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Life Before GPS: What We Can Learn from the Ancient Art of Wayfaring

Cultural anthropologist Elizabeth Lindsey studies how indigenous populations travelled great distances without the use of instruments such as the compass or the sextant.
 
 
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"Can you imagine?" asks your guide, Elizabeth Lindsey, National Geographic Society's first female explorer. "Can you imagine? Being tied to wood knowing that walls of thundering waves would come crashing down upon you?"  

Imagining this and breathing reality into this vision is the life work of Lindsey, who earned her PhD in cultural anthropology, focusing on ancient wayfaring -- the study of how indigenous populations travelled great distances without the use of instruments such as the compass or the sextant.  

Lindsey spent almost 10 years studying the Micronesian Palu, recognized as some of the greatest wayfarers in the world. They navigated using “the rising and setting of stars, the swell and sequence of waves, the flight patterns of certain birds, even the slightest hint of color on the underbelly of clouds.  

"So keen was their ability," says Lindsey, "that when they were out at sea and anticipated violent storms and knew they couldn't get to a safe harbor, they would loosen the lashings on their vessel, allowing for space for the waves to rush in and then they would tighten themselves and secure themselves to the canoe to ride out the storm."  

Her passion for ethnonavigation was initially ignited by the teachings of three extraordinary Hawaiian women who watched her and her siblings while her parents taught school.  

"They could chant the fish towards shore, they knew all of the names of the winds and the rains and spoke to each element intimately as we would a beloved," she said. "They knew our astrology according to a genealogy of stars that coexisted intimately with our natural world. They were among the greatest environmentalists, not out of a sense of obligation or duty or desperation but because they knew that everything is sacred."   

Her documentary film, "Then There Were None," has won numerous awards for chronicling the near extinction of the native Hawaiian population and Lndsey also works with UN ambassadors addressing the needs of climate refugees, a population which is expected to swell to 50 million by 2012.

This spring, she departs on 'The Flight of Dreams,' a 186-day expedition in collaboration with UNESCO, PBS and National Geographic to explore the ancient science of wayfinding. In partnership with Google, the team will travel on three small planes to visit every continent, except Antarctica, to assist in designing a 'geospatial Map of the Human Story,' one which will inform the forecasting of emerging global patterns. Mapping the Human Story is an interactive educational project that will feature dispatches from the field through podcasts and blogs. Documentaries and a television series will establish a "cultural trust for future generations," a digital repository for people's stories.

"Our senses have dulled to the wonders of the natural world," says Lindsey. "Our elders are dying and they are our libraries of Alexandria. And each time an elder dies a library is burned. Throughout the world libraries are burning."  

For nearly 10 years, Lindsey studied with world famous wayfarer Mau Piailug, who died last July at the age of 87. Affectionately known by his students as 'the Yoda of the Pacific,' Mau is credited with the rebirth of non-instrument navigation in 1976, after he steered a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.

"Mau would sometimes say the island is the canoe, the canoe the island," says Lindsey. "And what he meant was that onboard the vessel resources are finite and how one crew mate uses them effects everyone.  

"In an age of technological advancement, we are bloated with information yet starved for wisdom," she says. "We are connected 24x7, yet loneliness is at an all time high. Our senses have been dulled to the wonders of our natural world. We no longer need the stars to guide us to gain our bearings. We have GPS."  

 
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