Since the beginnings of human existence, people have had to possess a knowledge of the world around them. Even in the simplest hunting and gathering societies, people had to know the locations of springs producing drinkable water, places where plant foods were abundant, salt licks where animals gathered, caves for shelter and outcrops where rocks suitable for making tools could be found. Through most of history, this information, often meaning the difference between life and death, was passed on from one individual to another by word of mouth. This reliance on the spoken and remembered word often led to problems, as directions became confused or garbled, or through an unexpected death before information was shared. Such difficulties multiplied as people began to travel further, and so had more of the world to remember.

These problems were overcome by the invention of the "map". A map is a graphic representation of geographic space, or, in other words, a picture that shows you where something is. They are flat surfaces on which is depicted in generalize, symbolized, and much reduced manner some phenomenon that has spatial distribution. Maps have many advantages over spoken instructions. With a map you no longer had to remember a long series of complicated instructions. A map holds this information until it is needed. With a map you no longer have to worry about information being lost when people die or move away. Maps can be put away and stored indefinitely, and so be used by people for generation after generation long after the cartographer (map-maker) is gone. As a result, the widespread use of maps as a way of recording and preserving spatial information has greatly increased the amount of geographic information available to anyone, and has been largely responsible for many of the great advances in learning during the last two thousand years.

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