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Navigation skills develop early on among rainforest hunter-gatherers

The Mbendjele BaYaka people, a hunter-gatherer society living the Republic of Congo, can accurately orient themselves in the dense rainforest in which they forage and hunt. 

Navigation is a crucial skill among the Mbendjele BaYaka and researchers from the Max Planck Institute have found that orientation ability develops early on and that both men and women are equally capable of orienting themselves. 

The researchers conducted 600 pointing tests where participants were asked to point to an out-of-sight target in over 60 different locations in the rainforest both within and outside their camp. 

54 Mbendjele BaYaka men, women, and children ages 6 to 76 years completed the tests, and there was a high level of accuracy among all those who participated. 

Both men and women were equally capable of locating the out-of-sight target. The researchers say this is because all members of the Mbendjele BaYaka travel long distances to forage.

“Gender equality in the Mbendjele BaYaka population may result in Mbendjele women’s long-distance foraging for fishing and hunting as do men,” said Haneul Jang, the leader of the study. “This might allow women and men to develop similar orientation abilities.”

In societies where mobility differs between men and women, this could impact orientation abilities, Jang notes. 

“Our results are consistent with previous studies that found no sex differences in orientation abilities in hunter-gatherer societies where both sexes actively travel away from home,” said Jang. “Studies from various cultures suggest that sex differences in orientation abilities may indeed result from sex-specific mobility, and our results add to this growing body of evidence.”

The idea that men have a better sense of direction does not apply when both sexes do the same amount of traveling. 

“In contrast to men and women in our society, where women may still be more likely to work at home or closer to home compared to men, we observed that Mbendjele men and women travel equally far from home, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that they score equally well in orientation tasks,” said Karline Janmaat, the main supervisor of the study.

The researchers found that among the Mbendjele BaYaka, strong orientation develops early on with children as young as six able to point to targets as accurately as adults in the tests. 

However, the younger children performed better when closer to camp and when the sun was visible. 

“Unlike the adults, who have a very good sense of direction in distant areas even if they cannot see the sun’s position, the children make large pointing errors in less familiar areas when they cannot see the sun,” said Jang. “However, if they can see the sun, children’s performances improve considerably. 

This is a remarkable find because it’s the first time researchers have discovered evidence of using the sun as a compass in humans. 

“We know that bees can use the sun to navigate, but surprisingly there has been no scientific evidence yet that humans may have this skill, too, and that children may develop this skill by age six,” says Janmaat. 

There is a sense of urgency in studying the hunter-gatherers of the Congo like the Mbendjele BaYaka, according to the researchers. 

“Our study shows that there is still so much to discover and with a high level of urgency. All forests inhabited by human rainforest foragers in Congo have been sold to foreign companies, causing these people to lose not only their foraging grounds, but their intriguing navigation skills as well.”

A study detailing the findings was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

Image Credit: Karline Janmaat

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