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The name Costa Alta occurs on some early 16th c. maps of North America, like Waldseemüller's (first plate, fifth name from the top), and Schöner's. I understand this now means "high coast", as in mountaineous, and am wondering if there are any other possible interpretations? The only mountains on the coast are some way up in Canada, which is much further north than those maps seem to show.

Edit: the early maps, such as Cantino's (1502), Waldseemüller's (1516), and Schöner's (1520) end abruptly somewhere in the middle of the current U.S., and were presumably based on the early Spanish explorations starting in the Caribbean. But the name also occurs on later maps, like Vopel's (1540) that show the whole coast.

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    "High" could mean not only "elevated in terrain" but "of superior quality", although I doubt that is what is meant here. My guess is that this is similar to "Alta California", which translates as "Upper California". Even in Spain there are several towns with names like "Villanueva de arriba" and "Villanueva de abajo". It is still unlikely. My guess is that the intention migh have been not implying "mountaineous" o "elevated terrain" but "upper". – Diego Mar 5 '19 at 17:50
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    I agree with @Diego and want to add that as in English when you say for instance "up north" and "down south" "alta" could also mean "to the north". In Colombia we have a region that is flat, desert, and at see level and since it is the most north part of the country some refer to it as "la alta guajira" when clearly there are no mountains or even small elevations. – DGaleano Mar 5 '19 at 18:39
  • Ok, but none of this really makes sense here. The location, as far as I can tell, is North Carolina or Virginia, right in the middle. Perhaps even further south. I think "best coast" makes the most sense so far. – Tomas By Mar 5 '19 at 19:09
  • Remember that "north" is a relative designation. If the Spaniards that name that lived in Florida, North Carolina was way up north of them. – DGaleano Mar 5 '19 at 19:50
  • Yes, but the name is also in the middle of the map, and the maps generally predate the Spanish settlements. – Tomas By Mar 5 '19 at 19:58
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I understand this now means "high coast", as in mountaineous, and am wondering if there are any other possible interpretations?

Well, for a start it does not need to mean strictly mountainous; in Spanish costa alta is indeed used to mean a rocky coast with cliffs, but alta can also mean just "elevated" or "above" in comparison to some other place.
It doesn't even need to be a geological elevation: compare Rías Altas and Rías Bajas here in Spain, where altas and bajas just mean northern and southern (kind of).
It can also mean "closer to the source of a water course", like in vega alta and vega baja (e.g. Vega Alta and Vega Baja in Puerto Rico, or Vega Alta / Media / Baja del Segura here in Spain).

It could be that segment of coast was originally more elevated above sea level, or named in reference to southern parts of the coast, or closer to some now-disappeared river.
Or it may just be a transcription error from "Costa Alba" as suggested in Pablo's answer, which seems quite plausible to me.

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  • Yes, I meant elevation rather than mountains specifically, but in either case I find it hard to see what it would refer to on the U.S. east coast. The problem with "Alba" is that there are a bunch of these maps, and all I have seen say "Alta". Of course it could be that some unknown original said Alba and an error was copied repeatedly, but seems slightly less likely. – Tomas By Mar 6 '19 at 14:00
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I've been doing a quick reading up on this subject, and I seem to have discovered the problem. The name Costa Alta is indeed found in both maps, but the region where this toponym appears is not the mid-eastern coast of the United States: it appears to be Florida! The latitudes indicated in Waldseemüller's map are not to be trusted with regards to North America (Schöner's doesn't show latitudes).

enter image description here

The Cantino map (1502), to which both of these owe a lot, has been shown to read Costa Alva instead of Costa Alta in a non-retouched copy. Alvo/a, modern Spanish albo/a, means "white", which would be consistent with the white sands of the Florida keys. In Waldseemüller's map there's a Río de los largactos (sic) where Cantino has Largartos, a Portuguese old form for lagartos ("lizards"), meaning crocodiles, i.e. alligators, as found in Florida but not further north.

Some people appear to claim that W. and S., following Cantino, mistakenly labelled the North American coast with toponymics given by the Spaniards to Cuba. Others think it might be Yucatán.

This is already far beyond the point of the question, but as you see, one can only speculate. Costa Alta could be anywhere or it could be a mistake that stuck.

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  • Well... if you look at the shape of the W. and S. maps, then it cannot be just Florida. I'm not sure any of the names on those maps can be definitely identified, but there are 3/4 rivers or large bays south of "Costa Alta". Ok, "white coast" is a possibility, but I don't think it is the Keys. – Tomas By Mar 5 '19 at 22:15
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    I haven't found any source claiming that these maps show the coast of North Carolina or Virginia; most say it's Florida. Anyway this is already off topic for this forum... – pablodf76 Mar 6 '19 at 1:07
  • This is the wrong forum for a discussion about maps. Walen's answer is perfectly good if you want a reason why something could be called "Costa Alta" in Spanish (independent of where it appears). If that alone was the point of your question, then I misunderstood it; I'm keeping this answer only because it's referenced (and of use) in the other one. – pablodf76 Mar 7 '19 at 21:15
  • Vopel's map makes it clear Costa Alta is not in Florida. – Tomas By Mar 8 '19 at 7:59

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