Michael Bond | 16 mins


The First Wayfinders

AROUND 75,000 YEARS AGO, a group of Homo sapiens left Africa, the continent where they had evolved, crossed the dried-up Bab el Mandeb strait at the southern end of the Red Sea and followed the coastline eastwards, along the sole of the Arabian peninsula. We don’t know why they started this journey, nor why they didn’t stop and try to settle along the way as other groups had done – after all, they could not have conceived where they would end up. Over the next 60,000 years, their descendants trekked, paddled and bushwhacked their way east to the islands of south-east Asia and across the Arafura Sea to Australia, north through the Middle East and from there into China and the Steppes of central Asia, west over the Bosporus and down the Danube valley into Europe, and eventually, via a land bridge from Siberia, to America and on to its windswept southern toe. They have since endured and flourished in places that have proved more challenging than anything their ancestors faced in Africa: in dense rainforest and on remote islands, in the polar barrens of the high Arctic and on the mountain-bound Tibetan Plateau. Not content with treading the far reaches of this planet, they have also ventured 250,000 miles off it, to the Moon and beyond. In a few decades from now, their progeny could be kicking their feet in the dust of another planet, tens of millions of miles from Earth. Those small steps out of Africa have turned into a perpetual odyssey, and it isn’t over yet.


All non-African human populations originate from that pioneering band of wandering Homo sapiens, though they were not the first explorers. At the time they crossed the Red Sea, much of Europe and Asia was already populated with other branches of the human family, such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans, whose ancestors had left Africa nearly two million years earlier. The Neanderthals’ territory ranged from Kazakhstan to Wales and from the eastern Mediterranean to Spain, but they did not share the tenacious wanderlust of their cousins who, instead of hunkering down when they reached a mountain range or stretch of water, either carried on walking or built a boat.

Over the course of our evolution between 350,000 and 150,000 years ago, Homo sapiens developed an appetite for exploration and a wayfinding spirit that set us apart from other human species. It had a huge effect on our future. One of the most intriguing recent ideas in anthropology is that our ability to navigate was essential to our success as a species, because it allowed us to cultivate extensive social networks. In prehistoric times, when people lived in small family units and spent much of their time looking for food and shelter, being able to share information with other groups about the whereabouts of resources and the movements of predators would have given us an evolutionary edge. Friends were a survival asset. If you ran out of food, you knew where to go; if you needed help on a hunt, you knew who to ask.

Evolutionary biologists believe this sociability drove the evolution of our complex brains. All early human species were gregarious, preferring the buzz of the collective to the solitary path favoured by most other mammals. Homo sapiens profited by being the most social of all, interacting with groups that lived a long way from their own. Fossil evidence shows that as far back as 130,000 years ago, it was not unusual for our ancestors to travel more than a hundred and fifty miles to trade, share food and, no doubt, to gossip and whinge about each other. Unlike the Neanderthals, their social groups extended far beyond their own families. Remembering all those connections, where they fitted into your network, who was related to whom and where they lived required considerable processing power.

It also required wayfinding savvy. Imagine trying to maintain a social network across tens or hundreds of square miles of Palaeolithic wilderness. You couldn’t WhatsApp your friends to find out where they were – you had to go out and visit them, remember where you last saw them or imagine where they might have gone. To do this, you needed navigation skills, spatial awareness, a sense of direction, the ability to store maps of the landscape in your mind and the motivation to get out and about. The Canadian anthropologist Ariane Burke believes that our ancestors developed all these attributes while trying to keep in touch with their neighbours. Eventually, our brains became primed for wayfinding. Meanwhile the Neanderthals, who didn’t travel as far, never fostered a spatial skill set; despite being sophisticated hunters, well adapted to the cold and able to see in the dark, they went extinct (along with every other species of human) within a few tens of thousands of years of sapiens populating Europe. In the prehistoric badlands, nothing was more useful than a circle of friends.

