Again, like Nat Hagens, Brian Davey’s discussion, “Reason for Inertia 6: Our brains are maladapted to modern life”, based on the 1997 book Evolutionary Psychology by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, uncritically adopts outdated principles of evolutionary psychology. I would like to call this the “modernist fallacy”—the fallacy of attributing our present inadequacies and excesses to our alleged inheritance of the brain of our stone age ancestors. It definitely does not do justice to our, in many ways, more intelligent ancestors (who did not have the “crutch” of computer technology)
In fact, we can argue that modern man has lost the skills of prehistoric peoples—I’m referring, in particular, to the navigational and voyaging skills of Neolithic Austronesian peoples.
If modern capitalist, industrial, urbanized humans had these skills, they would surely survive what Kunstler calls “the converging catastrophes” of the 21st century, and thrive in a post-capitalist, post-carbon, post-industrial world.
Instead of relying too much on a 1997 book on evolutionary psychology, I suggest that we get a thorough knowledge of the skills and cultural ways of non-Western prehistoric peoples, in particular the Austronesians who amazed Captain Cook about their voyaging and navigational skills without the use of instruments. Indeed, these are the sort of knowledge and skills that would be prized in the Transition Town movement.
I give an overview of Wayfinding here (based on a paper I read in 2005):
“As we search for a new paradigm to guide us through the triple crunch of financial crisis, peak oil and climate change, we will do well to learn from the Austronesian voyagers of prehistoric times who had the knowledge and skill of wayfinding. Without the science and art of wayfinding, the expansion of Austronesian peoples from island Southeast Asia to Oceania (Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia)–which may have begun around 4, 000 years ago–would not have been possible. This east-ward settlement of the numerous volcanic islands and coral atolls dotting the Pacific ocean had already been completed by the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in Tahiti in the 18th century. Ignorant of Oceania’s wayfinding traditions, Captain Cook had wondered how such trans-oceanic migrations could be achieved simply with canoes, and without the aid of navigational instruments.
Wayfinding is navigation by “reading” the stars, sun, ocean swells, wave patterns, cloud formations, wind directions, color of the sea, flight of sea birds–and integrating all these information with the aid of a mental compass–to determine and maintain a sailing course towards an unseen or unknown land target. Distance, speed, and position are calculated mentally, without the aid of paper and pencil, and clock. Intelligence, memory, and sustained concentration are crucial–if the navigator forgets or gets distracted, the voyage may fail, and lives lost. The voyage (in a traditional outrigger-, or double-canoe about 60 feet long) could take more than 30 days over thousands of nautical miles. It requires not only knowledge and skill, and planning and preparation, but also discipline and teamwork, and physical fitness, strength and endurance. It is demanding mental and physical work for the whole crew–culminating in either landfall or total disaster. It takes a few years to learn the basics, but at least 20 years to become a master navigator [a master can navigate even with his eyes closed over an extended period].
Wayfinding in Oceania is not just about navigation and voyaging. It is a whole way of life, a tradition with its own rituals and spiritual dimensions. The whole community is involved–in the making of the canoe, the education and training of navigators and crew, and the preparation for, and the launching of, the voyage.
Pacific wayfinding has its origins in island Southeast Asia, that is, Indonesia and the Philippines. Wayfinding is still practiced in Indonesia, particularly among the Bugis of South Sulawesi. Unfortunately, it seems to have disappeared without a trace in the Philippines. The situation is different in Oceania. Wayfinding never disappeared in the isolated tiny atolls of Micronesia–notably Satawal, Puluwat, and Lamotrek. A revival in Polynesia was triggered by the formation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society which initiated the Hawaiian Hokule’a project in 1975. The master navigator Mau Piailug from Satawal (a tiny coral atoll in the Carolines Islands) was brought to Hawaii to teach the native Hawaiians. It was picked up first by Mau’s brightest disciple, Nainoa Thompson, who, in turn, helped fellow Hawaiians learn the difficult craft. [NOTE: I was a University of Hawaii graduate student in anthropology in the second decade of this Hawaiian revival and made a documentary film about it].
Hokule’a stimulated a wayfinding revival in New Zealand, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands, then in Taumako in the Solomon Islands, then back in Guam in the Marianas. Almost full circle, but not quite.”
We don’t have to search far and wide for a new paradigm–all we need to do is to look back with the eyes of a child, a la Levi Strauss, to our prehistoric past. From there, we can embark on a new journey of discovery.
For detailed information about wayfinding knowledge and skills, and the socio-cultural dynamics of voyaging, please visit these wonderful websites: