Part 1: How fauna and flora shaped the human mind.

Georges Hattab
Jul 24 · 11 min read

TTocean, lagoons, and rivers provided the peoples of all continents many resources — not least the enrichment of their imagination. From the legends describing the birth of islands pulled out of the waters and separated from the sky by the gods in Hawaii and New Zealand to the primordial crocodile of the Middle Sepik in New Guinea, everything originates from water. The interplay between man, land, and water throughout different cultures, allowed for the emergence of tools, particular geometry, and ornamentation.

Our relationship with nature fashioned how we perceive the world. In this first installment of a 3-part series, we will voyage through various cultures and how nature influenced the human mind, ultimately influencing our design choices.

China’s Poyang Lake. Permanent areas of water can be seen in blue. Pink shows areas where water is found less often. European Commission. Joint Research Centre, 2016

Value in patterns

In Oceania, cultural exchange from missionaries caused art and ornamentation to evolve. Shown below is a patchwork or tivaevae. The art of patchwork has an important cultural dimension in the Cook Islands. Maintained in families, these fabrics perpetuate a long female textile tradition and are objects of value and exchange. They are put into circulation at special events and are used more daily in homes or churches. Techniques and materials from Europe, i.e. stitching and cotton, are comparable to the visual efficiency shown in the mats and bark fabrics or tapa. Shown below are two wedding tapa, made in the 19th century. Indeed, both show a complex juxtaposition of patterns and colors.

Left: Tivaevae from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. 20th century. RIGHT: Tapa from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 19th century

Across the world, art has a specific purpose and a particular meaning. The bark paintings found in Australia by Karel Kupka are like contemporary paintings from the central desert. They illustrate the refinement and creativity of Aboriginal societies. In southeast Asia, the fineries reveal an individual’s social status. Let’s explore some aspects of human and abstract forms and materials.

Bark painting by Karel Kupka. National Museum of Australia

Voyaging and navigation

The sea and rivers are paths that are frequently traveled. The navigation skills of inhabitants of islands like New Guinea or Samoa reveal an intimate knowledge of sea currents, the winds, the stars, and the seasonal movements of animal species. Mastering this knowledge has enabled them to make long ocean crossings.

Ammassalik wooden maps. Topografisk atlas Grønland. Kongelige Danske Geografiske Selskab, 2000

In Greenland, the Inuit used hand-sized wooden maps to navigate the coastal waters. These portable maps were carved out of driftwood and represented the coastlines in a continuous line: up the coast on one side of the wood, down the coast on the other. The three wooden maps are shown at left, and they correspond to the coastlines as indicated by the arrows. The wooden map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the wooden map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side around to the other. The wooden map to the left shows the peninsula between the Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartika-jik fjords. It is believed that these tactile maps were passed down from one generation to another to navigate the waters.

Recreated seagoing dugout canoe made in the Haida tradition. (link)
LEFT: Stern shaped to facilitate the passage of water (hydrodynamics) at the back of a canoe. RIGHT: Kanu Heck or (waka) are key objects of Maori culture, evocative of ancestral know-how that facilitated the settlement of the “island of the long white cloud” (Aotearoa in Maori), the entire 800 and 1250 of our era. Sculpted in an openwork design to reduce the wind’s grip typical of 18th-century Maori art. It features spiraled elements such as cosmic elements, water, and young fern leaf, as well as characters from mythology, recognizable by the features of their faces and their hybrid bodies. Museum Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris. France.

To this day, canoes, with their emblematic prows, sterns, and paddles, play a key role in expressing the identity of each community. As vehicles for the living, the dead, and even the gods, canoes evoked voyages between different worlds. Once, they were used to wage wars, now they are only used for traveling between islands, trading, and fishing. However, men not only relied on their own knowledge but also relied on the behavior of other living beings.

Three magnificent adult male Frigatebirds. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Throughout the Pacific, birds have and still guide sailors. They reveal the presence of land and schools of fish. Fishermen from the Salomon islands observed frigates catching bonitos. Symbolically, the bird is also a formidable hunter, fast when it flies down on its prey, able to survive storms and find its way back to the sea — qualities that are useful for navigation on the high seas.

