair, and to set them up as a pair. This dualism is very important because it is actually this interaction that represents the cosmos,” explains globe expert Jan Mokre.

Gottorfer Globe
The original of the Gottdorf globe is in St. Petersburg, while a replica was placed in Schleswig-Holstein in 2005Image: Wulf Pfeiffer/dpa/picture-alliance

A very striking model that seeks to unite heaven and earth is the walk-in Gottorf Globe from the 17th century. It measures just under three meters (10 feet) in diameter and shows the Earth on the outside and the sky on the inside.

Driven by water power, this famous object, once made for a chamber of art and rarities, could rotate once around its own axis.

Earth and celestial globes in combination also exist in smaller form. In the 18th century, for example, pocket globes the size of billiard balls were popular collectors’ items.

Newer globes represent education

From about 1850, industrial production made the globe a mass-produced item.

And the practice of keeping a globe in private living and working environments started a bit earlier, says Jan Mokre, who dates it to the late 18th century. Among the factors that popularized ownership of the item was an improved educational situation and the fact “that the economically strengthened middle classes wanted to represent themselves with knowledge.” Globes, along with atlases and encyclopedias, were goods that could identify a citizen interested in education.

Anyone who would like to see a special model of our planet today has the opportunity to do so in the industrial monument Gasometer Oberhausen in Germany. There hangs a monumental sculpture of the Earth with a diameter of 20 meters. It is a globe of the digital age that is part of the exhibition “The Fragile Paradise,” which runs until November 26.

Visitors experience it from the space perspective of astronauts. Through satellite images projected onto it, they see not only the colors and continents of the Earth, but also the footprint that humans leave on it.

A 20-meter globe hangs in the 100-meter high airspace of the Gasometer Oberhausen
A 20-meter globe hangs in the 100-meter-high airspace of the Gasometer OberhausenImage: Rupert Oberhäuser/picture alliance


This article was originally written in German


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