Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia



How do Gerhard Mercator's early maps show the historical perception of West Africa?

Lesson Images

Mercator map

Mercator, Gerhard, (1512–1594). Typus Orbis Terrarum: Domini est Terra & Plenitudo Ejus, Orbis Uerrarum, & Universi Qui Habitant in Eo. Psalmo 24. Amsterdam, 1607. G3200 1607 .M4 Voorhees Collection. Library of Virginia. (High Res)

Africaa Descriptio

Mercator, Gerhard, (1512–1594). Africae Descriptio, 1607. G8200 1607 .M47 Voorhees Collection. Library of Virginia. (High Res)

Standards Of Learning

1.5, 2.5, 2.6, 3.2, 3.5, 3.7, USI.1, USI.2, USII.1, WG.4, WHI.1, WHI.1, WHI.10

Historical Information:

This Lesson Plan was created by Penny Anderson, a teacher at Riverbend High School in Fredericksburg and one of the Library of Virginia's 2010 Brown Research Teacher Fellows.

Throughout history, Africa has been home to many great empires. One important kingdom arose in West Africa. Mali (Malle) was a prosperous and influential trading empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Mali was ruled by kings called mansa. Mansa Sundiata and his grandson Mansa Musa are known as two of the most influential Malian kings. Mali gained power through gold and salt mining and through control of the Trans-Saharan trade routes in the region. Mali's relative location lay across the trade routes between the sources of salt in the Sahara Desert and the gold mines of West Africa. The Malian kings also brought in and supported the religion of Islam throughout the empire.

The people of Mali made their living as farmers, miners, and traders. They usually built their settlements along rivers or near the grasslands of the region. Farmers planted millet and other grain crops. Salt was also a valuable natural resource across West Africa. It is not only an essential nutrient for humans, but salt is also used for preserving foods. As a necessary commodity, salt was used as currency and was even traded for gold.

Timbuktu was the most important city in the kingdom. The center of culture and trade, it was home to one of the first universities in Sub-Saharan Africa and included a large library complete with books from places like Greece and Rome. Timbuktu also housed mosques for Islamic worship and prayers.

Many African kingdoms, empires, and tribes followed the custom of oral recitation. Storytellers in Mali, called griots (gree-ohs), passed down stories and traditions from one generation to the next. Most of what we know about Mali's history comes from song stories and other oral accounts handed down by griots. The Kingdom of Mali ended about 1450 and its demise ushered in the age of the Songhai Empire of West Africa.

Vocabulary Words:

• globe—a round (sphere) model of the Earth

• hemisphere—half of a sphere (globe), created by the equator or the prime meridian

• map—a drawing that shows what places look like from above and where they are located

• map perspective—the visual information of the cartographer's point of view

• natural resource—a natural substance deemed useful to man

• relative location—concept described by using terms that show connections between two places, such as next to, near, and bordering.

• region—a place that has common characteristics that are different from the characteristics of the surrounding areas

Lesson Activities


• Using a large projection (slide show image, poster, or transparency image, etc.), as a class have students examine each Mercator map image and make basic observations:

♦ How did Mercator differentiate between land and water?

♦ Find the title, compass rose, scale, and legend.

♦ What are some differences between the two Mercator images? What are some similarities?

♦ Does the map look the same as a present day map? Why or why not?

♦ Find the region of West Africa. What locations are familiar (if any)? Can you find the Atlantic Ocean? Mediterranean Sea? Niger (ny-jur) River? Sahara Desert? Atlas Mountains? Mali (Malle)? Timbuktu (Toumboucto/Tombutto)?

♦ What other African locations do you see? (Guinea, Benin, and Nubia, etc.)

♦ What is the relative direction of Mali from Egypt? From Europe? From North America?

• Using a wall map of modern Africa, compare it with the Mercator maps. Have the students identify the map titles, any geographic features or symbols, and place-names.

♦ Have students locate the following places on the wall map: West Africa, Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Sahara Desert, Sahel (southern edge of the Sahara), Atlas Mountains, Niger River, Niger Delta, Mali, Timbuktu, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria.

♦ Discuss the following: Are any of the above locations listed on all of the maps? Why or why not? Examine the relative location of the listed places. Are they near or far from one another? In what direction are they relative to one another? Do Mercator's maps show modern countries of Africa? Why not? (Use attached Venn diagram as needed.)

♦ When were Mercator's maps created? (sixteenth century) When was the Kingdom of Mali in power? (thirteenth through fifteenth centuries) Find the Niger River on Mercator's map. Does it look correct? Why wouldn't Mercator know the flow of the river far into the interior of Africa? (Neither Mercator nor any other Europeans had explored the interior of Africa.)

♦ Why would settlement along the Niger River have been important for Mali? Would this have helped in trade? Farming? Mining? Communication? Transportation?

♦ Where would you expect to find the grasslands of the region? (along the rivers near the Sahel—the area due south of the Sahara Desert) What is the largest river in the region? (Niger River) Where are the gold mines of Mali? (in western Africa near the rivers) Where are the salt mines of Mali? (rock salt mines and salt flats in the Sahara Desert)


• Draw a map of Africa from memory showing as many major land and water features as you can remember. Add a title, a compass rose, and a key for any symbols you use to represent information.


• Create your own song story about the kingdom of Mali. Share some in class without writing them down.

“Man can live without gold but not without salt” –Roman Senator Flavius Magnus Cassiodorus, in the fifth century

• Consider this quote. Write a response as to WHY man cannot live without salt.

Lesson Handouts

Blank Venn Diagram PDF Handout (94 KB)

Africae Descriptio. Panels to print PDF Handout (2 MB)

Typus Orbis Terrarum. Panels to print PDF Handout (1 MB)

Suggested Materials

Chu, Daniel and Elliott Skinner. A Glorious Age in Africa: The Story of Three Great African Empires. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990.

Masoff, Joy. Mali: Land of Gold and Glory. Waccabuc, N.Y.: Five Ponds Press, 2002.

McKissack, Patricia and Frederick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1994.

Related Links

[back to top]