Settlement and community

The process of establishing a settlement is often at the mercy of geography. Deltas and estuaries are a famous example, where the river outlets flow into seas and oceans. They are often areas of great ecological richness, where agriculture, fishing, trading, and urbanization are all in competition. Characterized by a large variety of fauna and flora, some of today’s large cities are entirely or partially resting on natural deltas. This is the example of Bangladesh, whilst Tokyo, Calcutta, Yangon, and Alexandria are located on the border of a delta. Indeed, deltas are a fine example of nature guiding our design choices in terms of settlement and development. Naturally, a diverse and rich environment is attractive.

Satellite photo of the Ganges Delta at India and Bangladesh © Planet Observer

Nature and polarization

Sami in Norway load supplies on reindeer sleds for their migration to Arnoy. Photograph by George F. Mobley

Another great example of nature fashioning our way is observed by the polarization of settlements in Siberia. In the South the taiga, the subarctic swathe of the northern forest, and in the North the tundra with its sparse vegetation. Scattered throughout vast expanses of land, both Siberian settlements are all principally hunters and fishermen. Further north, in areas where grasses, lichens, and mosses grow, reindeer farming is more developed and human survival is credited to reindeer domestication. Reindeer have been in people’s thoughts constantly and inspired many artworks. Their history is now being seen in parallel with human history.

LEFT: “Muitalus sámiid birra” by Johan Turi, 1909 RIGHT: E.W. Borg alphabet book, published in 1859 in Finnish-Inari Sami

Yet another example of such a polarization extends across four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The Sámi people live in the far North of Europe and have never had a sovereign state of their own. There are two main types of Sami, the nomadic people, and the sea people. On the northern mountain plains, the nomadic Sami have herded reindeer for centuries. To the sea, the Sami lived off farming and fisheries.

Such a polarization created a significant cultural diversity, visually distinct by the use of animal hide, reindeer bones for tools, and craftsmanship through maintaining their knitted colorful gákti jackets. The colors, patterns and the jewelry of these jackets reveal where a person is from, their marital status, and sometimes patterns and colors can be specified for a family.

Examples of Sámi embroidery and beadwork patterns (link)

Spirits and men

Humans made use of a variety of forms and materials to connect with or pay homage to spiritual entities. Many works bear witness to a common ancestry between gods, ancestors, and people.

Throughout different cultures, the visual manifestation of the spiritual dimension ranged from (but was not limited to) the repetition of a certain geometry, the usage of particular colors, and even the adoption of symbols relating to the natural world.

In Oceania, especially in Polynesia, ornaments testify of elaborate techniques. Sculptures of transcendental beings, heroes, or divinities are often detailed by the repetition of naturalistic motifs and figures or stylized patterns such as zigzags (Details of such sculptures are shown below). Materials such as shell, sperm whale ivory, ephemeral flower, and leaf jewelry, or permanent tattooing testify of complex associations to seduction, sexuality, hierarchy, war and the spiritual world.

Detail representation of the filiation between gods, ancestors, and people

For example, tattoos are a work in progress set in time and skin. In Oceania, the tattoos have their origins in antiquity, their designs in mythology and are a reflection of the social status of the wearer. Apart from showing the social rank, it is believed that they serve as a protective shell. Tattoo artists were considered highly qualified experts: a combination of artists, doctors and sometimes even priests. These experts worked with small bone or wooden combs, which are placed on the skin and then masterfully tapped with a hammer. The result was a neat and precise line of punctures that the artists rubbed with a special dye. A part of the ink settles under the skin marking the wearer for good. To echo the aforementioned value of ornamentation and patterns, each pattern and line referred to fauna or flora in their immediate environment.

Polynesian tattoo patterns found across Oceania.

In the left figure, the top pattern represents a new sprout for spiritual rebirth. Some observers believe that it was originally a woman’s tattoo representing the young shoots that gush out around the main taro plant. This W-shaped renewal refers to the harvest of sprouts. Next, two maritime symbols repeat above the water surface: seabirds (top) and frigates (bottom). Then, the triangular shapes depict shark teeth which were often worn by warriors to instill fear into enemies. The next two patterns represent cloud shapes that symbolize uncertain or dark periods of the tattooed person. Next is one of many forms of unity or community, people holding hands in a continuum. Last, a star that was identified on the wrist or thumb of young Mangaian men working as mineworkers on the island of Makatea towards the 1940s.