Burke says there is archaeological evidence that early modern humans had extensive social networks. ‘Those far-flung networks were essential to our culture,’ she explained in a phone call from her office at the University of Montreal. ‘Remember that during the Palaeolithic, there were comparatively few people around. This put a premium on being able to get information about a wider territory. Maintaining a spatially extensive social network was a way of ensuring your continued survival. You would need a very dynamic cognitive map, which you would constantly have to update with information about your contacts and what they were telling you about the landscape. There are some signs in the archaeological record that Neanderthals had also begun developing these skills, possibly as a response to the additional stress of competing with humans, but I suspect it was too little, too late.’


To find out what life was like in those early days, anthropologists have studied the few remaining groups of people who still practise the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors, such as the Aché in eastern Paraguay and the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. In areas where they are still able to roam unhindered, their patterns of subsistence have changed little in tens of thousands of years. On a typical day in the rainforest, the Aché might spend seven or eight hours hunting armadillos or deer, gathering fruit and honey, moving camp, cutting new trails or walking to visit the camps of their neighbours. The !Kung are likewise almost always on the move, whether searching for water, collecting berries and tubers, chasing down deer during a ‘persistence hunt’ or tracking wounded animals, an exercise that can take several days and requires significant skill. Both the !Kung and the Aché think nothing of walking a few dozen miles to exchange stories and news with another group, though both are outclassed by the Hiwi in Venezuela, who have been known to walk sixty miles through day and night to visit a neighbouring village before walking back again a couple of hours later.

To survive this kind of itinerant life in the Palaeolithic age you had to know where you were and where you were going. You had to be able to walk for days over ground you may not have seen before, across prairie, through woods and over mountains, to forage, hunt or sit around a fire with distant neighbours. And at every point in your journeying you had to know the way home, because those who didn’t make it back usually perished. Other spatial attributes would have helped, too: a mental map, for instance, to remember where to find food and medicinal plants and important features such as bear caves, streams and shelter. Getting lost was potentially catastrophic. The European countryside of that era was a lot more exotic than it is today: in the underwood lurked cave lions, brown bears, leopards, spotted hyenas, wolves and sabre-toothed cats, and there weren’t many fellow humans around to show you the way.

Our ancestors almost certainly possessed these skills; they would not have survived very long, or travelled very far, without them. Humans were wayfinders from the get-go; navigation and spatial awareness are, quite literally, part of our DNA. ‘I think prehistorical humans would have been expert wayfinders,’ says Burke. ‘They were very mobile people.’ They likely used every tool at their disposal to help them. Ornamental stringed beads, which have been found at many Stone Age sites in Africa and the Near East, may have doubled up as distance-counting devices, similar to the ranger beads used by mountaineers and the military today to count their paces. Some hunter-gatherers prepared for long journeys by carving a series of notches into sticks to help them remember significant landmarks and features, like an abstract map. Richard Dodge, a colonel in the US Army who was a fastidious recorder of Native American customs during the nineteenth century, recalled hearing about a Comanche raiding party of young men and boys who had travelled four hundred miles from Texas to Mexico, a place none of them had ever visited, to steal horses, ‘solely by memory of information represented and fixed in their minds by these sticks’.

Mental imagery can be just as helpful as technology when you’re trying to avoid getting lost, and early humans appear to have been good at acquiring that, too. The twentieth-century aviator and navigator Harold Gatty, an expert on wayfinding in different cultures, noticed that all the indigenous peoples he studied used the same approach when exploring unfamiliar places. Like Theseus in pursuit of the Minotaur, they would venture into the unknown imagining they were connected to their base by a thread, as this Australian aborigine described it to him:

I don’t go far in the beginning; I go some distance and come back again, then in another direction, and come back, and then again in another direction. Gradually I know how everything is, and then I can go far without losing my way.

With a system like that, it was hard to go wrong.


In 1960, my grandparents bought a sheep farm in the Grampian Mountains on the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands, in country as wild and primitive as any in the British Isles. To the north, east and west the ground rises through boggy meadows to a vast sweep of heather moorland overlooked by wind-scoured peaks, where in winter little moves apart from mountain hares and the eagles that hunt them. On a bleak day you can feel like you are the first person to ever set foot in these hills, yet people have crofted and lived in this part of the Grampians for thousands of years. They have left their mark, too, not so much on the physical landscape as on the map.

