Navigation in Ancient Oceania

The Pacific Ocean is so huge that it covers a third of the earth's surface and is larger in area than all of the world's continents put together. When James Cook led the first scientific expeditions to the Pacific in the mid-eighteenth century, he was staggered to discover that small and widely dispersed islands spread over thousands of miles were not only inhabited, but by peoples who spoke essentially the same language. In this way, Polynesia became recognized as the most widespread nation in the world, dispersed over an area that—if shifted to the other side of the world—would simultaneously encompass London, Vladivostok, and the southern tip of India. The islands of Micronesia and Melanesia in the western Pacific, generally closer to the Asian continent, were also inhabited prior to European contact, but by a mixture of different ethnic and linguistic groups.

Ever since 1520, when Ferdinand Magellan sailed west into the unknown ocean from the tip of South America, arriving in the Philippines with a starving crew nearly four months later, Europeans had known of the existence of (as one of Magellan's chroniclers described it) "a sea so vast the human mind can scarcely grasp it" (Beaglehole 1974, p. 109). For another two and a half centuries before Cook's expedition, long-distance trading ships occasionally stumbled upon Pacific islands and to their complete bewilderment found them occupied by thriving communities. Having themselves only recently developed the technology to build ocean-spanning ships, the Europeans were simply unable to comprehend how Stone Age people, traveling in canoes built using stone tools and with no navigational devices, could possibly have got there first.

So how did Polynesian and other Oceanic peoples come to colonize such tiny pieces of land in a vast ocean? The navigators must have explored widely in order to locate them in the first place. They must have been confident of finding them again, in order to bring boatloads of people, tubers, and animals. And they must have been sure of returning repeatedly in order to maintain communications. Ocean-going canoes were large and generally double-hulled or with outriggers. Their sails were woven from pandanus leaves (rather like bulrushes) and their ropes manufactured from coconut husks. Polynesian canoes typically used a distinctive crab-claw-shaped sail, wider at the top than the bottom, which enabled them to catch the wind continuously, even in quite heavy swells. Nonetheless, longer journeys would still have taken several weeks. During the 1960s, it was seriously proposed that the Pacific had been colonized by luck rather than by skill. However, this always begged many questions, such as why people left safe islands and sailed off into the unknown, taking all their possessions with them, unless they were forced; and what proportion of the voyagers (surely large) perished at sea, making no landfall. The idea of accidental colonization was firmly laid to rest by the construction in the 1970s of Hokule'a, a traditional-style Polynesian canoe, reconstructed as authentically as possible and sailed without a compass or any other modern instruments. Between 1975 and 2000, Hokule'a made several successful voyages between the farthest corners of Polynesia.

Polynesia stretches from the Hawaiian islands in the north to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the west and tiny, isolated Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east. The idea that Polynesia was colonized by people drifting westwards from South America, famously championed by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in the 1950s following the successful voyage of the balsa-wood raft Kon Tiki from Peru to the Tuamotus, is completely refuted by a range of archaeological and linguistic evidence. This shows conclusively that Polynesians ultimately derived from south-east Asia. As early as the second milennium b.c.e., peoples characterized by a distinctive type of pottery (Lapita ware) had spread out along the islands of Melanesia to reach the central Pacific islands of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. Distinctively Polynesian characteristics developed here in the central Pacific, and these Polynesians subsequently moved eastward to the Society Islands, Marquesas, and Tuamotus, and finally dispersed to the farther islands. The chronology is far from certain, but the Society Islands and Marquesas had probably been settled by about the year 0, Hawai'i and Rapa Nui by c.e. 400, and Aotearoa by C.E. 900.

One problem remains. The assortment of domestic animals and staple crops dispersed by the Polynesians to their many islands included the sweet potato, which comes from the Andes. It seems almost ludicrous to suppose that—as a one-off occurrence at a remarkably early date, before the main

Polynesian expansion—a canoe managed somehow to travel halfway across the Pacific from central Polynesia and happen across South America, to collect the vital tubers, and to successfully return with them. Surely, some have argued, there must have been more prolonged contact, a period when regular voyaging took place across the Pacific, and when regular contact may even have been made with other parts of the Pacific rim. Others take the view that, since the island societies went on to develop in such different ways, any regular contact between distant groups of islands was relatively short-lived.

