Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


All at sea
August 31, 2007 7:05 PM   Subscribe

How did the Polynesians navigate without maps? And where did they get to? [Previously]
posted by djgh (28 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Where'd they get to? Sadly, most died from medical experimentation. They were captured offshore and subjected to noxious chemicals; their liquid waste products were then harvested.

They can make it chemically these days, so few people know about the terrible secret behind polyurethane.
posted by Malor at 7:23 PM on August 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


There is an amazing book whose ostensible subject is navigation on American warships, called Cognition in the Wild, which devotes many pages to traditional navigation techniques in the Pacific.

I would also commend the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre as a trove of interesting online reading in this area.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:24 PM on August 31, 2007


One of the coolest things about going to school in Hawaii are the required Hawaiian studies classes. I actually failed the first one I took because I'm a lazy bastard, so I got to take two of them.

The most interesting thing about traditional navigation, for me, is that the islands themselves actually have a pretty big footprint. Once you start seeing birds or changes in wave patterns, its pretty easy to hone in on an island, thus expanding their initial target significantly (not just trying to get to a tiny point on the map).

To this day, actually, Nainoa Thompson still captains a wa'a (double hulled canoe) that uses only traditional means of navigation called the Hokule'a. There aren't any more big trees left in Hawaii to make canoes out of, so they were imported from Alaska I think. The Hokule'a is always in the news here whenever it goes somewhere or comes back (last one was Japan I think, Tahiti before that).

More interesting is where Nainoa Thompson learned his traditional navigation techniques. My teacher said that he was camped out in front of Mau Piailug's home in Satawal for a week, just helping them with their daily chores trying to convince Mau to teach him before he finally decided to. He is truly the badass of the pacific.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 7:31 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


You say wa'a, I say waka.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:38 PM on August 31, 2007


GooseOnTheLoose: Exactly my line of thought. Every time the Hōkūleʻa sets off on a voyage, I'm a mixture of excitement and anxiety. To think that people ever had the confidence to set out in a hand-hewn vessel, guided by a single mortal soul who knew how to navigate without instruments, not even knowing if you've packed enough food and water to survive, is beyond my comprehension. And to think that maybe a handful of people alive today still hold this knowledge... its an inconceivable loss.

Here's some more about non-instrument navigation as employed by the Hōkūleʻa crew. And here's their blog on 2007's voyage, with pictures and a whole buncha educational linkage.
posted by krippledkonscious at 7:39 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


No one knows who they were, or what they were doing...
but their legacy remains...
posted by yhbc at 7:47 PM on August 31, 2007


Some of those stick-charts would look mighty fine up on a wall in my place...

also, navigation to a tall islands in the Pacific is greatly aided by their effect on clouds streaming through the area.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 7:57 PM on August 31, 2007


More on Mau.
posted by krippledkonscious at 7:59 PM on August 31, 2007


I saw a stick chart in the basement of some museum near UW in Seattle, and didn't realize what it was at first. After seeing the label ("Polynesian Stick Map", probably) I had a serious a-ha moment. Very cool.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:06 PM on August 31, 2007


I wonder if the tourist-class stick-charts are actually a map of anything or if they're just pleasant-looking geometrical patterns?

Heywood - if you get one, get a real one of some body of water near you!
posted by porpoise at 8:09 PM on August 31, 2007


Every time I went to the Chicago Field Museum as a lad, I would take a crack at the Polynesian Migration Simulator game in the museum's Oceanian exhibit. If you played the game realistically, you would "win" by sailing your people from the undersized initial island to a slightly larger island with better resources. But if you loaded up your outrigger with enough yams and ignored the proffered directions, your little migrants could end up colonizing Australia, Japan, Mesoamerica, or Antarctica.
posted by Iridic at 8:13 PM on August 31, 2007


It's sad that an impressive human skill is dwindling and I greatly admire those who act as wardens of the skill to pass on to successive generations. Here's to Thompson one day getting an apprentice who hangs around his place doing chores for him.

But, for example, navigating through the traffic grid of a major metropolitan city in a private motor vehicle is - arguably - an impressive human skill.

