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Home Page > Behind The Maps > Population Map > Contributors > Denis Wood
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Denis Wood

Critique by Denis:

TO: Dr. Bob Abramms
ODT, Inc.
PO Box 134
Amherst MA 01004

Dear Bob:

Here are my comments on the POPULATION MAP project.

FIRST CAUTION: the list Paul sent me of countries whose population he’s using includes entities which I do not believe are countries, that is, not independent nation-states. American Samoa is a US territory. Anguilla, to my knowledge, is not an independent country but a dependent territory of the United Kingdom. Aruba is actually part of the Netherlands, though internally autonomous, ever since its separation from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986. Bermuda is a UK territory. The Cayman Islands is a UK territory. Cook Islands is more complicated. It’s a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand. The Faroe Islands is a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark. French Guiana is an overseas department of France. French Polynesia is an overseas territory of France. God knows what the Gaza Strip is. It’s not a country of any kind (that would be Palestine). Functionally, it’s territory occupied by Israel. Gibraltar is a colony of the UK. Greenland is a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark. Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France. Guam is a US territory. I know there’s something anomalous about Guernsey, but it remains a British island, maybe even a British bailiwick. Hong Kong is a Chinese S.A.R. That is, it’s as Chinese as Inner Mongolia. Jersey also remains a British island, maybe even a British bailiwick. Macau is another Chinese S.A.R. The Isle of Man is another part of the United Kingdom. Martinique is an overseas department of France. Mayotte is a territorial collectivity of France. Montserrat is a British colony. The Netherlands Antilles is an autonomous part of the Netherlands. New Caledonia is an overseas territory of France. The Northern Mariana Islands are a commonwealth of the US, like Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the US like the Northern Mariana Islands. Réunion is an overseas department of France. Saint Helena is a dependent territory of the UK. Saint Pierre and Miquelon are a territorial collectivity of France. Turks and Caicos Islands is a colony of the UK. The Virgin Islands is an organized, unincorporated territory of the US. The Virgin Islands, British, is a dependent territory of the UK. Wallis and Futuna is an overseas territory of France. The West Bank, like Gaza, is territory occupied by Israel. If a country, is it Palestine or a part of Jordan? Western Sahara is a situation which to the best of my knowledge remains suspended in a UN-sponsored cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, though I haven’t been paying attention and if you check on the Web, it may well have become a country in the last couple of years.

SECOND CAUTION: I’m obligated to point out that Paul’s list does not include all the places in the world whose status is similarly anomalous. Excluded from his list are Christmas Island (Australian territory), Cocos Islands (Australian territory), Norfolk Island (Australian territory), Niue (another self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand), Tokelau (a New Zealand territory), Svalbard (a territory of Norway), the Falkland Islands (a colony of the UK), Pitcairn Islands (a colony of the UK), Baker and Howland Islands (a US territory administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service), and Jarvis Island, Kingman Reef, Palymyra Atoll, Johnston Atoll, Midway Islands, Wake Islands, and Navassa, islands of varying status attached to the US under varying administrations. Navassa, for example, which lies between Jamaica and Haiti, hosts only a lighthouse maintained by the US Coast Guard.

But also excluded is the Holy See, a monarchical-sacerdotal state which gained its independence (from Italy) in 1929. It is in fact a sovereign state, the world’s smallest in population and size, and one that dates to the eighth century. It has 870 inhabitants, give or take.

Similarly excluded is Tibet. I know that ODT has consistently advocated on behalf of the Tibetan peoples by including the disputed border on the Peters, “What’s Up? South!,” and Hobo-Dyer maps. In fact, I can’t find index entries to Tibet in almanacs anymore. Orthodox opinion has thoroughly assimilated Tibet to China as another S.A.R.

And if you choose to fly in the face of this, then what of Chechnya? What of the Basque homeland? The claims of the Tamil? The Kurds? Ad nauseum.

Few of these places are big enough - have enough inhabitants - to show up on the map, so the map itself is little at stake, but the list of nations too small to appear on the map is very much so.

So are remarks like the one I make in my text about the smallest country in the world. The smallest place on Paul’s list is Saint Pierre and Miquelon (a French island off the coast of Labrador), but Saint Pierre and Miquelon is not a country. The smallest independent nation on Paul’s list is Tuvalu. Tuvalu is what I went with.

But the smallest country I know about is the Holy See.

Now I grant that there is something weird about treating the Holy See as a country. Is it a member of the UN? No. But neither, last I heard, was Tuvalu, though there is no reason why it shouldn’t be. Nauru, for example, is. So are the Solomon Islands. So is Antigua and Barbuda. So is Vanuatu. I’m guessing that maybe I’m out of date and Tuvalu has become a member.

What do you want to do?

MY ADVICE: In the first place, keep in mind that you’ve got color and line to play with. I do not believe that any of the places listed under my first caution should appear on the map in individual colors. Two problems I see are Hong Kong and Puerto Rico. Each should be three squares big. Hong Kong should be in China’s color and Puerto Rico in the color of the US. You could assimilate their populations to those of China and the US (just make China and the US three squares bigger). You could leave Hong Kong in China’s color and distinguish Hong Kong from the rest of the country with a line and a name label. You could leave Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, but in the US colors.

Two other problems are Gaza and the West Bank. Combined they have about 3.7 million inhabitants, that is, only 100,000 fewer than Lebanon. Combined they account for, like, four squares.

You know, what we call a country these days has really two components: a people (or nation, with a population) and a territory (or state, with area). They’re not necessarily related. The Gypsies are a great example of a people without a state. The Kurds are another, different kind of example. They also exemplify the ethnic character of this dimension. Old-fashioned kingdoms, which willy-nilly added peoples to states through royal marriage, are good examples of states independent of peoples. The idea of sovereignty comes in here (from king = sovereign). For the past four or so hundred years the idea of nation-states has been growing in popularity, the ethnie, the people becoming sovereign. It’s pretty much what we mean by countries these days, with self-determination and all that. The idea these days is that a coherent people has a right to be its own state. (In the United States this is played out with Indians. First they have to apply to be recognized as a people, then for rights to land.) But you have to have both parts, a people - like the Palestinians - and a state - which the Palestinians lack but desire.

Though the Palestinians are most definitely a people, recognized by everybody including the Israelis (at least by most of them), neither Gaza nor the West Bank is a state. You could put them in a separate color - they are certainly not Israel either - and label them specially: Palestinians. That is, label them by their name … as a people. But I don’t believe Gaza or West Bank should appear as such on the map.

None of the rest of the places listed under my first caution are big enough - have enough inhabitants - to appear on the map.

None of the places listed in my first caution should appear on the list of countries too small to appear on the map either. That list should consist of countries, nation-states, like Antigua and Barbuda, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Nauru, and Tuvalu.

None of the places listed in my second caution is large enough to appear on the map either, nor do I believe any of them should appear on the list of countries too small to appear on the map either. The Holy See may be sovereign, but it has no people (though most are Italian and Swiss, the Pope himself is a Pole, and citizens of many other countries live there too).

As for the Tibets, Kurdistans, Chechnyas, Basque Republics, ad nauseum, their populations have been taken account of in the counts of the inhabitants of the states in which they currently reside, so Tibetans in China; the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran; the Chechens in Russia; the Basque in Spain and France; and so on. The colors that account for these numbers should be those of China, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Spain, France and so on, but if you want to draw lines with special labels feel free. The labels have to indicate a people, not a state, and so: Tibetans, Kurds, Chechens, Basque, and the like. Have fun getting these population figures!

As for the continental population cartograms, the scale is going to have to be unusually prominent, because otherwise the maps will not merely be confusing, but downright misleading. Design this feature with care. While I prefer to say “so-and-so many years ago,” I have little problem with “Birth of Christ.” It’s an ordinary reference point as widely used by Jews as Gentiles. If it makes you anxious, how about BC and AD, both of which refer to His Being? You have to scrap the whole system if you’re going to kill “Birth of Christ.”

The Common Era system offers a way out. You say B.C.E. instead of B.C. (Before Common Era instead of Before Christ), and C.E. in place of AD (Common Era instead of anno Domini, that is, Year of Our Lord). If you’re made anxious by the zero point, move it. There is nothing remotely accurate about these population estimates. Instead of Birth of Christ or 0 CE make it 11 CE or 10 BCE.

We need to have a conference call with Fred Pearce (the population researcher). In an earlier draft of the thumbnail caption you assumed that disease decimated North American populations prior to 1650. There were never that many North American Indians, not if North America excludes Mexico (as it does on your silly maps). It’s Mexico/Guatemala that had the huge Indian populations (Toltec, Maya, Aztec, Mixtec, et cetera) that were diseased, enslaved, and otherwise done in post-1492. Let’s face it, prior to 1650 there wasn’t even all that much contact between Europeans and North-of-the-Rio-Grande indians, just some flirtations along the coast. We had all the Indian wars to look forward to in 1650, the French and Indian Wars, the wars in Ohio, the Mississippi Valley, et cetera. These all came after 1650.

The problem you’re having here comes from dividing the Americas along the Rio Grande. Pre-Conquest such a division is plain wrong. After the Conquest, but only once Iberian culture begins to manifest itself, the idea of Latin America as differentiated from Anglo-America begins to make sense, though it’s an amusing concept for 1650 when the Anglos had no more than a tendril of culture along the east coast north of Florida, and most of the continent was still thoroughly Indian.

You don’t have much of a sense of history, either, do you?

And no, they weren’t Anglo-Europeans who invaded North America after 1650. Certainly there were more Africans added to the North American population after 1650 than Anglos, and far more other Europeans than Anglos. You might refer to the population (hardly “repopulation”) by Europeans and enslaved Africans. Given the cartograms you’re working with, these are going to have to be very carefully crafted.

I think that putting Mexico and the rest of Middle America in South America is a very bad decision. I think all you have to do is read the newspapers (or make eye contact with the next construction worker you run into or janitor or cook) to realize Mexico is not part of some “Latin” America, but of some wild Mexico-US combo. You can forget your 20th century concept of Latin America. You can forget it completely. It’s a whole new ball of wax.

(Where’s Puerto Rico? In the Bronx! Cuba? In Miami!)

Well, it’s a first hack at the problem, a first go-around.


Denis Wood
3205 Hillsborough Street Raleigh, NC 27607-5438
29 August 2004







Where’s Puerto Rico? In the Bronx! Cuba? In Miami!









Dr. Wood has lectured around the world including the 1995 keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the North American Cartographic Information Society.




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