Be this as it may, regular long-distance voyages of anything over a few hundred kilometers had essentially vanished by the time of European contact. Nonetheless, we know a remarkable amount about Polynesian navigational astronomy from the survival of various oral traditions, many recorded in the early years after European contact. Polynesian navigators enjoyed special status. One of the most famous contacts made by Cook on his first voyage in the Endeavour was with a Tahitian navigator, Tupaia. Tupaia could name scores of islands in central Polynesia, specifying (with remarkable accuracy) the direction and distance of each. While the practice of traveling these distances had apparently died out, the knowledge of how to do it had remained, as was demonstrated when Tupaia subsequently sailed away with Cook in the Endeavour.

Our fragmentary knowledge of Polynesian and Micronesian navigation techniques owes much to a succession of ethnographers and cultural informants as well as to the experimental voyagers who have researched, and attempted to use, traditional navigation techniques. Their achievement in acquiring and preserving much of what we do know is all the more impressive given that navigational knowledge was often sacred and known only to a very few privileged experts, who were reluctant to reveal it to outsiders. Throughout Oceania, navigators were highly respected people and generally had high social status. Tupaia was a priest, formerly a chief. In Tonga, knowledge of navigation was the preserve of specialist families who had chiefly rank.

Astronomy was crucial in navigation. By day, direction-finding had to depend upon the sun, the winds, currents, and swells. The presence of an island not far beyond the horizon could sometimes be detected from cloud formations or the appearance of certain birds. By night, there were the stars. For relatively short journeys to familiar destinations, one could learn the succession of rising or setting directional stars that marked a desired course. More effectively for general use, the navigator could commit to memory a so-called star compass, a mental image of the rising and setting positions around the horizon of key stars and star groups, some of which would be visible not too far above the horizon at any particular time. One of the best-documented star compasses derives from the Caroline Islands in Micronesia.

Techniques were also needed to determine the current position. From a

Western perspective it seems natural to determine the latitude by estimating the altitude of the relevant celestial pole above the horizon. This is facilitated in the northern hemisphere by the presence of the bright star Polaris close to the pole. Its height above the horizon can be estimated, for example, by holding out a hand at arm's length. Another method is to observe which stars pass across the zenith. Determining one's longitude, on the other hand, is extremely tricky without instruments. But Oceanic navigators did not think in terms of latitude and longitude. Instead, it seems that they employed (what seem to us) highly ingenious and (to our way of thinking) very strange techniques for dead reckoning—determining the absolute distance traveled. This, in combination with a knowledge of the direction of travel, is sufficient to specify the present position.

The colonization of the Pacific was achieved, as far as we know, without any tools apart from the navigator's own body and brain. The only suggestion of the use of what one might call "navigational instruments" comes from Hawai'i, where there is some evidence for the use of hollowed-out gourds as star compasses and sextants, but this is a controversial topic.

Why was the Pacific settled? To European sailors of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, this vast ocean was a terrifying void that had to be crossed out of commercial necessity. Whatever motivation prehistoric peoples had had for setting out across it in no more than dugout canoes was simply unimaginable. The ancient Polynesians and other Oceanic peoples, however, thought very differently. To them, this great sea was the world: "a familiar, life-giving world . . . strewn with fertile islands on which they could settle, plant their taro, bananas, and other crops, and raise their children" (Finney 1994, p. 3). It is only by starting to appreciate the second of these contrasting worldviews that we can even begin to understand their motivations.

See also:


Easter Island; Star Compasses of the Pacific; Zenith Stars in Polynesia.

Celestial Sphere.

References and further reading

Akerblom, Kjell. Astronomy and Navigation in Polynesia and Micronesia. Stockholm: Stockholm Ethnographical Museum, 1968.

Beaglehole, J. C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Chamberlain, Von Del, John Carlson, and Jane Young, eds. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, 336-347. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, and College Park, MD: Center for Archaeoastronomy, 2005.

Finney, Ben. Voyage of Rediscovery. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Flenley, John, and Paul Bahn. The Enigmas of Easter Island, 27-40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gladwin, Thomas. East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Hodson, F. R., ed. The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, 133-148. London: Royal Society, 1976.

Johnson, Rubellite K., and John K. Mahelona. Na Inoa Hdku: A Catalogue of Hawaiian and Pacific Star Names. Honolulu: Topgallant Press, 1975.

Kirch, Patrick V. On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Polynesian Islands before European Contact, 238-243. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Lewis, David. We the Navigators (2nd ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.

Makemson, Maud. The Morning Star Rises: An Account of Polynesian Astronomy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 100-113. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

Woodward, David, and G. Malcolm Lewis, eds. The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book Three: Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies, 443-492. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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