ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Chancellor Merkel also has some ceremonial business to attend to on her visit to Washington. This evening, she formally hands over a historic 500-year-old map to the Library of Congress. It is Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 Map of the World. John Herbert is the library's chief of the geography and map division. And welcome to the program. Much appreciate it.
Mr. JOHN HERBERT (Chief, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress): Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.
SIEGEL: And we should explain that while this is the formal handing over of the map, actually the map has been at the library, had been in the States for a while.
Mr. HERBERT: That's correct. We received the map in June of 2001 and, finally, paid for it in late May of 2003.
SIEGEL: Relatively, prompt payment of your bills over at the library.
Mr. HERBERT: We're not bad. Not bad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: Now, what's so important about the Waldseemuller 1507 map, as I understand it, is that for the first time, we see a document with the word America on it connected to this mysterious continent across the Atlantic Permian.
Mr. HERBERT: That's absolutely correct. The first document in which the name America appears. And the explanation of how the mapmaker comes to that conclusion is in a small booklet attached to the map. And in that he says he named it in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, who recognizes that there was indeed a new continent completely surrounded by water and he would call it America, as all the continents are feminine, to begin with.
SIEGEL: Well, apart from the naming of that land across the Atlantic, what else is remarkable about the 1507 map?
Mr. HERBERT: The map is surprisingly accurate, probably within 80 percent of accuracy of a current map. The width of South America at the equator is within one degree of longitude of accuracy, as we know it today. There is a northwestern movement of the South American continent at about 17 degrees south latitude. This is right on. It's exactly as it supposed to be in the - if you wish, ice cream cone shape of South America comes up just beautifully.
How this is done when you think that the date is 1507 and the first time that we know of, a European who actually sees the Pacific Ocean is Balboa in 1513 is what makes this map so remarkable.
But it's also, the rest of the map, I mean, there's a tremendous amount of new information that is coming in about Africa. So here we have a 500-year-old document that has left us remarkably interesting in finding out how did they make it.
SIEGEL: But when you say that Martin Waldseemuller, the German mapmaker, was scribing the contours of South American rather accurately before any European had seen the Pacific, was he guessing well or did he have anything to go on?
Mr. HERBERT: Well, I think I'm, kind of, suggesting that what history has recorded is pride to any European coming here. But what is suggested by my comment is that, obviously, someone had been here.
Mr. HERBERT: Waldseemuller himself is located near Freyburg, Germany. He's working in Saintes in France with a group of scholars. He's landlocked and has a great imagination. But he has information in front of him. And one of the things most interesting about this document is trying to track down the sources that led to its preparation.
Vespucci maybe, obviously, one of them because he's so honored. He may have had maps in his possession that somehow came to this scholarly group in eastern France. But we don't know and we're still trying to put that story together. You know, there are no satellites flying around us. There's no airplanes flying around. And yet the accuracy of this piece is rather compelling.
SIEGEL: Well, John Herbert, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. HERBERT: You bet.
SIEGEL: It's John Herbert, who is chief of the geography and map division at the Library of Congress talking about Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 Map of the World, the first document to include the word, the name America on it. It is being formally handed over to the library this evening by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.