Mapping as a Cultural Universal

  • David Stea
  • James M. Blaut
  • Jennifer Stephens
Part of the GeoJournal Library book series (GEJL, volume 32)


This chapter discusses the hypothesis that mapping behavior, the making of map like models, is a cultural universal, an important component of ecological behavior. The essay presents a theoretical framework for the hypothesis and discusses three categories of evidence developmental, prehistoric, and cross-cultural — which support the hypothesis. Humans must visualize, analyze, describe, and communicate the nature of large environments perceived atomistically, and therefore they create material representations depicting environments as if seen as a whole, from overhead. The result is an organized sign system with certain linguistic properties, including two syntactic transformations (rotation/projection and scale reduction), and the semantic representation of landscape features as iconic or abstract signs. This concept of the map yields useful criteria for the identification and study of maps in culture, history, and behavior. Many examples of prehistoric imagery, mostly parietal, extending to periods earlier than the Neolithic (of both geographical hemispheres), appear map-like, giving evidence of rotated, scale-reduced, and abstracted depiction of the environment and suggesting that mapping may have represented a form of adaptive behavior for modern humans. In a few cases, which are discussed, the representation depicts a real local landscape. Ethnographic studies, while in general not concerned with mapping, have provided evidence that mapping activity occurs in many contemporary cultures. Studies of the behavior of very young children, finally, indicate that mapping abilities appear much earlier than generally supposed, and seem to play an important role in early development.1


Mapping Behavior American Geographer Mapping Ability Contemporary Culture Ecological Behavior 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Atkins, C. (1981). Introducing basic map and globe concepts to young children. Journal of Geography 80, 228–233.Google Scholar
  2. Barker, R. (1968). Ecological psychology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bassett, T. (forthcoming, 1995). African maps and mapmaking. In The Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
  4. Berk, L. E. (1994). Why children talk to themselves. Scientific American 271(5), 78–83.Google Scholar
  5. Betts, A., and Helms, S (1986). Rock art in eastern Jordan: “Kite” carvings? Paleorient 12(1), 67–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blades, M. and Spencer, C. (1987). The use of maps by 4-to 6-year-old children in a large-scale maze. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 5, 19–24.Google Scholar
  7. Blades, M. and Spencer, C. (1986). Map use by young children. Geography 71, 47–52.Google Scholar
  8. Blades, M., and Spencer, C. (1994). The development of children’s ability to use spatial representations. in Advances in Child Development and Behavior.Google Scholar
  9. Blades, M. and Spencer, C. (forthcoming). Young children’s use of spatial relationships in tasks with maps and models. University of Sheffield, Cartographica.Google Scholar
  10. Blakemore, M. (1981). From way-finding to map-making: the spatial information fields of aboriginal peoples. Progress in Human Geography 5,1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blaut, J. (1969). Studies in developmental geography. Place Perception Research Report No. 1. Worcester, Massachusetts: Clark University.Google Scholar
  12. Blaut, J. (1987). Notes toward a theory of mapping behavior. Children’s Environments Quarterly 4(4), 27–34.Google Scholar
  13. Blaut, J. (1991). Natural mapping. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers 16, n.s., 55–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Blaut, J. (1993). The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York and London: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  15. Blaut, J., McCleary, G., and Blaut, A. (1970). Environmental mapping in young children. Environment and Behavior 2(3) 335–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Blaut, J. and Stea, D. (1969). Place learning. Place Perception Research Report No. 4. Worcester, Massachusetts: Clark University.Google Scholar
  17. Blaut, J. and Stea, D. (1971). Studies of geographic learning. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 61, 387–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Blaut, J. and Stea, D. (1974). Mapping at the age of three. Journal of Geography 73, 5–9.Google Scholar
  19. Bluestein, N. and Acredolo, L. (1979). Developmental changes in map-reading skills. Child Development 50(3), 691–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Bremner, J. and Bryant, P. (1985). Active movement and development of spatial abilities in infancy. In Children’s searching: the development of search skills and spatial representation (H. Wellman, ed.), pp. 53–72.Google Scholar
  21. Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Brunswik, E. (1955). The conceptual framework of psychology. In International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Part 2 (O. Neurath, R. Carnap, and C. Morris, eds.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  23. Butzer, K. and Williams, B. (1992). Addendum: Three indigenous maps from New Spain dated ca. 1580. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, 536–542.Google Scholar
  24. Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  25. Conning, A. and Byrne, R. (1984). Pointing to pre-school children’s spatial competence: a study in natural setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology 4, 165–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Davenport, W. (1960). Marshall Islands navigational charts. Imago Mundi 15, 19–26.MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  27. Delano Smith, C. (1985). The origins of cartography, an archeological problem: Maps in prehistoric rock art. Papers in Italian Archeology 4, pt. 2, C. Malone and S. Stoddart, eds. B.A.R. International Series 244.Google Scholar
