February’s Map of the Month: Botanical Geography

This month’s Map of the Month celebrates the work of Alexander von Humboldt. The map Outlines of Botanical Geography appears in W.K. Johnston’s Physical Atlas (1848). Humboldt played an important part in the design and production of this map.

Bearing an almost Faustian thirst for knowledge, Humboldt aimed to explore as much of the world as possible. He was fascinated by botany, geology, climate change, zoology and anthropology. This blog piece will briefly describe his famous adventure.

Humboldt in a letter to Goethe stated that “nature must be experienced through feeling”. His illustrations are both appealing to look at and convey his meticulously recorded data. His images combined the thoroughness of scientific recording with the allure of landscape paintings.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt in his study. The background map is by John Distrunell (1847). Public Domain Image from : Österreichische Nationalbibliothek – Austrian National Library

His famous expedition was self-financed and covered 6,500 miles (9,650 km) covering New Granada (present day: Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador); Cuba and New Spain (predominantly present day Mexico). Humboldt enlisted the help of French botanist Aimé Bonpland and together they collected plants, recorded latitudes and measured temperature across the Americas.

Alexander von Humboldt’s American expedition from 1799-1804 by Alexrk translated by Cäsium137 (T.) Sourced via Wikicommon.

Humboldt and Bonpland left A Coruña (Spain) on 5th June 1799 to sail on the Pizarro (ship) heading towards the Americas. According to Humboldt’s Personal Narrative…, the route needed to be changed following an outbreak of disease on the ship. So they landed in Cumaná (Venezuela) instead of Cuba on 16th July 1799. Due to the change in route, Humboldt was able to map all of the Orinoco River.

Map of the River Systems of America. From Johnston’s Physical Atlas; Hydrology Map 6


To map the river, Humboldt and his team firstly walked through the hot and arid Llanos plains. They set off for the Orinoco River on 7th February 1800.  During the trek, they often experienced mirages and needed to escape dust devils under the unyielding sun. On 30th March, they reached the Apure River which flows into the Orinoco River.

Los Llanos By Fernando Flores. Creative Commons Licensed Image sourced from Wikicommons.

Once at the river, Humboldt describes hundreds of basking crocodiles floating in the river that were at first mistaken for floating tree trunks. During the day, Humboldt would witness boa constrictors basking in the sun, capybaras running through the forest at the water’s edge and the elusive tapir.

Map of the Distribution of Mammalia. From Johnston’s Physical Atlas; Phythological and Zoological Division Map 3

Along the journey, Humboldt found the Casiquiare canal that connects the Orinoco River to the Amazon. The presence of the Caisquiare and how it connects the Orinoco and Amazon was widely disputed at the time. Humboldt endeavoured to map the entire river system and send these findings to scholars in Europe.

Alexander von Humboldt’s Sketch of Orinoco basin: Orinoco-Casiquire-Amazone River-System, drawn by Humboldt. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons part of the Wellcome Libraries Collection

Throughout their travels, Humboldt and Bonpland collected many specimens and dried them to from a botanical catalogue (similar to the image below):

Plant material marked with “A”; ex reliquiis Sellowianis, Humboldt died. 1836 Contributor: S. Arroyo-Leuenberger & B. E. Leuenberger (identifier). Creative Commons License. Sourced from Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem

Humboldt was particularly interested in how altitude and latitude determine vegetation zones. Alongside his temperature records, he was able to chart which plants grow where. His work laid the foundations of biogeography and ecology (including the concept behind isotherm charts).


Extract from Bartholomew’s Times Survey Atlas (1920).
World -Climate. To view please click here: http://maps.nls.uk/view/101105578

Later in his journey, Humboldt would climb the 21,000ft Chimborazo volcano. The journey was hard-going. They reached 13,500 feet by mule but need to walk for the rest of the journey.  After 15,600, the porters would not walk any further. Humboldt described their shoes fell apart and they ended up walking barefoot with numb and bleeding feet. Humboldt had an injured foot and this became infected. The team also experienced altitude sickness and vertigo. Reaching 19,413 feet, they could not climb and further. Looking out towards the peak, with bloodshot eyes and bleeding gums, the fog disappeared and they could see the top of the Chimborazo (only 1,000 feet ahead).

Vues des Cordilleres: planches Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. Mount Chimborazo. Humboldt, Friederich Heinrich Alexander von. Published: 1810-1813. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Despite all these hardships, Humboldt and this team collected and recorded a substantial amount of new information about South America. Near the peak of Chimborazo, Humboldt wrote how the view inspired his idea which he called “sense of unity”. How everything like flora, fauna and geology is all interconnected. Humboldt collated all this information and his central idea of unity to form the Naturgemälde drawing.

Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, also known as the Chimborazo Map, is his depiction of the volcano in cross section, with detailed information about plant geography. The illustration was published in The Geography of Plants, 1807, in a large format (54 cm x 84 cm.) Public Domain image sourced from Wikicommons

The design of the Naturgemälde formed the concept of the mapped volcanoes at the top of our Map of the Month.

Outline of Botantical Geography. From Johnston’s Physical Atlas; Phythological and Zoological Division Map 1

Although, Humboldt is not as well-known as other naturalist (such as John Muir), his travels inspired many naturalists (including Charles Darwin) and artist such as Frederic Edwin Church (a landscape painter).

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church. Painted in 1859. Oil on Canvas. Photograph bequest of Margaret E. Dows, 1909. Public Domain Image.

Humboldt impact on modern science is substantial and it is impossible to fully cover his work and travel in a blog piece. However, we hold many books and items about Humboldt so it is not hard to find out more. For anyone interested in finding out more, I have listed a few books as a starting point:

Von Humboldt, A. (1849). Aspects of nature, in different lands and different climates; with scientific elucidations. Translated by Mrs. Sabine.London : J. Murray : Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans(shelfmark: Mc.3 (17,375-17,382))

Von Humboldt, A. (1815). Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804 by Alexander de Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland [microform] / written in French by Alexander de Humboldt ; and translated into English by Helen Maria Williams. Philadelphia : M. Carey. (shelfmark: Mc.3 (16,209-16,213))

Walls, L. D (2009). Passage to the Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the shaping of America. University of Chicago Press (shelfmark: HB2.209.10.512)

Wilson, J (2007) Jaguars and electric eels. Penguin London (shelfmark: PB2.210.121/7)

Wulf, A (2015) Invention of Nature: the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science London : Hodder & Stoughton (networked resource)