Approximately 9,000 years ago in Anatolia, Turkey, an artist drew what could be the world’s oldest known map, complete with a volcano erupting in the background. A recent discovery of lava rock from that time serves as evidence that the painting may indeed be an early example of both cartography and vulcanology.
Some archeologists interpreted the painting as a Google Earth-style layout of Çatalhöyük, a Stone Age settlement in modern-day Turkey, with Mount Hasan (Hasan Daği in Turkish) in the background. In the 3 meter-long wall painting, the twin-peaked mountain seems to be erupting. But no evidence for an eruption of Mount Hasan had been found from the right time period.
However, geologists recently found a layer of volcanic pumice on the summit of Mount Hasan that may have come from the eruption depicted in the painting. The chemical signature of the pumice suggested the volcano erupted in 6960 BC (± 640 years), the same time when thousands of humans lived in Çatalhöyük. PLOS ONE published the results of the analysis led by Earth scientists at UCLA.
The 9,000-year-old layer of volcanic rock provides support for anthropologists and geographers who consider the Çatalhöyük wall painting to be the oldest known map. In 1967, archeologist James Mellaart first published his interpretation of the drawing as a map.
However, in 2006 an paper in Anatolian Studies suggested that the map may have been a geometric design, while the volcano may have been a leopard skin.
“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty,” Keith Clarke, a cartographer not involved in the PLOS ONE study, told NPR, “but I would believe that the evidence is now in … favor of it actually being a map.”
Beyond opening a window into our past, the map may hold a warning for the future. Another layer of pumice from approximately 29,000 years ago suggests that the volcano may still be active and presents a hazard for the current residents of the region in Konya Province of south-central Turkey, noted the authors of the PLOS ONE study.
Photo: A village sits at the foot of the volcanic peaks of Mount Hasan. Credit: Grand Tour/Corbis