What's the real size of Africa? How Western states used maps to downplay size of continent

Story highlights

  • The Mercator projection has been used as a template for world maps since 1569
  • It shows Africa as being smaller than it is
  • Boston schools are taking a stand against it by introducing another projection

(CNN)On a typical world map, Canada is a vast nation. Home to six time zones, its endless plains spread from ocean to ocean, dominating great swathes of the northern half of the globe. But, in reality, three Canadas would comfortably fit inside Africa.

Our world map is wildly misleading. It's all down to the European cartographer Geert de Kremer, better known as Mercator, and his 16th century map projection -- a common template for world maps today -- which distorts the size of countries.
    Now, schools in Boston are taking a stand against the tradition by introducing the lesser-known Peters projection from the 1970s (also called Gall-Peters projection) in classrooms, to teach children the real size of the continents.
      The move is part of a wider initiative to remove bias within education.
      "By incorporating the Peters projection maps -- an equal area representation -- into classrooms, we are opening the door for students to view the world in a different light," says Natacha Scott, social studies director at Boston Public Schools.
      The initiative will see students comparing different maps.
        "By exploring geography, we also hope to increase an awareness of the relationship between themselves to other countries, communities, cultures and individuals around the world," Scott adds.
        The Peters projection maps areas in their actual sizes relative to each other, but in doing so distorts their shapes.
        Though a convenient way to chart the world, Mercator's map distorts proportions, making some landmasses larger that they are in reality.
        "Somehow this map projection came to be used on most world maps, especially those produced for classrooms since the beginning of the 1900s," says Menno-Jan Kraak, president of the International Cartographic Association and professor of cartography at the University of Twente, Netherlands.
        "Most of us have grown up with this world image."

        Made for captains

        The 1569 Mercator projection was made for navigating the seas -- drawing the meridians and parallels as straight lines that cross at right angles helped sailors to navigate some of the their first treacherous voyages around the world.
        Mercator initially made globes. Later transferring his map from a three-dimensional curved surface to a flat sheet of paper was problematic. Taking the equator as the logical map center left big, confusing gaps near the poles.
        Mercator's solution was to stretch out the northern and southern extremities of the globe to fill those gaps, producing an elegant and usable map.
        While a revolutionary tool for captains and explorers, the projection distorts the relative size of the continents, to the advantage of the West.
        The repercussions of this are still being felt today.

        A map made by Europe for Europe

        On the Mercator map, Africa -- sitting on the equator, reasonably undistorted -- is left looking much smaller than it really is.
        But Canada, Russia, the United States and Europe are greatly enlarged.
        The distortion is largest near the poles: Greenland, which looks about the same size as the whole of Africa on the Mercator, is a classic example. In truth, it is no bigger than the Democratic Republic of Congo.
        That European and North American countries are enlarged is no accident. This system provided more space for Western cartographers to mark towns, cities, roads etc in their part of the world, Kraak says.
        "If you would take a map projection with equal areas then there is almost no space on the map to display all [these details]."
        There was, of course, much to map in Africa, too, but that mattered less to the cartographers up north, he adds.

        A political tool?

        One of the dangers of the Mercator map is that it can make enlarged countries seem unnaturally powerful and intimidating.
        "The term 'power of representation and representation of power' sums up quite well how maps and the rise of the Western nation-state system -- and with that, empire and colonialism -- are linked," says Marianne Fran