In the far-post apocalypse (former metropolitan areas have been picked clean for decades and are now major structural hazards), how useful would that skill be?
posted by porpoise at 8:14 PM on August 31, 2007


I'd imagine they used stars to navigate. You know, those things we could see if only we weren't so very afraid of every little shadow that we feel the need to light up our cities as if it were Christmas every freaking night?

Seriously, people. The dark is not so bad. Your eyes adjust.
posted by Eideteker at 8:27 PM on August 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'd imagine they used stars to navigate. You know, those things we could see if only we weren't so very afraid of every little shadow that we feel the need to light up our cities as if it were Christmas every freaking night?

Longitude.
posted by vacapinta at 8:51 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Navigation by the gods. Nobody survives to disagree with the handful of people for whom it works every time.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:52 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


Eideteker; the stars are only an approximation (basically, North axial pole or South axial pole, depending on which hemisphere you're at - and those two are pretty useless when you're close to the equator) without having a very reliable timepiece (different stars will be in different quadrants of the sky depending on what time it was).

That, and not knowing how fast you're travelling...

European oceanic explorers around the time of Chris Columbus could tell how far North or South (Longitude) they were, but they were pretty much guessing when it came to figuring out where they were latitudinally (East-West).

I'm a little bit surprised that currents don't change drastically depending on whether it's day or ngiht. I guess the analogy would be a blind man driving a car based on the sound the tires make on the ground...

There'd probably be less screamiing driving late at night.
posted by porpoise at 8:55 PM on August 31, 2007


Well, Eideteker clearly didn't read any of the links, because knowledge of currents and signs of land, as represented in the stick charts, are what help solve the longitude problem.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:02 PM on August 31, 2007


I'm sorry, but when did MetaFilter become about the links?

(comedic derails aside, I enjoyed this post!)
posted by Eideteker at 9:07 PM on August 31, 2007


But did they have enough stick-maps?
posted by b1tr0t at 9:26 PM on August 31, 2007


The Polynesians seemed to have done OK without maps.

It makes me feel better for the US Americans.
posted by mazola at 10:21 PM on August 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


The thing that has always amazed me about stick charts is that they are an axiomatic system. The navagators learn the general way waves and currents reflect and then apply that general knowledge to a specific situation. I read about them for the first time in Mathematics Elsewhere and was blown away. When I was at the Museum of Natural History in NYC recently, I spent ten minutes just studying the two stick charts they have.

In other words, this post rocked.
posted by Hactar at 11:04 PM on August 31, 2007


Navigation by the gods. Nobody survives to disagree with the handful of people for whom it works every time.

Hah, I used to have a friend with an incredible sense of direction who referred to it as "Jah guidance". He never looked at a map or followed signs but found his way by magic.

But seriously, those techniques are repeatable, testable and teachable. There is no luck/survivorship mistake here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:37 PM on August 31, 2007


And I thought paper maps were impossible to fold up properly.
posted by Mercaptan at 4:45 AM on September 1, 2007


nice post.

But for a couple of stick maps, New Zealand would have a crappy rugby team (OK the wallabies would be a bit worse off as well).
posted by wilful at 4:51 AM on September 1, 2007


I spent some time in the Marshall Islands, and was told that the old stick maps aren't accurate any longer due to weather changes.
posted by craniac at 7:09 AM on September 1, 2007


Really neat post, thanks for sharing.
posted by vito90 at 11:18 AM on September 1, 2007


This is cool.

I remember staring at one of those migration maps in the museum in Auckland and thinking two things:

1. Man, they found Hawaii. That's so impressive.

2. If they found Hawaii, how did they miss Australia. I realise that the wind is probably wrong or something, but Australia is pretty darn big to have been overlooked for so long.
posted by kjs4 at 8:30 PM on September 2, 2007


2. If they found Hawaii, how did they miss Australia. I realise that the wind is probably wrong or something, but Australia is pretty darn big to have been overlooked for so long.

Obviously they lacked magnetic boots
posted by b1tr0t at 9:31 PM on September 2, 2007


« Older Gorilla marketing!...   |   Qaraami music is from Somalia.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments