2.2. Human Wayfinding in Natural Habitats
What single characteristic distinguishes humans from all other animals? Our labels reflect attempts to answer this question. Homo habilis or "handy man" suggests the importance of tool use. Homo erectus or "upright man" emphasizes hands-free, heads-up, bipedal locomotion. And, Homo sapiens or "thinking man" invokes the value of intelligence and the capacity for language. In truth, we have much in common with our fellow creatures, including identical chunks of DNA and a common evolutionary heritage dating back four billion years. And for most of our history, we've wandered the same natural habitats without the benefit of compass, map, or signpost. It's no surprise that animals and humans share similar navigation skills and behaviors.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the two million year "prehistory" of human wayfinding. Prior to the invention of written language 5,500 years ago, we are left only with crumbling skulls and educated guesses. Our understanding flows primarily from modern studies in anthropology, archaeology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience. For example, it's a safe bet that early humans were dependent on the five basic senses. Though we talk about our "sense of direction," research has shown no convincing indication it exists. Lacking the polarized vision of ants and the magnetoreceptors of turtles, we have had to rely heavily on an awareness of our own movements (path integration) and a meticulous attention to environmental clues.
Today, much of this tacit knowledge, this ability to "read" the natural environment has been lost. Most of us can't set course by the position of the sun or the vegetation and moisture patterns on north and south facing slopes. Consequently, we underestimate the richness of available cues and marvel at the mysterious skills of our ancestors, such as the Polynesians who navigated open ocean voyages without instruments. In tiny canoes, they explored the vastness of the world's oceans, discovering such uninhabited and disparate islands as Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Employing an ancient art of navigation, these seafaring explorers relied solely on careful observation of natural signs to reckon direction and location. The sun, moon, stars, and planets served as broad navigational framework. Ocean swells, winds, landmarks, and seamarks such as schools of fish, flocks of birds, and clusters of driftwood provided more localized clues.
Ethnographers often provide a glimpse into the past by studying indigenous, living societies that have preserved their ancient culture and tradition. In 1936, the anthropologist Raymond Firth wrote:
The use of prominent landmarks such as a mountain as the primary means of orientation has been observed in many societies, but only a very small island would support the particular system employed by the Tikopians . Unique environments produce unique solutions. And since necessity is the mother of invention, harsh environments produce creative solutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Songlines of the Aboriginal Australians . For thousands of years, these people navigated their rough and unforgiving land by inventing, memorizing and following an intricate series of songs that identified critical paths and landmarks. These oral road maps told how the features of the desert landscape were formed and named during the period of creation known as the Dreamtime. These songs were cultural and spiritual treasures. They also led you to the next waterhole.
Of course, while most people were doing things the hard way, early "handy man" geeks were learning to hack the environment. The earliest examples were most likely real, physical hacks: marks on bark indicating a path through the woods. Why rely on natural landmarks when you can create your own? Just don't use breadcrumbs. As Hansel and Gretel would testify, the birds will eat them. Speaking of hungry birds, Norwegian seafaring hackers learned to bring ravens on long voyages. When they thought land was near, the sailors released the birds, which had been deliberately starved. The ravenous ravens often headed "as the crow flies " directly toward land.
Most of the written history of wayfinding concerns the invention or adaptation of tools to support nautical exploration. The limited availability of landmarks and seamarks combined with the high cost of getting lost to provide a powerful incentive to be inventive. Consider the following solutions employed by sailors over the centuries: