Round, round, get around, I get around

In the last couple of  posts, I’ve been discussing maps, mapping and the measurements required to construct maps.  I am going to continue by looking at using maps for only one of their purposes: to provide a guide for how to get “there” from “here”, which I think is probably the earliest use of mapping and would have resulted in informal, easily disposed maps, so untraceable.

In his book on geography, Ptolemy made a distinction between “local” maps and “global” maps.  He applied his grid of parallels and meridians to the global, but because the scale of a local map was considerably different, the need to make the meridians reflect the way that they slant toward each other as they approach the poles was not as important.

Just a small note on map terminology: “small scale” maps are those that show large areas made small.  In the case of a small scale map, the scale might show 1 centimeter to represent 100,00 kilometers, as an example.  A contrasting “large scale” map might show smaller areas made large, so a large scale map might have 1 centimeter equal to 10 kilometers.  Given that this is the case, what Ptolemy uses as a distinction refers to local or large scale maps, as opposed to global or small scale maps.

To get from “here” to “there”, depending on the distance, one might need a smaller scale map and a local, large scale map.  In the pre-Mapquest, pre-Google Maps days, that meant finding paper maps with sufficient detail to help: one might need to get a California Highway map from AAA, as well as a Palm Springs, California map to get to the specific place being visited, so that the directions from San Francisco by car are clear, first which highways, and then once off the highway, which local roads.

Now, with internet maps available, I can go to Mapquest or to Google Maps, and using their scaling tool, zoom out to get the view of the highways (a smaller scale view), then zoom in to display the local roads (a larger scale view).  But the availability of internet maps is a new situation, and, even newer, with GPS units, one might not actually need to use on-line maps.  These choices have not always been available.

I’ve talked about the etched stone in the Hayonim Cave in Israel that may or may not represent a map, but if it does, it looks more like a division of land into property rights.  It is perhaps 12,000 years old. The oldest map that I’ve been able to find that might be closer to one showing how to get there from here is one inscribed on stone in Valcamonica in the Lombardy region of northern Italy.  The site has been recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site, and the particular carving on stone that is discussed in a fine article by Craig Alexander of the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University, is called the Bedolina Map.  The entire article is available on the web by doing a Google search on “Bedolina Map” and selecting the entry called “The Bedolina Map – an Exploratory Network Analysis”.

One set of workers has tentatively dated the map to the Bronze age in Italy, around 1400–1500 BC, while another worker dated it to the 8th century, which would be Iron Age.  The same set of workers who dated the map to the Bronze age interpret it as being a literal map of the valley in which it was found, while the same worker who dated the map to the Iron Age interprets it as being symbolic and related to land holding.  There are a number of differences between the Hayonim Cave and the Bedolina Map, but the one that drew my attention is what appear to be paths and alternative paths that are inscribed on the stone leading from place to place on the map, hence the word “network” in the title of the Alexander article.

By the time of the Bedolina Map, even if the earlier date is correct, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Chinese had been making maps for property rights.  What I have not found are maps that could be used by travelers, but I’m sure that some existed.  In The Mapmakers, Wilford describes an anecdote from Herodotus (5th Century BC, Greece, later than Bedolina), where Aristagoras of Miletus tried to persuade Sparta to join an invasion of Persia, and showed the Spartan king a “map of the world”, to help convince him to join the rest of the expedition.  Aristagoras’s map showed the lands of the Ionians, the Lydians, etc. on the way to Persia, and the distance to Persia looked as if it could easily be traversed.  Only when the scale of the map is made clear, that it would take about 3 months to go from Sparta to the city of Susa, Persia’s capitol at that time, was he turned down by Sparta making his mission unsuccessful.  I have not found earlier maps that were used to show how to get “there” from “here”.

The movements of people from one place to another, the migrations of humans from Africa to the rest of the world, have been traced on maps, but not because people made maps showing where they came from and how they got to where they ended up.  Maps with these approximate routes have only been done lately by scientists trying to understand how the human species occupied the earth and where they came from.  Nor am I suggesting that, for instance, the original occupiers of Australia were given a map saying that if you follow this trail, you will reach a wonderful place to live for the next 20,000 to 40,000 years.  But humans do move about, and have occupied most of the land that was reachable on the earth.  And they have had to show their children, relatives, friends how to get to places where they would gather: not all have stayed in such small locales that they were able to remember all paths to places of interest.

