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A Conversation with Primitive Navigation Expert, Dr. John Huth, Part 2 by Mark Hatmaker

Dr. Huth is Donner Professor of Science in the Physics Department at Harvard University. He is also an historian and resurrector of primitive navigation skills. The below is part two of a lengthy and fascinating discussion on not just primitive navigational skills, but the consequences of allowing human skills or abilities to lie fallow. This conversation goes deep and is all the better for it. 


You provide one fascinating example after another of navigating abilities that would border on the supernatural if one were not aware of the method. Once the method is revealed, and the skill set begins to be developed one feels almost as if they are engaged in a Benedict Cumberbatch-Sherlockian observational game of immense proportions. Is that how you see the world to some degree? Where the “Oh, look at that pretty cloud” becomes “That cloud type and movement contrasted with the wind at ground level tells me to enjoy the picnic while you can because it’s about to turn cold in 3-4 hours.” The more you learn and put the puzzle pieces together the more you want to see?

 Yes – a lot of people thought for some time that ‘primitive’ peoples had some 6th sense that allowed them to navigate, but it really is just a question of observations and putting the pieces together.   That requires both a knowledge of ‘what to see,’ and also a lot of time out in the world practicing those skills.   Also, it is sometimes difficult to get people who intuitively use these skills to be able to articulate them because it has become so intuitive.   They will simply say “there it is…” and leave you guessing about what “it” is.   I find that sometimes I get into the overly intuitive mindset, and when I’m teaching the skills, I have to back way off and get the students to work through some of the steps. 

One example is the motion of stars, the sun, and the moon in the sky.   For me, it’s fairly intuitive, but it’s hard for students to grasp at first and takes some coaching.   At the end of several lectures and time outside, the students begin to catch on.   I can show them time lapse videos of star motions, and the students can articulate roughly the latitude of the video and which direction they’re looking in. 

That’s just an example, but it definitely starts off as a case of puzzling through, and then it begins to become second nature.  

There’s also the question of knowing what to look for – once you get past one hurdle – say the positions of the stars after sunset at one night, then there’s the question of how they move over the course of that night, and then how they move over the course of the year.  One thing leads to another. 

What do you say to someone who says, “Sure, that’s neat that you can do all that navigation stuff, but I have this phone right here that will do all that for me”?

There are two answers, really.   On the practical side GPS receivers can stop functioning.  Batteries can fail, the receivers themselves can fail.   Signals can be lost - particularly in deep woods, or even with tall buildings around.  GPS has a weak signal-to-noise ratio and can be jammed, even accidentally.  Frequently GPS data are incorrect.    

Then, there is the question of the other functions used by the part of the brain that processes navigational information: the hippocampus.  Not only does the hippocampus create a mental map, but it also stores long term memories, and plays a role in planning for the future.    A study was done at UC London that showed that people who followed GPS directions – their hippocampus was completely quiet, whereas people who used their wits had their hippocampus lit up.    There’s a kind of ‘use it or lose it’ to how our cognition operates.   If we don’t use this part of our mind, it starts to atrophy and multiple skills may be lost.  

Your work is akin to that of Harold Gatty and Tristan Gooley, while being deeply informative in its own right. Are there other resources that seek to resurrect these methods that you find heartening?

 One group that’s been quite successful is the Polynesian Voyaging Society.   They teach non-instrument navigation to many Hawaiians, and there’s been a proliferation of PVS-like groups throughout the Pacific.   Their techniques are definitely worth looking into!  They have some novel schemes that I haven’t seen from other sources.    I recommend “An Ocean in Mind” by Will Kyselka about how an early PVS navigator, Nainoa Thompson learned and adapted Mau Piailug’s navigation schemes to do non-instrumental way-finding.  Mau practiced navigation on the island of Satawal in the Republic of Micronesia. Along similar lines, there is “We the Navigators” by David Lewis about indigenous navigation.  Now, while some of the schemes are limited to water, I wouldn’t sell them short as use of star compasses, and wind compasses are quite universally applicable. 