Almost every topographical feature around my grandparents’ farm, from towering peak to insignificant hillock, has a name. The names are in Gaelic, a language that has not been widely spoken here for two centuries, and some of them also contain remnants of Pictish, the extinct language of the people who lived in eastern and northern Scotland between the late Iron Age and the tenth century (though they were by no means the first settlers there). The names are highly descriptive and appropriate to their place: in terrain where it can be easy to lose your way, this wayfinder’s lexicon was designed to prevent you from doing so.

For example, if you head north-west from the farm, whose Gaelic name is Invergeldie, meaning ‘confluence of the bright and shining streams’, and follow the old cattle trail that climbs up onto the moor, you’ll come to Creag nan Eun, the ‘rock of the birds’, which is still a favoured nesting site of buzzards, ravens and merlins. A mile or so further on you’ll be walking in the shadow of Meall Dubh Mor, the ‘great black hill’, and crossing Allt Ruadh, the ‘red stream’ (named for the colour of the rocks in its waterfall). Directly ahead is Tom a’ Chomhstri, the ‘hillock of the battle’ (contemporary cultural references would have been just as helpful) – so long as you haven’t climbed too high, in which case you’ll find yourself on Meall nan Oighreag, the ‘hill of the cloudberries’ (they still grow there). Finally, as the trail crests the escarpment at its highest point, you’ll be confronted with Tom a’ Mhoraire, the ‘Lord’s hillock’, which fairly lords it over the white-grassed valley (Fin Glen) that falls away to Loch Tay to the north-west.

Historians believe that topographical place names – toponyms, in geography-speak – provided early settlers with a geographical reference system, a precursor of latitude and longitude. A descriptive name prompts a mental image – you’ll recognize that ‘grassy eminence on a knoll’ (Funtulich, in Gaelic) when you see it. A sequence of place names constitutes a set of directions: so equipped, you can make your journey.

Place-naming is an ancient practice. Many toponyms in use in the UK today originated in the fifth century. The names of certain rivers in southern Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq are thought to pre-date the Sumerian invention of writing in 3100 BC. Very likely, humans have been defining and expressing features of the landscape for as long as language has existed. In fact, as we’ll see in a later chapter, some scientists believe that language may have evolved for this very reason: to allow humans to share information about their environment, such as the location of food sources and how to find them. That’s quite a thought: the first words ever spoken might have been some roughly articulated directions, or a grunted depiction of a distant valley.

Urbanization has scrubbed out many of our ancient place names, but they live on in the rural hinterland, and among indigenous nomadic cultures, the people who are closest to the hunter-gatherers of the past. In such areas, no vagary of land or water goes unnamed. In his book Landmarks, a field guide to the language of place, Robert Macfarlane describes the work of the linguist Richard Cox, who in the 1990s moved to Carloway, a district of crofts and scattered townships on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, to record its Gaelic place names. He collected more than three thousand of them, in an area of less than sixty square miles. Many are highly specific; for example, Macfarlane notes that Cox’s anthology contains more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices, depending on the character of the summit and slope.

The Inuit, the semi-nomadic indigenous people of northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland, are just as enthusiastic in their delineation of the land as the Hebrideans. When the explorer George Francis Lyon passed through the hamlet of Igloolik in the Canadian Arctic in 1822, in search of the North-west Passage, he noted that ‘every streamlet, lake, bay, point, or island has a name, and even certain piles of stones’. The Gazetteer of Inuit Place Names in Nunavik – a vast, sparsely populated tundra region in northern Quebec – runs to nearly eight thousand entries.

