Engraved Ostrich Egg Globe is Oldest to Depict the New World

By Breanna Draxler | August 19, 2013 1:18 pm
photo of oldest globe depicting the new world, carved out of ostrich egg

Here’s North America, folks–just two tiny islands surrounded by what must have seemed like endless ocean. Image credit: Washington Map Society

The first known globe to include the New World was recently found at a London map fair—an impressive 500 year survival for it being engraved into ostrich eggs.

According to analysis by an independent Belgian scholar, Stefaan Missinne, the globe not only predates the previous record holder—a globe made of copper alloy between 1504 and 1506, now on display at the New York Public Library—but the evidence suggests it was actually the model used to cast that previous record holder.

The two globes are identical down to their smallest details, from the wave patterns on the ocean to the disproportionate size of continents. The handwriting is the same, and even the typos match up: “HISPANIS” instead of HISPANIA and “LIBIA INTEROIR” in place of LIBIA INTERIOR.

A Rare Find

The grapefruit-sized globe was spotted at the London map fair in 2012 by an anonymous globe and map collector. By that point it had already passed through two dealers’ hands since being purchased from an unnamed but apparently important European collection. Due to these layers of mystery, globe expert Stefaan Missinne was called in to figure out if the globe was legitimate, and if so, when and where it originated.

The globe’s northern and southern hemispheres each came from the round bottom half of an ostrich egg. To figure out its age, Missinne sent the globe to a radiologist who used CT scans to measure the bone density loss in the shell. By comparing the density to that of modern ostrich eggs, and eggs of known ages in museum collections, Missinne calculated the rate an ostrich egg loses bone density: about 10 percent each century. This means the ostrich egg globe would have been engraved around the year 1500, consistent with the idea of it being the cast for the copper globe. And since copper can be melted but egg cannot, the egg would have had to come first.

Ahead of Its Time

Whoever made the globe had access to the latest information about explorers from all the European countries vying for world domination. Many explorers were just returning from their journeys that profoundly changed the way people saw and understood the world. The shape of the Asian peninsula, for example, reflects the explorations of Italian Henricus Martellus, and the two tiny islands of North America were those happened upon by Christopher Columbus. Other details reflect the then-recent exploratory accounts of Marco Polo, the Corte-Reals, Cabral, and Amerigo Vespucci, who coined the name New World, or “MVNDVS NOVVS” as it is labeled on the globe.

Missinne suspects the globe was engraved by an Italian hand, as he describes in the cartography journal Portolan today. The scholar points specifically to Florence which, in 1500, was the richest city in Europe and a renowned map-making hub. Feuding families in positions of power funded exotic artistic and cultural projects, so an ostrich egg globe of the newly discovered lands would have been right up their alley.

Detail of a ship in the eastern Indian Ocean on the egg globe.

Detail of a ship in the eastern Indian Ocean on the egg globe. Image credit: Washington Map Society

The Drama is in the Details

Another creative force in Florence at the time was Leonardo Da Vinci. The lack of New World references in Da Vinci’s writings, and the artist’s inexperience with engraving, suggest to Missinne that Da Vinci could not have been the globemaker himself. Still, the great thinker’s influence is apparent. The transfer of the map from paper to globe appears to have been done via Da Vinci’s unique method for transferring a 2-dimensional drawing to a 3-dimensional sphere by slicing it into triangles.

Apart from the new lands depicted on the globe, the waters tell their fair share of stories, too. In the Indian Ocean, for example, a sole ship is shown tossed on the waves, its origin and destination unknown. And off the coast of Southeast Asia, the Latin legend warns of a legendary monster: “HIC SVNT DRACONES” it says; Here there are dragons.

  • Ms Jacquelyn Dotson

    Sounds to me like the Ostrich egg was copied from the copper. Exactly identical….what are the odds?

    • Mary Unruh

      Are you kidding me? Didn’t you read the article? Or better yet have you ever bought a cast piece of jewelry or seen list wax technique used or watched a modern bronze made? The carved egg is the model, the copper (a soft and malleable metal I have experience working with) is the duplicate. Better yet use logic, the artist completes a work scholars want to buy multiple copies of do you start with a valuable metal/copper globe? No. You start with an easily replaced medium if you make a mistake, and make the metal duplicates from that!

