The Wayback Machine -
Art of the Navigators

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Tracing the earliest settlement of the Pacific, scientists conclude from studies from artefacts (particularly a widespread archaic type of pottery called Lapita ware) that it was launched somewhere in the islands of Southeast Asia. Through the millenniums, migrations swept generally eastward across the ocean, but ultimately the waves spread towards every compass point - as far north as Hawaii, as far south as New Zealand, even westward again to the so-called Polynesian outliers in Micronesia and Melanesia.

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The obscure people who made Lapita pottery reached Tonga before 1000 B.C. There, and in Samoa, they settled down and developed the language and culture we now call Polynesian. From its cradle in the Tonga-Samoa region, Polynesian culture began its spread over the Pacific about the time of Christ. When Europeans arrived some fifteen centuries later, they found Polynesians occupying a vast triangle that covers almost a fourth of the Pacific.

Indeed, although the void of written language or any instruments, guided solely by their censors, the early Polynesians ranged over an area bigger than all the Soviet Union and China combined. For years, scholars had debated whether this vast area was settled mostly by accident - by wind-blown castaways, by people wandering blindly - or by navigational skill of the first magnitude.

Later studies revealed that the latter was the case. Following is an introduction to the navigational techniques used by the early navigators.

In addition to their more advanced navigational techniques, the early navigators used some simple facts as an aid to their navigation. The first of these was the occurrence of trade wind clouds over invisible islands over the horizon. What the navigator could see was the reflection of the island in the under surface of the cloud. This green reflection was an obvious sign to the navigator that there was an island or atoll over the horizon.

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Low lying cloud formation above an atoll.

The second simple navigational technique adopted by our forefathers was to follow the movements of the birds. Such birds as the frigate bird and the tern roost ashore and then feed at sea. Dawn and dusk flight paths pointed the way to land.

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When travelling greater distances, the early navigators steered by the stars. They directed their canoes towards a particular star in the constellation Leo and when that star moved too high and too far to the left, they followed the next star that rose from the same point on the horizon. Then the next and after that the next and so on until dawn broke.

The star-compass technique is still practised over much of the Pacific. What is more impressive however is the island navigator's uncanny skill to steer by wave motion - swells reflected from islands beyond the horizons. The skilled navigator comes to recognise the profile and characteristic of particular ocean swells as he would the faces of his friends, but he judges their direction more by feel than by sight.

The complex patterns produced by swell reflected and refracted among the islands are recognised by navigators throughout Oceania. The Marshall Islanders illustrate the process using stick charts as seen below.

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An early stick chart from Micronesia shows the waves
and currents around the islands which are represented by shells.

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The skills of the navigator are part of our Micronesian and Polynesian heritage. It is the last legacy of uncounted generations of the great captains of all mankind. They have learned to steer by star horizon courses, by cloud formations, bird zones and the wave patterns broken by islands. In many areas, they enjoy greater prestige than the local village chiefs. They were men of rare, unusual and impressive talent and skills. It is to be hoped that these are not lost to future generations.

Polynesian Voyaging
The Navigators of Oceania
click here Jane's Polynesia Home Page
   click here Jane's Micronesia Home Page
  click here Jane's Melanesia Home Page
 click here Jane's Oceania Home Page    
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(E-mail: -- Rev. 1st February 2005)