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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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Human Wayfinding in Natural Habitats

What single characteristic distinguishes humans from all other animals? Our labels reflect attempts to answer this question. Homo habilis or "handy man" suggests the importance of tool use. Homo erectus or "upright man" emphasizes hands-free, heads-up, bipedal locomotion. And, Homo sapiens or "thinking man" invokes the value of intelligence and the capacity for language. In truth, we have much in common with our fellow creatures, including identical chunks of DNA and a common evolutionary heritage dating back four billion years. And for most of our history, we've wandered the same natural habitats without the benefit of compass, map, or signpost. It's no surprise that animals and humans share similar navigation skills and behaviors.

Unfortunately, we know very little about the two million year "prehistory" of human wayfinding. Prior to the invention of written language 5,500 years ago, we are left only with crumbling skulls and educated guesses. Our understanding flows primarily from modern studies in anthropology, archaeology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience. For example, it's a safe bet that early humans were dependent on the five basic senses. Though we talk about our "sense of direction," research has shown no convincing indication it exists. Lacking the polarized vision of ants and the magnetoreceptors of turtles, we have had to rely heavily on an awareness of our own movements (path integration) and a meticulous attention to environmental ...

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