How did our ancestors navigate through the world without being able to see the Earth from space?

Traveling has always been a challenge. People were trying to find a way to overcome all the obstacles in their path for thousands of years. They were trying to create maps, but there were some difficulties in that – e.g. how to draw a map without knowing where you are located and what’s near you?

What would you do if you were told to get from point A to point B and you did not know where these points were?

You would probably ask someone for directions, but what if there were no people around you? This is the situation that our ancestors faced thousands of years ago. They couldn’t ask anyone for directions to get from point A to point B, so they had to find alternative ways to solve their problem. This is the ancient context in which world maps were created.

The Chinese came up with a solution to this problem in the second century BC, which they called “sinan,” or “pointing south.”

A reproduction of Si Nan – world’s first compass, 400 BC

One of the main purposes of the compass, then, was to serve as a tool for the perfect arrangement of buildings in populated areas, as the geometric principles of Feng Shui show.

The invention of the compass paved the way for the discovery and conquest of the New World by the Europeans.

Do you remember when you were 10 years old, and you thought the compass was one of the most advanced gadgets on Earth? When studying the history of science, we can see that most modern devices have a centuries-long history which is surprising for us.

The next image is an example of something I usually ask my students at Sofia University about – do you currently have a compass in you? Always initially the answer from the hall is a loud NO, but after a few seconds they think and realize that today each of us carries in our pocket the modern version of this navigation device, as a mobile app.

Navigation in open water

The Marshallese people used a complex system of navigational charts created in this way until the second world war. Their stick charts are perfect example for a creative solution to the problem of navigation.

Marshall Islands stick chart - Wikipedia
An example for a stick chart – navigational map from the Marshall islands

We all know that throughout history people have always tried to explore new lands and create a map of the places they’ve gone. In quest to discover a way of navigating around the world without having to figure out what path they took, they invented many sophisticated ways of getting from one place to another.

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