National Geographic News
An engraved ostrich egg among other ostrich eggs.

To date the globe, a radiologist compared its density with newer ostrich eggshells.

Photograph courtesy Washington Map Society

Jaclyn Skurie

National Geographic

Published August 21, 2013

A recently discovered globe from the early 1500s, carved onto ostrich eggs, may be the oldest globe of the New World ever identified, experts say.

Latin inscriptions dot its surface, and two small islands sit in the place of what we now know as North America. But the globe's origins remain a mystery.

After passing through the hands of a string of European map dealers, the artifact was purchased anonymously at a London map fair in 2012. Eventually, the rare find came into the possession of Belgian map collector Stefaan Missinne, who began to investigate it, he wrote in The Portolan, the journal of the Washington Map Society.

Previously, the earliest surviving globe was believed to be the Hunt-Lenox globe, which is made from copper and dated to between 1504 and 1506. The two globes share nearly identical labels and detailed contours, and Missinne argues this is no coincidence.

"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," Missinne said in the journal article.

Throughout history mapmakers have turned to creative materials: There have been maps made of sticks or drawn on sealskin, vellum (calfskin parchment), or blocks of wood. (Try National Geographic's map jigsaw puzzles.)

But globes created from ostrich eggshells are not common, and for this reason—regardless of its age—the artifact is rare.


 An ostrich egg globe map.
In the New World globe, North America is made up of just two small islands.

Photograph courtesy Washington Map Society


Dating the Globe

To judge the age of the eggshell, Missinne consulted a radiologist, who helped him photograph and compare the density of the old shells—the globe is made of two connected shell halves—with the density of newer ostrich eggshells.

Based on that comparison, the radiologist determined that the older, much smaller shell had lost 50 percent of its calcium bone density—a sure sign of aging. (Also see: "A 60,000-Year-Old Artistic Movement Recorded in Ostrich Eggshells.")

Because of the similarities between the two globes, Missinne hypothesizes that the newly discovered artifact came before the Lenox globe.

However, some cartographers are skeptical of the map's age because of its ambiguous history. The eggshell may date as far back as the 16th century, but that does not mean the map etched onto it is equally as old.

"It very well may be an early globe, which is interesting in itself, but provenance issues come to mind," said John Hessler, curator of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

"The first thing I would have wanted to know is where it came from—where it was purchased, who had it before, what collections it was in," Hessler said.

"The race for the first is something I tend to shy away from," he added, "but the bigger picture of the globe is more interesting to me than the single piece."

Shania Castro
Shania Castro

Beautiful. Artwork, history, geography, innovation, a real life stepping stone to the knowledge of the world through the eyes and mind of a human from the 1500's. How far we have come slow steady progress, but progress non the less.

David Wassell
David Wassell

I picture a surveyor and an artist on a long trip around the world and the best boiled egg they ever had and a 4 week trip back home and came up with a cunning plan of how to spend there time without being sea sick and bored :) I may be wrong though

Paul Wirhun
Paul Wirhun

WOW = as an egg artist creating contemporary topographical globes on ostrich shells = this is an amazing find!   THANKS!

Marilyn Docherty
Marilyn Docherty

How fascinating! To have remained intact all this time is absolutely amazing!


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »