“To navigate, you must be brave and you must remember.” - Mau Piailug
October 16, 2014 7:48 AM   Subscribe

... imagine for a moment that you didn’t have to rely on maps to navigate the unknown—that your memory, instincts, and knowledge of the environment sufficed. This is the art of Polynesian wayfinding. An article by Lily Bui, a researcher at MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, summarizing how Polynesians managed to reliably navigate between more than a thousand islands in 10 million square miles of water, an area slightly larger than the size of Canada, with limited instruments and great memories for details.

For more information, visit University of Hawaii's Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions website, and the Polynesian Voyaging Society's website, Hōkūle‘a. You can also read about and see more examples of stick charts, which are legible only by the specific navigators who constructed them, but some shared their secrets.

If you'd like to read even more, East is a Big Bird*: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll by Thomas Gladwin (*Google books preview)

PBS produced Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey, and has an accompanying website.

For a more interactive look, Exporatorium's Never Lost is a keen website (note: autoplaying music).

* 1000 Oceans, an obituary piece for Mau Piailug, a Master Navigator from the tiny island of Satawal.
* Star Power, another post on Polynesian wayfinding.
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the excellent collection of resources on a fascinating topic! It's only recently we really appreciated the Polynesian navigation capability. Navigating hundreds of miles of open water from island to island, deliberately and in both directions to maintain trade networks, hundreds of years before Europeans managed to reliably sail out of site of land. This feat is doubly remarkable because much of the journeying was done out of view of the North Star, so without the most convenient and simple way to determine orientation and latitude.

Another excellent resource on the topic is Vaka Moana, a coffee-table sized book. I particularly like the chapter by Geoff Irwin. One of the fascinating things he points out is how the expansion pattern of Polynesians indicates a deliberate process of exploration to find new islands, setting off against the wind and currents to guarantee a speedy return when supplies were running low.
posted by Nelson at 8:00 AM on October 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

The altitude of the star can be measured using the hand stretched out in front of the eyes, with shoulders squared. Different configurations of the hand (e.g., a fist, a span, two fingers, three fingers, etc.) can be calibrated to distances (degrees) in the sky.

Imagine doing this on a canoe rocking on a swell, or in a storm, and still finding Hawaii from Tahiti. Amazing.
posted by rtha at 8:17 AM on October 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Imagine doing this on a canoe rocking on a swell, or in a storm, and still finding Hawaii from Tahiti. Amazing.

And on top of it, deprived of sleep. From the main article:
On each boat crew, a designated navigator sits, foregoing any type of distraction—even sleep—in order to interpret and memorize all external conditions such as wind and sea current, changes in boat direction, etc. Mau Piailug, Micronesian wayfinder jokes that if you ever want to spot a wayfinder, “Look for the red eyes.”
My memory for (and attention to) details is so far from this level, but I wonder how much you could reshape yourself by making this your way of life.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:28 AM on October 16, 2014

Imagine doing this on a canoe rocking on a swell, or in a storm, and still finding Hawaii from Tahiti. Amazing.

No kidding. Right up there, if not well beyond, the navigation of Worsley in the James Caird. Because while they did have the southern seas to contend with they at least had compasses and other, more modern, instruments not to mention, ya'know, maps that were comprehensible to more than the maker.

But back on topic, I guess I was just naive in assuming the seafarers of this area and time were mostly happenstance travelers or, at best, only traveling very short distances. Or travelers of necessity that were on an 'expand or starve' mission or, perhaps, a religious journey of sorts. Tahiti to Hawaii clocks at nearly 3,000 miles, about the same distance as Tahiti to Easter Island* coincidentally.... I still find it incomprehensible that folks may have been making a journey of this scale intentionally and/or with any semblance of frequency. Not that I'm belittling their skill one whit, it is altogether a very impressive heritage that never fails to impress when it pops up on my radar.

*Which was/is one of the more remote places on the planet and, correct me if I'm wrong, was uncommonly isolated after it's initial native settlement as well.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:30 AM on October 16, 2014

Re: Easter Island's isolation - this Wikipedia article on the Rapa Nui people, Easter Island's native inhabitants, indicates that there were probably a few points/ periods of contact beyond the island, but not a continuous trade of goods and culture.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:45 AM on October 16, 2014

People may enjoy reading Cognition in the Wild which compares navigation techniques in the US navy with Melanesian stick-chart navigation. A great book.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:00 PM on October 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

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