New Guinea Natives Navigate By Valleys and Mountains


Yupno speakers in Papua New Guinea are the first known people to imagine slopes to orient themselves inside flat homes. (Nat Geo News)

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Well-kept houses dot the beautiful landscape of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Photograph by Jodi Cobb, National Geographic
Well-kept houses dot the beautiful landscape of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.
Photograph by Jodi Cobb, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Yupno uses words such as “upvalley and “downvalley” to describe flat surfaces. Why do linguists and anthropologists think this way of describing spatial relationships developed in northeastern Papua New Guinea? Take a look at the surface elevation of Papua New Guinea on today’s MapMaker Interactive map for some help.
    • The Yupno language probably reflects the terrain that surrounds Yupno speakers. Linguists call this “microworld topography.”
      • The Yupno Valley is a part of the Finisterre mountain range, and “people must carry food, water, and supplies along sloped paths, so walking uphill and downhill is an everyday activity.” Yupno speakers not only navigate using the slopes that surround their village, project the “microworld” of slopes onto flat interior spaces. For example:
        • “Traditional houses in Gua, a Yupno village, have one door and a central fireplace running down the length of the main living area. The houses sit in a valley made up of forested hillsides and grassy inclines, with some of the buildings facing uphill and some downhill . . . In this region of Papua New Guinea, a river runs through the valley on a gentle slope, and the team believes that Yupno speakers mentally map this river onto to the central fireplace and construe it as running ‘downvalley’ towards the door. The steep slopes that run perpendicular to the river become the ‘uphill’ slopes from the fire to the side walls.”


  • Yupno speakers use upslope-downslope language to describe spatial relationships as well as another abstract concept. What is it?
    • Time. In Yupno, “uphill” words correspond to the future, while “downhill” words correspond to the past.


  • Do other cultures or linguistic groups use environment-based systems to describe spatial relationships?
    • Yes. The Nat Geo News article cites the example of Bardi speakers, indigenous to the Kimberley region of Australia. Bardi speakers “use the tidal systems as a direction point, so it is ‘with the tide’ or ‘against the tide. But of course,” a researcher reminds us, the tide “changes every six hours, so you really need to know a lot about the environment and a lot about what is going on with the sea.”


  • What kind of language do you use to describe spatial relationships?


  • Do you change the words you use if you are describing spatial relationships on different scales?
    • navigating a classroom?
    • navigating your neighborhood or town?
    • navigating a globe?


  • Do you change the words you use if you’re communicating spatial relationships with different people?
    • a toddler?
    • someone unfamiliar with the area you’re describing?
    • your neighbor?
    • someone returning to your neighborhood after five years?
    • a law-enforcement officer or another person in authority?



Nat Geo: These People Have a Mind-Bending Way to Navigate

Nat Geo: Surface Elevation in Papua New Guinea map

Nat Geo: How do young children learn to read and interpret maps? How can you best support that learning?

(extra credit!) Center for Research in Language: Re-mapping topographic terms indoors: A study of everyday spatial construals in the mountains of Papua New Guinea (2010)

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