      • JP

        I doubt whether ostrich eggs were an “easily-replaced medium” in the early 16th century. Also, the provenance of the item seems very murky. At this stage, I don’t see how we can exclude the possibility that the image on the egg postdates the manufacture of the globe.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Breanna Draxler

          You’re right, JP–ostrich eggs were an exotic commodity at the time. And there are indeed a lot of unanswered questions about where the egg came from; such is often the case when historic objects come from private collections. The reason scholars think the egg came first is that the two are absolutely identical down to the most minute detail; one has to be a cast from the other. But in terms of physical feasibility, copper can be used to make a copy of the egg, but the reverse is not possible. Egg cannot be melted down to make a cast.

  • Rik

    ” And since copper can be melted but egg cannot, the egg would have had to come first.”
    That is a non-sensical conclusion.

    • Headbangerguy

      Makes perfect sense.

      The egg and the copper globe are exact copies of each other. The only way that could happen is if the egg were used to make a cast.

    • http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php Michael Simpson

      Did the humor stick miss hitting you? Sheesh.

  • Tom Yulsman

    Awesome story!

  • Peejay70

    “Here’s North America, folks–just two tiny islands surrounded by what must have seemed like endless ocean” This caption is silly. Those islands appear to be Caribbean islands, maybe Cuba and Hispaniola. The large landmass below is presumably the northern coast of the South American continent. This is pretty remarkable for an artifact created a few decades after Europeans reached the Americas.

    • Monswine

      according to the article, the islands reached by Columbus. I also disliked the caption.

    • DaMerman58

      Another way to look at it: the Caribbean islands (like the Bahamas and Hispaniola) are part of North America and that’s all that was discovered at the time of the globe’s creation. So perhaps the author was just making light of the fact that it’s wild to us today about how little they discovered for Europeans.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Breanna Draxler

        My apologies if the caption seemed insensitive. I was just trying to express how fascinating it is to see the world from the eyes of early explorers–the difference between how big a continent actually is versus how it seemed from the few sea voyages that had been made to the New World at that point in time. It’s impressive!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Richard Kovar

    I need an app that blocks comments….

  • Steven Solidarios

    Google Yolks

  • Farmers Daughter

    How wonderful!

  • http://www.facebook.com/carmen.johnson.5891 Carmen Johnson


  • Aline Hense

    Yes, this seems to be a great discovery. Unfortunately, I possess an identical globe… – in size, in material, in the very details – and Mr. Missinne wanted to purchase my globe in Nov 2012. Actually, both globes seem to be a copy of the Hunt-Lenox-Globe, and Mr. Missinne knows it just as well as me. End of my Story…..

    • JP

      That’s a very interesting piece of information. I hope you will consider posting some images of your globe online.

  • Aline Hense

    JP, I sure can upload pics of my Hunt-Lenox-globe-copy. Plus, as Mr. Missinne left some fotos of his globe, I found out a lot of similarities:

    1. Both have obvious irregularities on the
    surface (something I have never seen on an egg)
    2. Both have 2 spelling mistakes: Hispanis
    instead of Hispania, Libia Inferoir instead of Libia Inferior (Interesting: The Hunt-Lenox-Globe only got Hispania wrong)
    3. Both have a scratch on the North side of Australia reaching into sea
    4. On both globes only “dragones” can be
    read (Hunt-Lenox of course: “Hic sunt dragones”)
    5. Both globes have a very “untidy” equator. Many details of the Hunt-Lenox Globe were lost that way. How come the artist lost his sense for details he has demonstrated so nicely on the rest of
    the globe all the way around the equator? How come that the material with which the 2 halves were put together seems to be the same as for the two halves of both globes? One would see right away if the halves were calcium as eggs consist of and the stuff that holds them together was something else. And so on…

    • Aline Hense

      Sorry, got the same pic twice. Here is another one, showing my globe on top of an article about the “ostrich-globe)

      • JP

        Wow… case closed, I think! Have you been in touch with the Washington Map Society and their journal, The Portolan, which published the original article?

        • JP

          It’s a small point, but I think the Hunt-Lenox globe actually does have ‘Libia Interoir’ instead of ‘Interior’ (see the black & white photos that can be found online, as opposed to the drawing). However, this doesn’t affect the overall strength of your case.


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