Where to Find GIS Data for Historical Country Boundaries

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It’s fairly easy to find current country boundaries in GIS data formats for most of the world’s countries.  Sites like Natural Earth provide free downloads in shapefile format for countries at a range of scales.  Finding historical GIS data is harder to find.  Listed here are available sites that offer historical country data in GIS file formats for download. Historical data for individual countries is listed in alphabetical order.

World Historical GIS Data: 2000 BCE to 1994 CE

While the site is now defunct, Oracles, Thinkquest.org site consolidated a series of country boundary data into shapefiles.  Created as an educational site in 1996 and acquired by Oracle in 2002, the site went defunct in 2013.  Thanks to the Wayback Machine, the shapefiles of country boundaries spanning between 2000 BCE and 1994 CE can still be downloaded.  The data itself should be used with caution and only for small scale projects.  Created by students, the archived disclaimer page explains that the data has a spatial error of roughly +/- 40 miles and the best available information, especially for the oldest years, is not the most reliable.

Download: Historical country GIS data from Thinkquest

CShapes World Historical GIS Data: Post WWII

For post-World War II state and capital GIS data, CShapes offers geographic data in both shapefile format and as an R (a statistical toolkit) package.  The dataset is described in:

Weidmann, Nils B., Doreen Kuse, and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch. 2010. The Geography of the International System: The CShapes Dataset. International Interactions 36 (1).

Historical Places

The Pleiades project collects historical geographical information about places most predominately for the Greek and Roman world, and is expanding into Ancient Near Eastern, Byzantine, Celtic, and Early Medieval geography.  The data can be downloaded in CSV, JSON, and KML formats from the download page.

Download: Pleiades Historical Places

Britain Historical GIS

The site A Vision of Britain through Time from the the University of Portsmouth has made historical boundary information for counties, parishes, and constituencies for England, Wales, and Scotland available for download in shapefiles format.  The data downloads cover a variety of timeframes in the 1800s and 1900s.  The county information is available for free download but the constituencies and parishes are offered under restricted downloads.

Download: A Vision of Britain through Time


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China Historical GIS

Last updated in December of 2016, the Harvard Yenching Institute and Fudan Center for Historical Geography offers free downloads of historical GIS data for China data of a database of populated places and historical administrative units for the period of Chinese history between 221 BCE and 1911 CE.

Download: China Historical GIS

Japan Historical GIS Data

Harvard also offers historical boundary data from the 1500s to 1800s for Japan for download.

Download: Japan Historical Data

United States Historical GIS Data

The National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) provides a wide range of historical datasets covering the United States dating back to 1790.  These include: “population, housing, agricultural, and economic data, along with GIS-compatible boundary files, for geographic units in the United States from 1790 to the present”.

Download: NHGIS data

The Atlas of Historical Country Boundaries provides shapefiles and KMZ files for download cover historical country boundaries for the entire US and by state.  The data was created in 2010 by the project of the William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at The Newberry Library in Chicago.  The Atlas is a compilation of the “creation and all subsequent changes (dated to the day) in the size, shape, and location of every county in the fifty United States and the District of Columbia.”

Download: Historical Country Boundaries

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