  28. Delano Smith, C. (1987). Cartography in the prehistoric period in the Old World: Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. In The History of Cartography, Vol. 1: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, (J. Harley and D. Woodward, eds), pp. 54–99. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Denniston, D. (1994). Defending the land with maps. World Watch 7(1) 27–31.Google Scholar
  30. Doolittle, W. (1988). Pre-Hispanic occupance in the Valley of Sonora, Mexico: Archeological confirmation of early Spanish reports. Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, No. 48. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
  31. Downs, R. and Stea, D., eds. (1973). Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior. Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  32. Downs, R. and Stea, D. (1977). Maps in Minds. New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  33. Gould, R. (1970). Spears and spear-throwers of the Western Desert Aborigines of Australia. American Museum Novitates 2403, 1–42.Google Scholar
  34. Grieder, T. (1966). Periods in Pecos Style pictographs. American Antiquity (5), 710–720.Google Scholar
  35. Hart, R. (1979). Children’s Experience of Place. New York: Irvington.Google Scholar
  36. Head, G. (1984). The map as natural language: a paradigm for understanding. In New Insights in Cartographic Communication. Cartographica Monograph 31 (C. Board, ed.), pp. 1–32.Google Scholar
  37. Heth, D., and Cornell, E. (1985). A comparative description of representation and processing during search. In Children’s searching: the development of search skills and spatial representation (H. Wellman, ed.). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  38. Ittelson, W. (1973). Environment perception and contemporary perceptual theory. In Environment and Cognition (W. Ittelson, ed.), pp. 1–19. New York: Seminar Press.Google Scholar
  39. Landau, B.(1986). Early map use as an unlearned ability. Cognition 22, 201–223.Google Scholar
  40. Landau, B. and Spelke, E. (1985). Spatial knowledge and its manifestations. In Children’s searching: the development of search skills and spatial representation (H. Wellman, ed.). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  41. Liben, L. S., A. H. Patterson, and N. Newcombe, eds. (1981). Spatial Representation and Behavior Across the Life Span: Theory and Applications. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  42. Lloyd, R. (1989). Cognitive maps: encoding and decoding information. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79, 101–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lorbranchet, M., ed. (1992). Rock Art in the Old World. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts.Google Scholar
  44. Lyutyy, A. (1986). On the essence of the language of maps. Mapping Sciences and Remote Sensing 23, 127–139.Google Scholar
  45. Marshack, A. (1977). The meander as a system: the analysis and recognition of iconographic units in Upper Paleolithic compositions In Form In Indigenous Art: Schematisation In the Art of Aboriginal Australia and Prehistoric Europe (P. Ucko, ed.). London: Duckworth.Google Scholar
  46. Marshack, A. (1979). Upper Paleolithic symbol systems of the Russian plain: cognitive and comparative analysis. Current Anthropology 20, 271–295, 303–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Matthews, M. (1984a). Cognitive maps: a comparison of graphic and iconic techniques. Area 16, 33–40.Google Scholar
  48. Matthews, M. (1984b). Environmental cognition of young children: images of journey to school and home area. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 9, 89–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Matthews, M. (1985). Young children’s representation of the environment: A comparison of techniques. Journal of Environmental Psychology 5, 261–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. McGee, C. (1982). Children’s perception of symbols on maps and aerial photographs. Geographical Education 4, 51–59.Google Scholar
  51. McGee, Mark G. (1979). Human Spatial Abilities: Sources of Sex Differences. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  52. McGhee, P. E. (1979). Humor: Its Origins and Development. New York: W. H. Freeman.Google Scholar
  53. McGhee, P. E., ed., (1989). Humor and Children’s Development. New York: The Haworth Press.Google Scholar
  54. Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  55. Mellaart, J. (1967). Qatal Hiiyiik: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. New York: Thames and Hudson.Google Scholar
  56. Monmonier, M. (1991). How to Lie With Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  57. Mountford, C. and Walsh, G. (1943). A stone tjuringa of unusual form from the Aranda tribe of Central Australia. Mankind 3, 113–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Muir, M. and Blaut, J. (1969). The use of aerial photographs in teaching mapping to children in the first grade: an experimental study. The Minnesota Geographer 22(4), 1–19.Google Scholar
  59. Muir, S. (1985). Understanding and improving students’ map reading skills. Elementary School Journal 86, 207–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Munn, N. (1973). Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism In a Central Australian Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Naish, M. (1982). Mental development and the learning of geography. In New UNESCO Sourcebook for Geography Teaching (N. Graves, ed.). Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  62. Neumayer, E. (1992). Rock art of India. In Rock Art in the Old World. (M. Lorbranchet, ed.). New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts.Google Scholar
