We Know the Way: The Art of Polynesian Wayfinding
July 10, 2017 12:16 AM   Subscribe

How did the Polynesians sail the Pacific 3,000 years ago, without GPS or even sextants or compasses? The Polynesian Voyaging Society and its ship, the Hōkūleʻa, have set out to answer that question through research, oral history, and practical experimentation. Learn the star compass; know your winds and currents; read the swells; look for clouds and birds; forecast the weather; and estimate your position.

Make sure you know which stars set together at which latitudes and practice practice practice; study voyages diligently with your teacher; provision your canoe wisely; learn to build a good canoe; make charts for those who come after you (more, yet more, still more); only with these skills can you sail from Hawai'i to Aotearoa to Rapa Nui.

And only then might you have a Pwo, and be made a master navigator, like Mau Piailug.

Watch some examples. Or watch some Moana.

Previously Hokule'a, previously wayfinding, previously navigators, previously Mau Piailug, previously where they went.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (19 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
These are really fascinating articles. It sounds like the key element is not so much the top level navigational techniques - but more the acknowledgement that these are hard to follow and that mistakes will be made. The traditional navigators seem to have an acceptance that they will get lost and a willingness to how to address that without panicking.

Orienteers use a technique called "aiming off" when navigating roughly, for example: if you are looking to find the gate in a long stone wall then, rather aiming to where you think the gate is (and then not knowing which way to scan when an error causes you to miss it) - you aim to aim well to the left of it in the knowledge that you should turn right when you reach the wall to find the target.

The "Box" technique sounds similar: if you are looking for a tiny target like an isolated atoll then you start out by trying just to hit the island group that lies closes to the atoll - you aim to be sure you are approaching it from a particular direction - and you look for the sea birds, from about 40 miles out - to give you confirmation that you are on the right course. Once you have the larger target it becomes easier to find the smaller one.
posted by rongorongo at 1:10 AM on July 10, 2017 [20 favorites]

Let's not forget testicular navigation.

"To get a feeling for what the wayfinder is doing all this time with his testicles, it helps to understand ocean swells. These enormous formations are powered by distant storms and steady trade winds and shouldn’t be confused with surface waves which change direction as the local wind shifts. Swells march in consistent ranks across thousands of miles. The swell entertaining surfers in Honolulu is generated by winds south of New Zealand. If you can read the shape of a swell you can tell the direction and strength of the current beneath it, and this is critical because if you don’t know what the current is doing you can steer a perfect course and still get lost. The wayfinder reads the swell by sitting cross-legged and nearly naked on the bottom of his all-vegetable-matter canoe and feeling it in his testicles."
posted by fairmettle at 2:01 AM on July 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

Did they use Haidinger's brush like the Vikings?
posted by miyabo at 2:44 AM on July 10, 2017

Or maybe they also had sunstone?
posted by miyabo at 2:46 AM on July 10, 2017

Excellent post. Came here to add testicular navigation! Although I love talking to people with alternative history theories, nothing gets my back up like the "Celts discovered New Zealand", "Polynesian = lost tribe of Israel" "The Chinese/Spanish/Vikings were here first". The Polynesian navigation and settlement of the Pacific is the greatest story of exploration bar none in our history.
posted by analoghotdog at 4:24 AM on July 10, 2017 [16 favorites]

Vaka Moana Voyages of the Ancestors is a book on the settlement of the Polynesian and Micronesian islands. It goes into detail about what we know of the navigation techiniques as well as looking at the archealogical records of each island groups.

I grew fascinated in the differences between all the Polynesian languages and what I know of Maori after visiting Tahiti where there are vahine instead of wahine and Umara rather than Kumara. Hello is Ia ora na not Kia ora, waka are now vaka. I love learning about language shifts like that and what the variations between the different languages tell us about the different conditions each group of settlers faced.
posted by poxandplague at 4:35 AM on July 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

posted by sdrawkcab at 4:46 AM on July 10, 2017 [13 favorites]

A good book that touches on this subject is Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator, by Joan Druett.
posted by texorama at 5:14 AM on July 10, 2017

Mod note: A few deleted. Sorry, but sort of jumping off immediately into a profound derail, unless I'm really missing something in the post itself. If so, let me know.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:28 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

And another previously on navigation and polynesian wayfinding. In the book John Huth explains a lot of these feats (the star compass, how the swell patterns form and how can they be detected, crash course in meteorology, etc..). Many of the topics are touched in this longread.
posted by kmt at 6:39 AM on July 10, 2017

That Moana song is still in heavy rotation in my house - I wonder if some of these links might be amenable to a 5 year old and a 9 year old.
posted by RedOrGreen at 7:27 AM on July 10, 2017

The Polynesian navigation and settlement of the Pacific is the greatest story of exploration bar none in our history.

It really is. They colonized Easter Island! A thousand miles from just about anywhere. Essentially every Pacific island with a fresh water supply and enough land to support a community got settled.
posted by tavella at 8:27 AM on July 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I feel like every museum in Hawaii has at least one exhibit on Polynesian navigation techniques, and that's still not enough to get across the point of just how sophisticated and skillful the Polynesian navigators were.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:34 AM on July 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's worth noting how important the Hōkūleʻa was for the Hawaiian Renaissance and Hawaiian identity. Before scholars and the PVS did their work the prevailing theory was "unlucky savages blown off course on a raft". (Which on the face of it is absurd, but there it is). The idea that Polynesians deliberately explored, sent out colony ships, and maintained trade networks over thousands of miles of open ocean was hard for people to accept. Now we know better. I second the recommendation of the book Vaka Moana if you want a smart scholarly-but-readable treatment of recent understanding of Polynesian voyaging. In addition to navigating, there's a great chapter on settlement patterns and several on boat design.

The Hōkūleʻa made her return to Hawaiʻi after completing a round-the-world trip and judging from the photos the entire state turned up to welcome her back. A friend of mine was on the water in a canoe for it and said the event was pure magic, a highlight of his life.
posted by Nelson at 8:46 AM on July 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

I can't get enough of this - thanks for the post, and thanks to other people dropping links in here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:16 AM on July 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

What a great post! Just came in here to say that I finally saw a real Polynesian stick map, in Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg, Germany. These objects are truly magical.
posted by ouke at 4:01 PM on July 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

"I wonder if some of these links might be amenable to a 5 year old and a 9 year old."

My kids were interested in this link that explains general principles with pictures, and then some of the Hōkūleʻa links that explain in more detail. They were definitely like, "oooooh, that's what Moana was learning in the movie!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:29 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is so cool. I just watched Moana for the first time the other night, and that sort of gives me something to tie this to.

I kind of want to quit my job and go learn to be a wayfinder, but I'd settle for a really good novel about Polynesian wayfinders that gets me in the headspace. (Amazon shows me lots of travel and history books, several mythology books, some gross-seeming colonialist erotica... Melville and Heyerdahl .. the thing I want may not yet exist).
posted by bunderful at 5:55 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I could imagine a fun sci-fi novel with FTL travel inspired by Polynesian navigation. Then again Dune's Guildsmen sort of did that already.
posted by Nelson at 5:58 PM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

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