Spatial orientation among reindeer herders

In Current Anthropology Volume 50, Number 1, February 2009
an article by Kirill V. Istomin and Mark J. Dwyer
"Finding the Way: A Critical Discussion of Anthropological Theories of Human Spatial Orientation with Reference to Reindeer Herders of Northeastern Europe and Western Siberia"

Here is the abstract

In anthropology, research on human spatial orientation (wayfinding) has centered on two conflicting theories: the "mental map," whereby humans build abstract cognitive representations of the spatial relations between objects, and "practical mastery," which rejects the idea that such abstract representations exist and, in its most developed form, suggests that wayfinding is a process of moving from one recognized visual perspective (vista) to another (transitions between vistas). In this paper we reveal, on the basis of existing psychology and geography research, that both wayfinding theories are in fact complementary: humans rely on mental maps but also memorize vistas while navigating, and an individual's navigation method, ability, and the form of the mental map is likely to depend on a situation as well as on factors such as age, sex, familiarity with the environment, and life history. We demonstrate (using research material obtained during fieldwork carried out among Komi and Nenets reindeer herders) that anthropology can contribute to human spatial cognitive research, which has traditionally been an interdisciplinary endeavor, by identifying differences in spatial representation between different people and peoples. However, future contributions can be achieved only if anthropologists accept that mental maps and route knowledge (as advocated by practical mastery) are part and parcel of spatial cognition.




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