Despite the pain and the high cost of summoning the services of such experts, each man’s ambition was to get a tattoo all over his body. However, very few achieved it and most Polynesians had only a few small patterns on their hands and feet.

Different infill patterns in Ta Moko tattoos or Maori tattoos.

In New Zealand, the patterns of the Maori people display a range of visual complexity. Depending on the person they rely on four to five design elements, with infill patterns as a basic feature to create a Maori or the Ta Moko tattoo. From top to bottom, each pattern is reported: Pakati is dog skin cloak and represents strength and courage, Hikuaua refers to a region of New Zealand, prosperity, or mackerel tail, Unaunahi is fish scales depicts a sign of health and abundance, Ahu ahu mataroa is a sign of physical prowess and challenge, Taratarekae represents whale teeth.

The visual complexity of Ta Moko tattoos is reached with curvilinear designs that reference a divine legend and can have a range of other legitimate meanings, such as family (physical lives), prosperity, travel, strength, career path, and so on. Each could be used as a design element for a tattoo piece. With a trained eye, one may read and better see the person as each tattoo represents an individual. Maori chiefs wear their tattoos with pride. Stories tell of an old chief found once drawing his son’s tattoo pattern, and then staring at it affectionately as if it had been the young man’s portrait or spirit.

The Maori people consider the head to be the most sacred part of the body, the most popular kind of Maori tattoo was the facial tattoo. LEFT: Historic Ta Moko image. Source unknown. RIGHT: Ngapuhi Maori elder Kingi Taurua’s traditional facial tattoo. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Body ornamentation evolved in different regions of the world in distinct and peculiar ways, however, there were always social and symbolic dimensions. They referred to social hierarchy and natural actors, respectively. This parallelism is seen in Africa, but the way of adorning the skin is different.

Symbolism evolved regionally, examples range from ancient Egypt with hieroglyphs, to Native American pictorials. Below an Ojibwa music board depicts the animated nature of the song with color and symbols of fauna and flora.

“Meda songs. Pictorial notation of an Ojibwa music board. Original illustration on birchwood slab, collected in northern Great Lakes area, ca. 1820. From The Democratic Art: Pictures for A 19th-Century America, Chromolithography.”
The medicine wheel or Sacred Circle/Hoop, originated from Native American traditions. It is based on the Sioux concept that everything in the universe is intertwined.

A famous example in the Americas is the medicine wheel or the sacred hoop. It has been used by generations of various Native American tribes for healing and to learn about their relationship to the world. However, different tribes or nations interpret the wheel differently; indeed, depictions show different rotations of the wheel. Typically, a wheel comprises each of the cardinal directions (East, South, West, and North) and is represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, respectively. These directions may also represent the stages of life (birth, youth, adulthood, death), the seasons of the year (spring, summer, winter, fall), the aspects of life (spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical), the elements of nature (fire, air, water, earth), the animals of the plains (eagle, bear, wolf, buffalo), or even ceremonial plants (tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, cedar).

The four colored Sami flag

In northern Europe, the Sami flag is in four colors: blue, red, yellow and green. Symbolically, the circle on the flag derives from the sun, in red, and appears on many shaman drums. Whereas, the blue half of the circle represents the moon.

In India, cosmic diagrams or adhaidvipa highlight a spiritual dimension in which the cosmos is aligned by its concentric circles to earthly references. In the example diagram below, from Rajasthan made in the 19th century, the concentric circles indicate the continents and the oceans that compose the universe according to the classical Jain cosmology. In its center, the terrestrial continent or jambudvipa is presented and aligned with mount Meru, a mythical mountain that supports the different levels of the world.

Adhaidvipa from India, Rajasthan. End of 19th century. Painting on cotton canvas.

SSeeing through the eye of the beholder is relevant. Nature has influenced humans in settling and forming communities. Our past interactions with the land (and each other) influenced the way we think and conceive novel aspects in our present world.

In the grammar of many languages in Oceania, the past is ahead of you and the future is behind you. In this view, the past is the frame of reference in which, one builds upon it to progress into a future of which nothing is known.

Let’s meet again in the next installment to provide an additional frame of reference to past cultures.


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Thanks to Jason Forrest

Georges Hattab

Written by

Postdoctoral researcher, creative writer, sci-fi fan, and fervent hiker.


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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