To an outsider, the Arctic can look featureless and monotonous, yet the place names of the Inuit, many of which are centuries old, are lavishly descriptive and precise, which makes them invaluable aids to wayfinding. They might denote the shape of an outcrop, the nature of a river current or the character of a local wind, or make reference to what people through the ages have done in that place. For example, on the southern heel of Baffin Island you will find Nuluujaak, or ‘two islands that look like buttocks’. Hard to miss. Further up the coast you’ll know exactly where you are when you see Qumanguaq, ‘the shrugging hill (no neck)’. A few miles east from here, look out for Qaumajualuk, ‘the lake with a light-coloured bottom that seems to shine’: there’s no lake like it. This approach to naming places is very different to the one taken by the first European explorers of the Americas, who tended to celebrate friends, backers or notables from their homeland rather than local topography or culture. Lyon’s naval chart of 1823 is packed with imperialisms such as Chesterfield Inlet (the Inuit know it as Igluligaarjuk, ‘the place with few houses’) and Sir James Lancaster Sound (Tallurutiup Imanga, or ‘water surrounding land resembling facial tattoos on the chin’). Such names are of little use to anyone who might be navigating without instruments.

A web of place names allows extraordinary feats of orientation. The Argentinian anthropologist Claudio Aporta has spent the last two decades documenting Inuit geographic knowledge in the Canadian Arctic. He recalls travelling near Igloolik with a hunter who wanted to retrieve seven fox traps that he had set with his uncle twenty-five years earlier. The traps were in thick snow and spread over eight square miles, yet he found them, without a map, in two hours. Aporta thought the area looked ‘flat and indistinctive’ – this was early on in his research project and he had not been long in the Arctic. To an experienced Inuit traveller, such snowscapes are packed with places of significance, the names of which are passed down orally between the generations. They commit the names to memory, which enables them to make a mental map of the topography and make journeys along trails that all but disappear when the snow melts in the spring or a blizzard covers the sled tracks in winter.

Aporta is fascinated by these trails and how the Inuit remember them. In his recent research he has been using GPS technology and Google Earth to compile an atlas of place names and trails across sea, ice and open water in the eastern and central Canadian Arctic, which he hopes to extend to include Labrador and Greenland. When I visited him in his office at the University of Dalhousie in Nova Scotia, a copy of the atlas was spread out on the table. It looked like a piece of art – a scramble of flow lines over the landscape – and it has been exhibited in a Montreal gallery. It represents, he says, ‘a narrative of space’. The trails that it charts connect the Inuit to their neighbours, and to hunting and fishing grounds. They are as much a social network as a travel system, a reminder of the importance of journeying to Inuit and other indigenous cultures. Aporta writes:

Being introduced to the first journey was, in a way, being introduced to life, as if both living and moving were part of the same journey. The trail was a place where life unfolded. Life on the trail involved the learning from an early age of an immense amount of geographic and environmental information, as the individuals experienced the land through actual or figurative travel. Through that process, a sense of community was also developed.

One reason Aporta has been mapping Inuit place names is that their oral traditions have started to stutter, because the knowledge is no longer being passed down. Since they moved to permanent settlements in the late 1950s and 1960s, journeys have become shorter and less regular. Snowmobiles have replaced dogsleds, allowing less time for conversation and observation. GPS encourages travellers to take more direct and less traditional routes. The old ways are fading. Occasionally, nature delivers a reminder of why they may still be useful. In The Arctic Sky, John MacDonald, an expert on Inuit culture, recounts a story from the 1990s of a group of young hunters from Igloolik who, having lost their way in a blizzard, ran out of gasoline and had to camp on the sea ice until the weather cleared. They called for help on their shortwave radio, but although they recognized some of the landmarks around them, they couldn’t tell their rescuers the names of any of them. They were eventually found, after much difficulty, and arrived home to a stern lecture from the village elders.


