On the Trail We Blaze | Vintage Maps of Mesoamerica


As a child, I remember spending evenings at my grandparents’ house–far away on the Mainland, where we only visited semi-annually–pawing through shelves full of old yellow-spined National Geographics. Most of the time, it felt like I was embarking on my own archaeological expedition, digging deeper through layers of paper strata in search of the perfect issue. I stayed alert, searching for promising evidence. Covers with dinosaurs, ancient Egyptian art, re-imaginings of lost cities, and great, all-consuming photographs of the universe were most likely to accompany me down to breakfast and into the car on whatever the day’s journey was.

One of the best parts of National Geographic, of course, are those incredible full-color supplements: maps, posters, field guides and blueprints for the world we live in. Sadly, my collection of such pull-out ephemera, though once grand, has fallen prey to the ravages of time (or rather mold, dogs, and my apparent inability to roll posters up nicely in a tube when packing).

Much to my delight, though, a dear friend of mine surprised me yesterday with a lovely envelope filled with wonders–including  some vintage National Geographic maps that just so happen to relate to my favorite subject!


Now, because I’m a nerd, I couldn’t help finding out a little more about the history of these fantastic little bits of National Geographic’s past. The first is a map supplement from the December 1997 issue, and apparently also a part of a Great Peoples of the Past series. Appropriately, this issue included an article exploring recent discoveries at the Maya site of Copan.

It features a vibrant re-imagining of the Maya site of Palenque on one side, and a detailed culture/civilization map–including art object photos!–of Mesoamerica on the reverse.



(I was particularly delighted to recognize this old friend from the British Museum!)


I always had a soft spot for Nat Geo’s “artist’s rendering” images, to be honest. I was very fond of the idea of breathing life into the ruins of the past by attempting to restore them to their original state through art–though, of course, such renderings should by no means be taken as completely factual.



Now, for those of us who were, well, born in the 1990s, 1997 sounds like veritable aeons ago–but this first map has nothing on its companion!


This Archaeological Map of Middle America was published in October 1968 (!!) as part of a series of two. It offers a very comprehensive breakdown of the major archaeological sites of the region, as well as some charming little illustrations (and the now-dated practice of referring to the area as “Middle America”).


Did you know that National Geographic has a digital archive of many of their old maps? You can check out this 1968 beauty without ever touching old paper by visiting the NG Maps Print Collection. (This is starting to sound suspiciously like a sponsored post, but I can promise you: I’m really just a maphead. Speaking of which, looks like there’s a digital copy of a whole bunch of space posters, too…I know what I’ll be doing on my lunch break for the foreseeable future)!

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