How We Navigate the World

By Trevor Frost, a National Geographic Young Explorers grantee

We navigate every day. To the bathroom to brush our teeth, to the bus stop to catch a ride to work, to stay on-trail when we’re hiking. We do it so often we don’t even think about it.

A year ago my friend Trip Jennings found himself in the Congo rainforest on a quest to uncover a needle in a haystack: elephant dung. There’s no real method to finding it, you simply do what your guides do, which is follow wildlife trails, look for water holes, and hang out in areas rife with food that elephants enjoy.

The plants and flowers and trees that surround you on all sides in the jungle make every way you look seem the same. An outsider would be hard pressed to find anything — let alone elephant poop — without help from people who know the forest well.

Knowing this, Trip tracked his journey on GPS so he could find his way back if he — inevitably — lost his way. After three weeks of walking through the jungle, Trip and his guides were able to collect several samples, which is remarkable given that finding elephant dung in a swath of forest the size of West Virginia and overrun with elephant poachers is like running into a friend on the far side of the world.

What’s even more remarkable, though, is that at the end of every day — after having walked in circles according to the GPS — his pygmy guides were able to walk a dead-straight line back to their village.

The local pygmy guides could walk in circles for hours, then make a beeline back to the village. (Photograph courtesy Trip Jennings and Andy Maser)

That’s what got me thinking — the idea that people can still navigate without maps, or GPS, or a compass. So I set out on what has become a year-long search to find more examples of how humans find their way around the world.

Shadows, waves, wind, sun, animals, plants, scents, stars, songs, and stories. All of these provide clues to people on the move, clues that help them navigate across the land and sea. Clues that become so second-nature that they’re almost imperceptible. The je ne sais qua of human navigation.

In the Sahara, the Tuareg rely on the shapes of dunes and the shadow cast from their body to find the next well for water. Inuit hunters in the Arctic meditate on the wind against their face and study the underside of clouds to find their way home.

In Australia, Aborigines travel between sacred sites by singing songs laced with notes from the land, each note a tree or rock or billabong that, much like a street sign, shows them where to walk next. As long as they know the song, they know the way.

And the pygmies, like those who guided Trip on his search for dung, are able to walk home in a straight line through a forest where there is no wind and the canopy is a curtain that hides the sun and stars, because on every journey they commit to memory every turn and every step, a process known as dead reckoning that allows them, at every point of the way, to know exactly where they are in relation to their village.

So even while our ways of navigating differ wildly, it’s something we all share. Just like breathing.


    November 13, 2012, 6:48 pm