Monday, April 10, 2017

Before GPS There Were These

Inuit Tactile Maps of Greenland

Amusing Planet  Kaushik  April 10, 2017 

Like everybody else, the Inuit people of Greenland have been making maps to navigate the rugged coastline, but unlike maps made on paper, their maps are carved on wood that could be read in the dark by feeling. Often made of driftwood, these maps represent the contours of the coastline in a continuous line up one side of the wood and down the other. The contours of the land are highly exaggerated, allowing users to navigate entirely by feel. The navigator would often carry them under his mittens and feel the contours with his fingers to discern patterns in the coastline. Being made of wood, they are buoyant, so they float if accidentally dropped and could be easily retrieved.

These three wooden maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq, on Greenland’s East Coast. The map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. The map to the left shows the peninsula between the Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik fjords.

There is surprisingly little information about these maps online. For instance, we don’t know what the Inuit call these maps in their native language. 

The maps were discovered in the 1880s by Gustav Holm who led an expedition to the Ammassalik coast of eastern Greenland, where he met several Eastern Greenland Inuit communities. One of the natives approached Gustav and sold him three wooden maps. When Gustav returned, he donated the maps to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Today, the maps are at the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk. 


He’s Got the Whole Coast in His Hand

One-of-a-kind handheld maps of Greenland are an early example of the intimate relationship the Inuit have with their landscape.  by Raina Delisle  Published December 9, 2016

As he visualized paddling along the east coast of Greenland in an umiak, Danish explorer Gustav Holm held in his hand generations of navigational know-how. It was the 1880s—long before Siri and satellites were around to lead the way—and Holm was palming a chunk of wood about as long as an iPhone 7. Carved by a Greenlandic Inuit man, this precious piece served as a tactile map, its toothy edges representative of the fjords, headlands, and obstacles of the unforgiving coastline. As Holm ran a finger along the map, he felt a semicircular groove—a sign that he and his party would have to go overland with their boats if they made it that far north. This was just one of several subtle cues he could glean from the map that would help make an exploration safe and successful.

As Holm observed, the Tunumiit people of eastern Greenland had a sharp eye for nature and could accurately describe a place they had visited once, even 20 years earlier. The man who produced the carving was especially skilled, and created two others that accompanied it. A knobby stick about as long as a Super Big Gulp straw represents the islands off the coast, and a thicker, wand-like carving corresponds to a peninsula, with ridges and mounds that mirror the relief of the mountains.

Carved map photo courtesy of Greenland National Museum and Archives, illustration by Mark Garrison

It’s hard to imagine feeling your way along the coastline with the knots and notches of a chunk of wood as your guide. And trying to line up the tactile maps to Google Maps is like lining up the colors of a Rubik’s Cube. As Harmsen says, “There is a phenomenal aspect to the maps; you would have to be there to fully appreciate them as you’re moving through the landscape and using the map as a reference.” Yet like the latest iPhone, these early handheld devices were innovative and user-friendly. And even better than today’s technology, they were waterproof, they floated, and they didn’t rely on battery power. 

Carved map photo courtesy of Greenland National Museum and Archives, illustration by Mark Garrison

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