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Thinking outside the square

January 19, 2010

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I”m obsessed with Inuit design & problem-solving skills.

Already three hundred years ago they carved three-dimensional maps (see below) – made to be felt rather than seen on dark nights in the kayak. Made out of wood they were both weather proof and would float if accidentally dropped overboard. The actual landmass was often abstracted – it is the edges that contain important information about the shoreline.

150 year old maps drawn by Inuits relying on non-visual cues (listening to the sound of waves lapping against the shoreline) and covering linear distances of up to 1600 km have often shown to be as correct as modern ones prepared from aerial photographs. But they have some points of difference, compare the ones below:

This map (above) was drawn from memory by an Inuit named Sunapignanq.

Compare it to this one generated with modern cartographical techniques, and you will see that the Inuit map shows much greater detail of inlets and small islands in the sound and on the shorelines of the peninsula. This is important as the best fishing grounds are found there. The landmass has been drawn smaller in proportion – it is of little interest to the fishermen.

Victor Papanek, author and pioneer of so-called ethical design compiled the examples above while living with Alaskan Inuit ethnic groups in the 1970s. He puts the Inuits extraordinary orientation skills down to a combination of the fact that it is a necessity for survival honed to perfection by a lifetime of experience and them living in an “aural, acoustic non-linear bubble of space – in a society that  ha not been molded by linear thinking”.

Love. It. Lots more on this later.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2010 2:08 pm

    wow!! I think I will become obsessed by Inuit problem solving skills too! Magnificent post.

  2. January 23, 2010 3:58 pm

    hey thank you! glad you liked it. so now i’ve got someone to come with me – are you keen for Alaska?

  3. January 26, 2010 3:03 pm

    Great post! I actually get upset when people refer to the inuit as a “primitive” culture.

  4. January 26, 2010 3:57 pm

    Well, it’s just symptomatic of our ignorant, dominating euro-centric world view, isn’t it? I’m reading an excellent book by Paul Hawken at the moment, ‘Blessed Unrest’ which I would strongly recommend to anyone. In the chapter Indigene he writes:

    “What Columbus stumbled upon was an unknown continent that was in fact more populous than Europe, with bigger cities, more advanced medicine, superior agriculture and healthier people – none of which he realized. In fact Columbus died thinking he’d found the western route to India; that is he didn’t really know where he was on any of his four voyages. The word Indian is our ongoing testament to his ignorance, and Native Americans counter that you cannot ‘discover’ an inhabited land.”

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