Eli5: how did early civilizations know what was north and what was south

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Eli5: how did early civilizations know what was north and what was south

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13 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Different civilizations used different methods. Known, visible landmarks were always an option. Many relied on the direction of the movement of the sun or the stars (which we still use today). Others, like the ancient seafaring Polynesians, used the above methods in combination with the migratory patterns of birds and the direction of ocean currents.

Anonymous 0 Comments

At night, the stars all rotate around one star…Polaris. At least in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s real obvious to a pre-industrial civilization. That is the direction of North.

Anonymous 0 Comments

In the morning if you stand facing the rising sun. On your left is what is called north and on your right is south.

Now do the same thing at sunset and its the opposite.

Then at night you find the north star.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The origin of the word “east” is the ancient Greek “auōs” for “dawn”. “West” comes from “vesper” for “evening”.

“North” comes from the Proto-Indo-European unit “ner-” which means “left”.

So for the typical person who isn’t watching the stars, probably they navigated via the rising and setting sun. North and South were derived from those known directions. Only once we developed a compass that can point north or south did east and west become secondary derived directions.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Depends on what you mean. How did they orient themselves? Plenty of ways. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west so you can find north by knowing where east and west are. If you’re out at night you can look at the stars. Polaris is north. There’s also environmental signs like how moss normally grows on the north of a tree in the northern hemisphere since that side of the tree gets less sunlight and snow also tends to melt from south to north in the northern hemisphere

Anonymous 0 Comments

You are making the mistake that early humans weren’t knowledgeable about the world. Their very existence relied on them being able to navigate, to understand the seasons, the moon and the stars. East, West, North and South were the simplest of concepts for them.

Anonymous 0 Comments

In addition to the other answers, you should keep in mind that NSEW aren’t universal direction finding systems.

I don’t remember which island it was anymore, but when explorers got there and asked what their word was for “north,” they later found it was also the word for “south” and “east” and “west” depending on where they were standing, and eventually realized the people who lived there didn’t have a word for north. They had a word for “toward the sea” and a word for “toward the mountain.”

Anonymous 0 Comments

The names themselves are meaningless.

People knew that there were consistent cardinal directions due to environmental clues, so they made up labels to distinguish each direction.

They could’ve switched the names for East and North, then we’d be calling Polaris the East Star, or saying that the Sun rises from the North.

Anonymous 0 Comments

They knew from watching the Sun, which always rises in the east and sets in the west. North is the direction you get from turning 90 degrees to the left from where the Sun rises. South, you turn 90 degrees to the right from where the Sun rises.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s worth noting that most of Europe “Oriented” their maps: had them facing so that East was “up” and West was “down”. This only changed once the globe started to be relevant – starting in the 1500s.