I believe that there may not be more than a few permanent traces, if any, of early maps that were used to describe how to get there from here.  A map of this sort might be drawn with a stick on the ground – hardly permanent.  What might an early map look like that would persist longer?  Anything inscribed on something other than stone, such as on animal hide, woven into a cloth, etc., could be expected to last longer than one drawn in the dirt, but not that much longer.

In The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, there is a hint at a possible way to pass geographical knowledge.  His book is focused on the Indigenous people of Australia, but toward the end, he does try to generalize what he has discovered. The “songlines” he refers to are a means for, among other uses, navigating the land.  By learning a songline and following its directions, the Indigenous people are able to cross large expanses of Australia and arrive where they had intended to go.  The songlines treat the landmarks as if they were alive – myth beings – and in some cases mentioned, he says that he was able to see in the geography, clues that remind one of a mythologized animal shape.  So, they do not say, for instance, go to the blue rock near the gum trees, turn left and straight on till morning, but instead will tell a story about why blue lizard left its tail mark to be followed from beyond the gum trees, and why the blue lizard stopped roaming.

When he is trying to universalize the use of song as guide, he touches other traditions and closes with a nearly unattributed quote from a woman, apparently a member of one of the tribes on the northwest coast of Canada, “…representing a tradition about 13,000 years old.”1

Everythin’ we ever knew about the movement of the sea was preserved in the verses of a song.  For thousands of years we went where we wanted and came home safe, because of the song.  On clear nights we had the stars to guide us, and in the fog we had the streams and creeks of the sea, the streams and creeks that flow into and become Klin Otto [the current that runs from California to the Bering Strait]…

There was a song for goin’ to China and a song for goin’ to Japan, a song for the big island and a song for the smaller one.  All she [the navigator, evidently they were all women] had to know was the song and she knew where she was.  To get back, she just sang the song in reverse.2

Based on these two examples, the Australian and the Canadian ones, it may be that the place to look for early maps is in early myths, poetry and songs.  And, to my point about drawing maps on the ground, Chatwin provided a general statement about having a journey described by “Joshua…a famous Pinturi ‘performer'”3

Aboriginals, when tracing a Songline in the sand, will draw a series of lines with circles in between.  The line represents a stage in the Ancestor’s journey (usually a day’s march).  Each circle is a ‘stop’, ‘waterhole’, or one of the Ancestor’s campsites.4

The best example of maps that show how to get there from here that have been learned as songs or poems are the directions used by the islanders of the South Pacific for sailing from island to island.  The method has been researched and written up in a marvelous book, We, The Navigators, by David Lewis.  In the book, Lewis concentrates on Polynesian and Micronesian navigators and their abilities to sail from one island to another, quite often with no land visible.  He does not discuss the form in which the knowledge is kept and transmitted: he shows few examples of the song verses or poetry.  His method for learning about their abilities and skills was to take sailing trips with them, with them providing the navigation and steering of the boats.  Because they demonstrated their skills and talked with him about what they were doing and why, he shows their way to be a very impressive alternative method of knowing how to go from here to there and back again.

…there was the totally unexpected finding that nearly every important navigational technique and concept encountered in Micronesia was matched by its Polynesian counterpart.  Differences seemed to depend much more on local insular geographical features than on major cultural-linguistic divisions….

An element of falsity is inescapably introduced in this presentation by the very process of analysis employed.  Thus, the navigators did not appear to compartmentalize their art, as I have done, into such divisions as “steering a course,” “deviation from course,” “fixing a position” – except perhaps during their initial training.  Instead, they conceived of their art as a unity, the sum of input from such disparate sources as stars, swells, and birds being processed through training and practice into a confident awareness of precisely where they were at any one time, where they were going, and how best to get there.  The Pacific navigators did not so much analyze their data as use them as pointers, which they subtly synthesized.

