Spatial Concepts in Non-Literate Societies

Spatial Concepts in Non-Literate Societies: Language Practices in Eipo and Dene Chipewyan

Cooperation Partners: 

Wulf Schievenhövel (MPI for Ornithology)


Finishing of a sacral men's hut by the Eipo tribe in West New Guinea<br>
Source: Gerd Koch, Malingdam, 1984

The most basic forms of spatial knowledge that are studied in the project are those represented by spatial concepts in non-literate societies. Obviously, certain aspects of spatial cognition are universal owing to the shared biological constitution of the human body and mind and to universally shared experiences. Other aspects of spatial cognition are culturally specific, being shaped, for instance, by particular practices of spatial orientation and organization.

On the basis of the study of spatial practices in two non-literate cultures and (utterances in) their languages, certain aspects of spatial cognition that are candidates for universals (although they may find different expressions in different languages), and aspects that are truly culture specific in the sense that different cultures develop different cognitive structures have been identified. The two cultures that have been thoroughly studied are the Eipo living in the highlands of Indonesian New Guinea and the Dene living in the North American plains. It has turned out that, while the peculiarities of the two cultures’ environments did shape their spatial language and practices (importance of mountains vs. lakes; practices of gardening vs. hunting), similar practices of spatial orientation such as the use of landmarks can be discerned in both cultures. Although the semantic and grammatical resources provided by the two languages differ substantially, no differences in spatial abilities have been identified that could be attributed to language peculiarities.