For the umpteenth time, I'm reading in some book (no intention to pillory the authors here) that, say, 500 years ago people believed in a flat Earth, since, in the author's opinion, there is no apparent evidence of it being spherical. This is of course false, especially speaking about 500 years ago, when people built globes, circumnavigated Earth and so on. But it was, more or less, common-ish knowledge well before that: Dante describes how he and Virgil rotated their posture around the center of Earth, Aristotle wrote about it, ancient Greeks in general observed masts before hulls and measured the radius of Earth, and so on.

My question is: assuming that that author referred not to humanity as a whole but to the “average” person, would they be right? Is it possible to estimate which fraction of humanity knew about Earth being spherical in different ages?

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    $\begingroup$ 500 years ago people believed in a flat Earth, since, in the author's opinion --- Are you sure the author isn't talking about the general population (for example, what 90% of the population believed) rather than a relatively small percentage of the population who were more enlightened and educated? Given only what you've said, the author could have been spot-on. On the other hand, I think "spherical" intended as a natural language word seems appropriate here for the context. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @DaveLRenfro: Yes, that's what I meant by “assuming that that author referred not to humanity as a whole but to the ‘average’ person, would they be right?”. Understanding whether that is a meaningful interpretation is part of the point of my question, since I don't know if that percentage was actually 80%, or rather 20% or 99%. $\endgroup$
    – DaG
    Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ OK, guilty -- it seems I didn't read your entire question before making my comment! $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2021 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ What is humanity as a whole and what is the average person? Isnt humanity as a whole a collection of average persons? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ The question may be completely meaningless because most people didn't ever need to have a belief of any sort in the shape of the earth. In an era where many people never travelled beyond the town they were born in why would anyone even bother to think about the shape of the planet beyond that? $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 12:57

1 Answer 1


In Medieval European and Muslim societies the educated believed in a spherical Earth, and there were very few geographical works which took biblical descriptins of a flat Earth seriously.

However, it is of course uncertain how much that knowledge penetrated to the lesser educated members of society.

As far as I know, nobody in the Americas, not even in the most advanced civilizations, believed in a spherical Earth until the coming of Europeans.

I lack knowledge of whether the educated elite people in African societies, except for Muslim and Christian societies, believed in a spherical Earth.

I lack knowledge of whether south Asians believed in a spherical Earth.

In East Asia, apparently there was no knowledge of a spherical Earth until Jesuit missionaries introduced the concept at the Ming dynasty court about 1600.

In recent centuries education has spread so that at the present almost every child gets some education. And in recent centuries Europeans travelled everywhere and colonised most of the world and had big influences on uncolonized countries, which included spreading modern technological and scientific knowledge.

So if I had to guess, I might guess that in the year 1800 a minority of the world's population knew of a spheriodal Earth, and in the year 2000 the vast majority of the world population know of a spherical Earth.

And see answers at: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/54196/when-did-the-spherical-shape-of-the-earth-become-common-knowledge[1]


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