In Earth observation, we think of map making as straightforward data collection. A constellation of satellites collects images of the Earth and the world is as it appears. But is this true? Why are north and south the convention for modern map orientation?
When we look at the world map, we are comforted knowing the continents are positioned where they should be. However, looking back at the history of cartography, we can see signs of variations in orientation. The earliest known map dating back to 600 B.C. illustrates the city of Babylon centered and oriented northwest. For early civilization, the societies of Egypt, China, Greece, Mesopotamia, Rome, India, Arabia, Western Europe were the leaders in geographical, astronomical and cartographical knowledge.
Arab geographers at the time showcased the world map with North Africa at the top of the map and Europe at the bottom. An example is the Tabula Rogeriana by Muhammad al-Idrisi, created in 1154:
These civilizations were all in the Northern Hemisphere, and created and oriented their maps from their perspective. As maps were only created by foot on land, it was not until Europe began exploring Africa and the Americas that these regions were incorporated into maps. Some claim that European imperialism from the 16th to 19th century led to the widespread adoption of European oriented maps globally. This European dominance meant that the orientation of maps overtook other native systems of geographic knowledge that may have positioned maps differently.
When looking into Eastern schools of thought, China had different ideas of map orientation. Simply looking at the earliest compasses from ancient China, the needle pointed south, not north. Dating back to 1000 BCE, the Chinese civilization considered their empire to be the Middle Kingdom of Earth. As early as 1602, Chinese world maps began to be printed to reflect European maps, but with a Chinese orientation.
To this day, modern Chinese maps found commonly in homes are still based on Kunyu Wanguo Quantu's orientation. So what is the role of satellites and how do they contribute to modern map orientations?
The below image of Earth taken by Apollo 17 shows its original orientation. Notice that Antarctica is at the top. The image was later flipped around to fit the traditional view of North being "up" on maps.
While the northern orientation is now the standard for maps, this was not always the convention historically. Beyond the objective data collected by satellites, a combination of history, Northern academic leadership, scientific reason, and European colonization, have also influenced how our maps look today.