Wave patterns, stars, birdsong: humans have been using environmentally friendly signposts for thousands of years

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Today, we commonly rely on technology to find our way, but for thousands of years humans have been using eco-friendly wayfinders to travel long distances. Marshall Islands sailors are known to use wave patterns as a way to navigate the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, Alaska’s Gwich’in Indian community trekked across the Yukon Territory guided by the stars. The Batek people of Malaysia overcame the obstacles of dense rainforests by learning to use bird songs to orient themselves.

New research has shed light on the art and science of finding a way through complex terrain, which would have been a matter of life and death for ancient people traversing potentially dangerous terrain. To create the first world map of its kind, we examined navigation technologies from 30 countries around the world, showing how the unique challenges facing humanity have led to a variety of waysfinding approaches. I did.

“The navigational feats described in our paper illustrate some of the most skilled wayfinding methods,” Dr. Fernández Velasco, lead author of the research paper, said in a release sent to IFLScience. “This seems incredible to many of us who rely on GPS to find our way almost anywhere.”

“From the labyrinthine streets of London to the southeast coast of Greenland, we find consistent evidence of how the diversity of human landscapes is reflected in the diversity of seafaring cultures. Current research on navigation in cognitive science does not reflect this diversity. Future research will not only help provide a deeper understanding of human behavior, but will also help connect people to their local environments. It also helps us understand, preserve, revive and adapt the very rich seafaring culture that plays such an important role in the world.”

One of the coolest but least understood traditional methods of navigation is te rapa light, a strange sea glow that may have guided ancient Polynesian sailors. Human navigation skills eventually led us to the art and science of creating maps, known as cartography. But have you ever wondered how the ancients made maps before air travel and satellites were invented?

marshall islands

Marshall Islands sailors used wave patterns to navigate.

Image credit: Romaine W / Shutterstock.com

It’s all because of the abundance of time, and the result of successive generations of travelers, explorers, geographers, cartographers, mathematicians, historians, and other scholars piecing together disparate pieces of information. So these early products were based on some realistic measurements, but also a lot of speculation, and that’s how we arrived at the flat Earth theory.

With the advent of satellites, we can now not only know everything about the richness of our planet, but also find our way to almost anywhere (seriously, Google Street View has some I started going to strange places). But even in societies that have long ignored their relationship with nature, humans still rely on traditional means of transportation.

The word “cairn” comes from the Scottish Gaelic word meaning “heap of stones,” and you may have found some stones while hiking. They were created to orient hikers on particularly difficult routes, and can be found scattered throughout famous trails like the Camino de Santiago.

That’s why the National Park Service urges people not to build cairns just for fun, as it can lead people down the wrong path. And as it turns out, the act of building cairns violates the important principle of leaving no trace outside of the natural world.

In one of the harshest environments on Earth, humans even used the dead as guideposts. If you die at the top of Everest, there’s a good chance you’ll stay there forever. Therefore, Rainbow Valley has become a preferred resting place for those who climbed to the roof of the world and did not survive.

The study is published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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