The only surviving copy of the 500-year-old map that first used the name America goes on permanent display this month at the Library of Congress, but even as it prepares for its debut, the 1507 Waldseemuller map remains a puzzle for researchers.
Why did the mapmaker name the territory America and then change his mind later? How was he able to draw South America so accurately? Why did he put a huge ocean west of America years before European explorers discovered the Pacific?
The map was created by the German monk Martin Waldseemuller. Thirteen years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere, the Duke of Lorraine brought Waldseemuller and a group of scholars together at a monastery in Saint-Die in France to create a new map of the world.
"The actual shape of South America is correct," said Hebert. "The width of South America at certain key points is correct within 70 miles of accuracy."
Given what Europeans are believed to have known about the world at the time, it should not have been possible for the mapmakers to produce it, he said.
The map gives a reasonably correct depiction of the west coast of South America. But according to history, Vasco Nunez de Balboa did not reach the Pacific by land until 1513, and Ferdinand Magellan did not round the southern tip of the continent until 1520.
"So this is a rather compelling map to say, 'How did they come to that conclusion,"' Hebert said.
The mapmakers say they based it on the 1,300-year-old works of the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as well as letters Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci wrote describing his voyages to the new world. But Hebert said there must have been something more.
"From the writings of Vespucci you couldn't have prepared the map," Hebert said. "There had to be something cartographic with it."
Waldseemuller made it clear he was naming the new land after Vespucci, describing how he came up with the name America based on the navigator's first name.
But he soon had misgivings about what he had done. An atlas Waldseemuller produced six years later shows only part of the east coast of the Americas, and refers to it as Terra Incognita -- unknown land.
"America has gone out of his lexicon," Hebert said. "(No) place in the atlas -- in the text or in the maps -- does the name America appear."
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