For the inhabitants of Scottish moorland, Arctic tundra and other primitive landscapes, place-naming was a survival strategy. It helped them find their way to food, water and friends and make it home again. A community’s place names reflected what was important to them. Of the 550 toponyms that Aporta has documented in Igloolik, 65 per cent refer to features of the oceans or coasts, the source of much of the traditional Inuit diet. Their Arctic compatriots the Aleuts, who live on a chain of islands that arc out into the northern Pacific from the Alaska peninsula, have hundreds of names for the many different types of rivulet, brook, stream, pond, lake and rill on which they travel and fish around the coasts, and hardly any for the inaccessible peaks and volcanoes of the interior. People of the desert, whose chief concern is where to get a drink, unsurprisingly apply a rich vocabulary to descriptions of water sources. In her studies of the Southern Paiute people of the Mojave Desert in the early 1930s, the anthropologist Isabel Kelly observed that most of their place names – of which she had collected some 1,500 – were for springs, and that the names described very clearly how the springs might be identified: Purple Willow Small Water, Willow Standing in a Row Water Comes Out, Cottonwoods Surround it Water Comes Out, On the End of Lava Water Rabbit Trail Water Comes Out, and so on.

Place names serve as much more than descriptive markers and wayfinding aids. They also carry a sense of attachment to the land, and the imprint of those who lived there. Aporta says Inuit place names are easy to remember not only because they refer to recognizable topography, but also because ‘they are entangled in a number of narratives that create and recreate people’s sense of belonging to a particular territory’. There is a site on Baffin Island called Pigaarviit, which translates as ‘the place you go to stay up late (to enjoy the long spring days)’, and another called Puukammaluttalik, ‘the place where someone once left a pouch’. Characterized in this way, an area of flat, indistinctive ice can suddenly feel like home.

Many of the landscapes that our ancestors settled in would initially have seemed bewildering or frightening places to live. They had a strong incentive to make them feel familiar and to organize them symbolically. This, as much as the basic survival imperative, may have driven their enthusiasm for rewarding any significant place with a name, so that – to borrow an Inuit phrase – they could be ‘surrounded by the smell of their own things’. The significance we give to place names reflects our need to know the space around us, to reach out and touch the world. They can help us navigate the present, and perhaps even imagine what might happen in the future.

Just as importantly, they can also connect us with the past. Keith Basso, who devoted his career in anthropology to understanding the cultural traditions of the Western Apache in central Arizona, observed that their vivid place names allowed them to envisage themselves standing in the footsteps of their ancestors who had bestowed the names. In Wisdom Sits in Places, his remarkable account of the Western Apache understanding of landscape, Basso described how, ‘with ear and eye jointly enthralled’, he stood before places such as Goshtl’ish Tú Bil Sikáné (‘water lies with mud in an open container’), T’iis Ts’ósé Bil Naagolgaiyé (‘circular clearing with slender cottonwood trees’) and Kailbáyé Bil Naagozwodé (‘gray willows curve around a bend’). Such ‘handsomely crafted names – bold, visual, evocative – lend poetic force to the voices of the ancestors’, he wrote. What better way to domesticate a wild place than to conjure up the spirits of those who have been there before you?



We owe a great deal to our wayfinding ancestry, and to the spatial know-how that allowed us to spread across the world and put down roots. It’s easy to forget this. We live in an age in which we can travel anywhere in the world without really knowing where we’re going. Most of us are settled; we don’t live in fear of predators or have to constantly journey in search of food and water. We don’t need place names in the same way that our ancestors did.

Yet deep down we are still wayfinders, and we have all the cognitive equipment we need for discovering the world around us. Our physical surroundings influence our behaviour and affect us emotionally: we orientate towards home and the neighbourhoods we know best, chose symbolic places in which to protest (Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square, Trafalgar Square) and carve our names on trees, rocks and buildings. Humans may have dramatically altered much of the Earth’s surface, but our basic settlement model – urban centres linked by road and rail – is not that different to what it was in the Neolithic age (settlements linked by paths) or the Palaeolithic (encampments linked by trails). Some of our interactions with the earth have changed little: even today, people place rocks on trail-side cairns to help their fellow travellers in the wilderness, a practice that has probably existed for millennia.

We are explorers to the bone, and our spatial abilities – which, believe it or not, we still possess, despite our modern dependency on GPS – are fundamental to what makes us human. In the next chapter, we’ll discover how those skills develop as we grow up. Children are born adventurers, but they are not always given the freedom to follow those inclinations. As we’ll see, the extent to which we are permitted to roam and push the boundaries of our worlds when we are young can profoundly influence the kind of adults we become.