Population Map Explanation


This is a map of world populations: the larger the country, the bigger its population. Each grid square represents a million people. To save you the bother of counting up the squares, we’ve printed the total under the name of every country with more than 10 million people.

With this map it’s easy to get a sense of relative size. The most populous countries leap off the page - China, India - while the smallest countries - countries with fewer than a million people - don’t show up at all. Instead these are listed on the chart between South America and Africa.

Population is all about numbers, but often it’s hard to grasp numbers. Turning numbers into graphics makes them easier to comprehend because graphics are easier to make sense of than numbers.

But then the question arises, Where exactly are the graphics located? Where are they on the earth? Our map combines the comparative advantages of graphics with the locational power of a map to let you know … where the people are.

Because the grid squares are the same size everywhere on the map, on the map everyone is treated equally. This is truly a map that is fair to all people.

Other kinds of maps are fair to all square miles. Such maps - on which every grid square represents the same number of square miles - are called equal area maps. The Hobo-Dyer map in the lower left is an equal area map. On equal area maps, the larger the country is on the map the more territory it has. Another equal area map you might have heard of is the Peters map. Go to first picture of a Peters - six pictures down the page There are many different kinds of equal area maps.

Many well-known maps show neither the land nor the people proportionately. A map such as the famous Mercator (same page as above listing; go nearly all the down until: Mercator Wall Map 34" x 56" - Laminated and tubed) exaggerates the sizes of countries to preserve their shapes... it illustrates nothing about the numbers of people.

No map shows the world as it truly is. This is obvious by the fact that maps are smaller than the world. The first thing mapmakers do to the world is shrink it down. Making maps smaller than the earth means that mapmakers have to sacrifice detail. Given the huge size of the earth, and the small size of most maps, you can see that mapmakers must leave almost all the detail off a map.

Maps are also flat while the surface of the earth is curved. To make maps flat, mapmakers have to give up other things. A map that shows the shapes of countries as they are on the earth can’t show sizes of countries as they are on the earth. A map that shows true areas can’t show true shapes. A map like ours that shows population sizes can’t show either the area or the realistic shape of the land. Every map gives up some aspect of reality to present another. Our map gives up territory to present people. Click here for more info

China and India are the biggest countries in the world. But it can still shock people when they see what this means. Studying this map may make it easier to understand why U.S.A. jobs are being lost to these two giants. China alone has a fifth of the world’s population (20%). Taken together China and India have over a third (37%). The United States has less than a twentieth (4.5%).

The U.S.A. is the third most populous country in the world. It is not common to compare the United States to Indonesia. It’s easy to dismiss Indonesia as just a bunch of islands on the edge of the world. But as this map makes very apparent, Indonesia, with 242 million people, is almost as big as the United States, with 295 million people. Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. Incidentally, for those who think all Muslims live in the Middle East, Indonesians are 90% Muslim. That’s 218 million Muslims who don’t live anywhere near the Middle East! Indonesia is not the only large Pacific island nation: check out the Philippines and Japan. Over 127 million people live in Japan. Nearly 88 million live in the Philippines! These are very large countries.

The smallest completely independent country in the world, Tuvalu, is also a Pacific island nation. It has only 11,636 inhabitants. Because this number is under 1 million, it doesn’t even get a single block on the map. There are a total of 41 countries that don’t make the 1 million people threshold, and they are all listed at the bottom of the main map.

People familiar with the way the Mercator shows the world are used to seeing a really huge Canada and a comparatively tiny Mexico. An equal area map, like the Hobo-Dyer, below, helps correct that impression as far as territory goes. Our map turns the perception on its head: Mexico has three times the population of Canada, 106 million to not quite 33 million.

People who can’t understand why the tiny islands in the Caribbean are so often in the news will also find our map illuminating. Although some of these island nations are among the world’s smallest - Antigua and Barbuda has fewer than 70,000 inhabitants - countries like Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic are sizeable. Altogether, more people live on these islands than live in Canada!

Africa, on the other hand, is not as big as the news sometimes makes it, though Nigeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia are all very populous countries, with 141, 78, and 70 million inhabitants respectively. Yet Europe, which many overlook when talk turns to population, can show comparable figures. 82 million people live in Germany, 61 million in France, and 60 million in the United Kingdom. It’s not all about birthrates either, which in Africa are the highest in the world. Birthrates are quite low in these European countries, where growth is fueled, like much of the growth in the United States, by immigration.