Another limitation … is divorce of the navigating arts from their social roots and the psychological and spiritual values of which they are an expression.  The navigators were not merely in tune with their environment as Western seafarers might be, they were literally a part of it.5

As he states, he compartmentalized the skills to facilitate his discussion of the various facets.  So he discusses star path steering, then using the sun, swells and wind for the basic directing and correcting of a course.  He discusses as well, dead reckoning, expanding the targets and how the position is “fixed” while on the ocean.

Depending on the island from which the sailor/navigator started, there is a direction that is associated with the rising or the setting of prominent stars in succession through the night, hence steering by a “star path”, though which stars and whether rising or setting appears to depend on the season.  The reference stars are taught to boys who have been invited in to the exclusive group of navigators, and are supposed to be kept as secret/sacred knowledge.

During the day, though, the stars are not available, so sun position is tracked, and the path of the swells.  During the demonstration voyages, the navigators often would lie down on the deck or in the canoes to “feel” the swells, and could determine which were local and which were the persistent swells, providing direction information.  They would have Lewis try this, but he concluded that he was not sensitive enough to always be accurate.  Also, when leaving an island, if a landmark was visible astern, the navigators would use it to judge the wind direction and the current, and use that information to correct their steering.  Because the wind can change quickly and unpredictably, the navigators hang “wind pennants” in the rigging, and then watch them throughout a voyage.  Lewis had a “wind compass” described to him, with names given to winds coming from the specific different directions of the compass, which the navigators use.

Dead reckoning and fixing the position are complex, and are related to his statements about the navigators being a part of their environment.  I shall not discuss them, but if you want more, it is available in his book.

The final aspect that he describes is “expanding the targets”.  While an island can be seen from 7 to 10 miles away, depending on its highest elevation, to expand that target, the navigators follow birds, which will range up to around 30 miles from islands during the day.  Other clues, such as clouds being “caught” by peaks, certain effects on the waves as a result of reefs are also used.  But as Lewis says, these pointers are synthesized rather than enumerated and analyzed.

Only now does it seem that Western compasses are being used.  Otherwise, the instruments that were, and in most cases still are, used are the senses of the navigators.  The maps, the understandings of how to go from here to there and back, are contained almost entirely within the navigators.  It is a different way of knowing, of mapping than that of the Western tradition.

I have found a map, though, that is evidently an example of what is used when the navigators are in training.  It was in a copy of a magazine put out by the San Francisco Exploratorium, which I have scanned and is included below.  The Exploratorium Quarterly for Spring 1991 gives the credit for the photo to Susan Schwartzenberg, and was taken at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley, if I have understood the text correctly.  The caption states:

In Micronesia, navigators were trained with stick maps made of palm sticks tied together with coconut fiber.  Curved sticks showed prevailing wave fronts, shells represented the locations of islands, and threads indicated where islands came into view. 6

A few final comments.

While the Pacific islanders had a form of visible “representational” map, it appears that maps in that form were used for training, so that when actually navigating, the islanders did not and do not use them.  Instead, they use their senses, knowledge and experience to travel.  They may actually recite to themselves appropriate portions of a song or poem that helps direct them to their destinations.  The Western tradition of longitude and latitude, dating back to Ptolemy, and the instruments for determining longitude and latitude has applicability not only to navigating on seas with no land in sight, but also to creating land form maps for uses that range from property rights to navigation to geological formations, population densities, and on and on.

The more general applicability of the Western way of mapping suits a more complex set of requirements, but is not necessarily “better” than the Pacific islanders way of knowing.  Their way is suitably adapted to their requirements, and shows yet another response to the natural world by humans using their pattern making ability to measure, understand and control their lives.


1 Chatwin, Bruce, The Songlines, Penguin Books, London, England, 1987.  p. 283.

2 Ibid, p. 283.

3 Ibid. p. 152.

4 Ibid. p. 154.

5 Lewis, David, We, the Navigators, The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, second edition, 1972, 1994, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii  pp. 47-48.

6 Pearce, Michael, “Invisible Islands: Navigating Techniques Of Ancient Oceania”, Exploratorium Quarterly, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring, 1991, San Francisco, CA  p. 25.

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