Can you name a surprising use of your methods that manifest in ways not quite navigational?

Telling the time of day.   The length and position of a shadow on the ground can be used as a way of finding the local time.   After sunrise, shadows grow shorter, and get a minimum length at local noon, and then grow longer.   This will change with latitude and the time of year, but with some practice, you can use shadows to tell time.  

Likewise telling the time at night can be done with stars.   I’ve personally done this on a voyage with an outrigger canoe between two atolls in the Pacific.  We had a very rough passage on one leg of the trip and I was waiting on Cassiopeia to rise that would signal that dawn would be coming soon.   

What aspect of primitive navigation do you find the most challenging? The most rewarding? 

These next three questions can sort of be lumped together.   One area that I’m interested in is called ‘wave piloting’.   Ocean swells and waves can be used as a directional indicator, particularly in the equatorial Pacific where at least three swell systems can be felt – the swells from the Southern Ocean, the North Pacific, and the Trade Winds.   Each one has a slightly different character. 

Both in the Eastern Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands, navigators found their way by feeling the influence of waves on the hull of voyaging canoes – how they pitch and roll.  Navigators can/could feel the effects from the way the swells interact with islands – reflections, refractions and other effects.  

I traveled to the Marshall Islands to learn from one of the last indigenous navigators, Captain Korent Joel.   He wanted to have scientists validate the traditions of navigation in the Marshalls. It takes some time to understand their language of navigation and translate this into practice.  Also, the reflected swells can be quite weak compared to the incoming, so it takes a lot time to be able to know what to look for, but with some knowledge of the physics of ocean waves, I could get a kind of short-cut to this knowledge.

In voyaging between the two atolls, I was able to feel the presence of both the Trade Wind swell and a swell from a storm system from the North Pacific, and was delighted when I turned out to be correct.   

Is there an aspect of primitive navigation that you don’t quite have down but would love to know more? By that, I mean have you come across references in old literature that piqued your interest, but you have not quite been able to divine how a particular feat was accomplished?


 There’s a phenomenon that translates as “underwater lightning” – a mysterious flash of light that points toward land that’s seen at night.   I spoke with some experts on bioluminescence and we believe that it might be caused by fish darting through sea water rich in dinoflagellates creating a flash that looks like lightning.   It’s quite possible that the fish may be migrating from one island to another and we can just use their own sense of navigation to help us along.  I’ve managed to show that I can reproduce the flashes of light in the laboratory, now the next step is to try to observe and use it in the wild. 

What’s next for you in the world of primitive navigation? Any other works or projects in the pipeline?

Two projects – one is following up on wave piloting in the Marshall Islands.   I have some ideas on how to put this practice on a more rigorous basis, and even write up a manual on “wave piloting 101”.  

The other project is work on deciphering tables of latitude and longitude from the Middle Ages – many of these in Arabic.   In trying to do a data analysis, I found that they probably used the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of North Africa as the location of their Prime Meridian.  I want to follow up with an analysis of other tables, to verify this.   The point is that the history books say that the Cape Verde Islands were discovered by the Portuguese in 1460, but here is substantial evidence that people in the 12th century knew about them. 


One last question. What is one piece of advice, tip, or “trick” that could offer to someone who has no idea what primitive navigation is? Something that, if the mind is ready, can lead to an, “Ah! So that’s why you do it!” moment.

One tip – which everyone should think about in their travels is this – if you have an out-and-back trip somewhere, on your outbound leg of the trip, look backward, particularly at turns or trail junctions – this way, you have a visual memory of where you came from, and it will help you find your way back with confidence.   That’s quite easy to do, but people often don’t think about it.   
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For more on Primitive Navigation Skills, see the Good Doctor's work, this blog, and the RAW Program that incorporates Indigenous Skills Training.

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