Well over half the people in the world live in Asia. Countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, with 162 and 144 million respectively, are larger than any we’ve just mentioned. Pakistan and Bangladesh, once united as the single country of Pakistan, are together larger than the United States; but even by itself Bangladesh is larger than Germany and France combined. Turkey has 70 million inhabitants, Iran has 68 million.

Twenty-six million people live in Iraq. We’ve already mentioned China’s and India’s huge populations, and the large populations of Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines. When thinking about world affairs, an important fact to bear in mind is Asia’s dominance. This has been true throughout recorded history.

True, 100,000 years ago most of the world’s people lived in Africa, where humans originated. The map panel #2, shows this graphically. In it, and the string of maps that follow, the number of people represented by a map-square increases as the world’s population increases, from a world total of around a million people 100,000 years ago, to around 10,000 million 50 years from today. Writing it 10,000 million instead of 10 billion lets the fact that the number of people in the world has increased 10,000 fold over the past 100,000 years really sink in.

Most of this growth has been in the past couple of thousand years. A lot of it has taken place in the lifetimes of many who are still living! A huge chunk of it will take place in the next fifty years as the world’s population soars from the present 6.5 billion to 10 billion in 2150. No fact about the world is more important than this growth in the numbers of humans.

Notice that it has not been a steady increase everywhere. Around 100,000 years ago most of the million humans lived in Africa. By the birth of Christ, when humans had increased to 161 million, nearly two-thirds of us already lived in Asia. By 1650, when our numbers had multiplied to 545 million (just over half a billion), just under two-thirds of us lived in Asia. By 1900, when there were 1,650 million of us (a billion and a half), 57% of us lived in Asia. By 2150, when there will be 10 billion of us, 57% will still live in Asia. Of course, as the Hobo-Dyer demonstrates, Asia also has the most land.

The Hobo-Dyer also shows that Africa is the second largest continent in area. In 2150 another quarter of the world’s population will be living there. Over four-fifths of the world’s population will live in Africa and Asia!

Over time the relative size of the European population has waxed and waned. Don’t misinterpret these maps. The population of Europe increases in every one of them, from around 50,000 in the first map, to 24 million at the birth of Christ, to 100 million in 1650, to 408 million in 1900, and to a projected 517 million by 2150. At the same time Europe’s percentage of world population had changed from less than 5% 100,000 years ago to a peak of 25% in 1900. By 2150 it will be back down to 5%. What impact might this have on world affairs?

Scarcely less important is population density. People prefer to live where the living is best. Asians, for example, are not evenly distributed across the continent. Far from it. Few people live in Asia’s great deserts, the Gobi, the Takla Makan, the Rub al Khali, the Thar, the Kara Kum. Few people live in the mountains of the Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, the Tien Shan. Few people live in the barren Plateau of Tibet or in the Arctic vastness of Siberia.

Asia’s enormous population is highly concentrated in a few great river basins, coastlands, and islands. China’s lives in the basins of the Huang Ho, the Yangtze, the Xun Xi, and the coastlands between them. India’s lives along its coasts and in the basin of the Ganges. Pakistan’s lives in the Indus valley, Bangladesh’s on the floodplains and deltas of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Japan’s population is concentrated on the island of Honshu, Indonesia’s on Java, that of the Philippines on Luzon.

These facts are displayed in map #7, which shows the earth’s surface that is occupied by more than 30 people per square mile. The absence of the usual land and water distinctions helps make the point that in our age water is no more a barrier to human interaction than mountains and deserts, often less. In contrast to the usual continents of land, these are the continents of humankind.

All eight maps displayed in our colorful poster help make sense of the patterns of human life. Still more sense can be made if other maps are consulted and compared. Maps of landforms, climates, temperature, rainfall, natural vegetation, soils, birth and death rates, agriculture, mineral resources, religions, languages, GNP, expenditures on weaponry, medicine and education, laws on slavery, women’s rights and sexual orientation, science publications, number of patents, and other facts are no further away than your Internet browser, library, or bookstore. The more maps you’re familiar with, the better you can understand the world you live in. Fascinating sources of data can be found in the Peters Atlas of the World (2002), the State of the World Atlas (2003) 7th Edition, or Strategic Atlas: Comparative Geopolitics of the World's Powers (1990), out of print, but available used from www.alibris.com.

Text by Denis Wood
© 2005, www.odt.org


Mapping a point of view (Summer, 2003)
THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN (March, 2003)