  63. Ottosson, T. (1988). What does it take to read a map? Cartographica 25, 28–35.Google Scholar
  64. Pericot-Garci, L., Galloway, J., and Lommel, A. (1967). Prehistoric and Primitive Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams.Google Scholar
  65. Piaget, J. (1971). Psychology and epistemology. New York: Grossman Publishers.Google Scholar
  66. Piaget, J., and Inhelder, B. (1956). The Child’s Conception of Space. New York: Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  67. Pinker, S. (1990). Language acquisition. In Foundations of Cognitive Science (M. Posner, ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  68. Presson, C. (1982). The development of map-reading skills. Child Development 53, 196–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Proshansky, H. and Fabian, A. (1987). The development of place identity in children. In Spaces for children: the built environment and child development (C. Weinstein and T. David, eds.), 21–40.Google Scholar
  70. Ritchie, J. E. (1977). Cognition of place: The island mind. Ethos 5(2), 187–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Satterley, D. (1973). Skills and concepts involved in map drawing and map interpretation. In Perspectives in Geographical Education (J. Bale, N. Graves, and R. Walford, eds). Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.Google Scholar
  72. Schlichtmann, H. (1985). Characteristic traits of the semiotic system “map symbolism”. Cartographic Journal 22, 23–30.Google Scholar
  73. Siegel, A. and Schadler, M. (1977). Young children’s cognitive maps of their classrooms. Child Development 48, 388–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Spelke, E. (1988). Origins of visual knowledge. In Visual Cognition and Action (D. Osherson, S. Kosslyn, and J. Hollerbach, eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  75. Spencer, C, Harrison, N. and Darvizeh, Z. (1980). The development of iconic mapping ability in young children. International Journal of Early Childhood 12, 57–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Spencer, C, Blades, M. and Morsley, K. (1989). The Child in the Physical Environment: The Development of Spatial Knowledge and Cognition. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  77. Spink, J. and Moodie, D. (1972). Eskimo maps from the Canadian eastern arctic. Cartographica Monograph 5.Google Scholar
  78. Stea, D. (1976). Environmental Mapping. Milton Keynes: Open University.Google Scholar
  79. Stea, D. (1982). Cross-cultural environmental modelling. In Mind, Child, Architecture (A. Lutkus and J. Baird, eds.). Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England.Google Scholar
  80. Stea, D. (1984). Participatory planning and design for the Third World. In Architectural Values and World Issues (W. Gilland and D. Woodcock, eds.). Silver Springs, MD: International Dynamics.Google Scholar
  81. Stea, D. (1987). Participatory planning and design in intercultural and international practice. In Ethnoscapes (D. Canter, M. Krampen, and D. Stea, eds.). Aldershot (U.K.): Avebury.Google Scholar
  82. Stea, D., ed. (1969). Working papers in place, perception. Place Perception Research Report No. 2. Worcester, Massachusetts: Clark University.Google Scholar
  83. Stea, D. and Blaut, J. (1973a). Notes toward a developmental theory of spatial learning. In Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (R. Downs and D. Stea, eds.). Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  84. Stea, D. and Blaut, J. (1973b). Some preliminary observations on spatial learning in Puerto Rican school children. In Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior (R. Downs and D. Stea, eds.). Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  85. Stea, D. and Taphanel, S. (1974). Theory and experiment on the relation between environmental modelling (“toy play”) and environmental cognition. In Psychology and the Built Environment (D. Canter and T. Lee, eds.). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  86. Stea, D., and Turan, M. (1993). Placemaking. Aldershot (U.K.): Avebury.Google Scholar
  87. Thinus-Blanc, C. (1988). Animal spatial cognition. In Thought Without Language (L. Weiskrantz, ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  88. Towler, J. and Nelson, L. (1968). The elementary school child’s concept of scale. Journal of Geography 67, 24–28.Google Scholar
  89. Walker, R. (1980). Map using abilities of five to nine year old children. Geographical Education 3, 545–54.Google Scholar
  90. Wallace, H., and Holmlund, J. (1986) Petroglyphs of the Picacho Mountains: south central Arizona. Institute for American Research, Anthropological Paper No. 6.Google Scholar
  91. Wallace, R. (1989). Cognitive mapping and the origin of language and mind. Current Anthropology 30, 518–526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Wellman, H., ed (1985). Children’s Searching: The Development of Search Skills and Spatial Representation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  93. Wisner, B., Stea, D., and Kruks, S. (1991). Participatory and Action Research Methods. In Advances in Environment, Behavior, and Design, Vol. 3 (E. H. Zube and G. T. Moore, eds.). New York: Plenum.Google Scholar
  94. Wolfenstein, M. (1978). Children’s Humor: A Psychological Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  95. Yoneda, K. (1981). Los mapas de Cuautinchan y la historia cartografica pre-hispanica. Mexico, D.F.: Archivo General de la Nation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Stea
    • 1
  • James M. Blaut
    • 2
  • Jennifer Stephens
    • 3
  1. 1.Centra Internacional para la Cultura y el Ambiente and Mount Holyoke CollegeUniversidad Internacional de MéxicoMexico
  2. 2.University of Illinois at ChicagoUSA
  3. 3.University of Illinois at ChicagoUSA

Personalised recommendations