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Sailing the open ocean without instruments  
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An incredible cultural accomplishment

When I began my postdoc in Cognitive Science at UCSD in 1978, many of my colleagues were reading Thomas Gladwin’s “East is a Big Bird” which describes the navigation accomplishments of the peoples of Micronesia.  As a navigator in our own tradition, I was fascinated and mystified by the ability of a Micronesian navigators to sail hundreds of miles of open ocean with no tools other than their brains and bodies, and reliably make landfall on islands that are no more than tiny specks of land in a vast sea.  I read everything I could find on this topic, and tried to work out a detailed account of how navigators could do such a thing.  Some interesting clues came from the work of German Ethnographers who were in the Western Pacific in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  Later European and American researchers consistently tried to interpret the Micronesian system in terms of the unquestioned assumptions of our own tradition of navigation.  One of the most interesting aspects of Micronesian navigation is that the navigators say that once they are out of sight of land they imagine the canoe to be stationary while the islands ahead of them move toward them, the islands off to the side slide by, and the islands aster fall further behind.  This puzzling assumption that the islands move actually reduces the complexity of the problem of articulating the motion of canoe, islands, and the framework of the stars.  Western navigators prefer to think in terms of absolute motion, but there are situations where a relative motion conception is superior.  This is described in my paper with Geoffrey Hinton titled “Why the islands move” (Perception, vol. 13: 1984).  I believe I succeeded in finding an adequate account of Micronesian navigation, but because I was not able to sail with these navigators, I cannot be sure.  My efforts to work this out are reported in Hutchins (1983), Hinton and Hutchins (1984), and in chapter 2 of my 1995 book, Cognition in the Wild.


Hutchins E.  Understanding Micronesian navigation.  In D. Gentner & A. Stevens (Eds.), Mental models.  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp 191-225, 1983.


Hutchins E & GE Hinton.  Why the islands move.  Perception, 13:629-632, 1984.

Hutchins E.  Cognition in the Wild.  MIT Press, 1995.