20 Insane Scientific Theories That People Actually Believed

Map of California, by Johannes Vingboons, depicting the Baja Peninsula as an island despite contradictory evidence known at the time (c. 1650). Wikimedia Commons.

19. Dating from Spanish exploration of the Americas, despite being known otherwise, the Baja Peninsula was contrarily considered and depicted as an island for hundreds of years

First mentioned in the 1510 romance novel Las sergas de Esplandián, author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo described “an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women without any man among them”. With early explorers to the West Coast of the North American continent misidentifying the Baja Peninsula as an island, upon naming the region Hernán Cortés elected to grant it the nomenclature of the legendary island paradise from Montalvo’s famous work. Known thereafter as California, only six years later a subsequent expedition sent by Cortés discovered the landmass to, in fact, be a peninsula and not an island.

Confirmed by successive explorers, the concept of the mythological California had nonetheless become sufficiently entrenched that these real-world informed opinions were unable to change wider perceptions. Shown correctly only briefly on a handful of maps from the Age of Discovery, most notably the Mercator map, cartographers continued throughout the early 17th century to depict California inexplicably as an island. Lasting long after human visitations to the region had become more common, it was not until the mid-18th century that Jesuit missionary-explorers finally laid to rest the incorrect geographical notions concerning the peninsula.