Thursday, October 19, 2006

Using Stars and Waves to Navigate: Traditional Navigation in the Pacific Islands

While randomly browsing throught the library at Melbourne Uni I came across a book I'd last seen some ten years ago. The book had originally captured my imagination when I had randomly come across it in San Francisco while researching ancient and traditional knowledge of astronomy.

The book is about the traditional navigations systems of various Pacific Island peoples: Micronesians, Polynesians and so on. Remember that these people colonized almost the entirel Pacific with no compasses, and no maps!

One of the most fascinating ways these people had of navigating is the use of swell patterns both to determine general direction (with regard to the overall swell direction) and to the finding of land via the pattern of waves refracting around and reflecting off islands. In the Marshall islands, this knowledge is codified in "stick charts", which are palm leaf spines bound together to represent swell patterns and sea-shells to represent islands.

In addition to complex star navigation there were also a number of ways of identifying in which way land lay, even if one was lost. These involved subtle knowledge of cloud patterns, the way light reflects off sand and lagoons on clouds, the directions certain birds fly in the morning and at night, and so on.

I've put together a list of books on the subject. The ones by David Lewis read almost like ethnographic novels. He travelled extensively across the Pacific with a number of traditional navigators.

The Voyaging Stars: Secrets of the Pacific Island Navigators. David Lewis. 1978

We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. Edited by David Lewis and Derek Oulton. 1972

Pacific Navigation and Voyaging. Edited by Ben R. Finney, 1976.

There are several online articles on the subject on the Ethnomathematics Digital Library Site at

I've linked some here:

Marshall Island Navigational Charts
by William Davenport (1960)

Astronomy and navigation in Polynesia and Micronesia
by Kjell Akerblom (1968)

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