Star Compasses of the Pacific

Micronesian and Polynesian navigators used the stars in different ways to help them find their way across the open waters of the Pacific Ocean at night. One method was to learn the sequence of stars that would rise or set in the direction in which one wished to sail—the relevant star path or kavienga (as it was known in Tonga). The New Zealander David Lewis recorded a few surviving stone structures used for committing a given star path to memory. A single sighting stone in Tonga and two sets of sighting stones in the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) farther to the north seem to have been set up to mark the directions to various distant islands. (The direction marked was usually somewhat displaced from the actual azimuth of the target island, so that landfall could be achieved by running with the prevailing wind and current.) By sighting along one of these lines sufficiently often and for sufficiently long periods, the novice navigator would come to recognize the succession of stars that marked a particular course. On the island of Beru in Kiribati, Lewis observed the continuing use of a stone canoe for a similar purpose.

When traveling greater distances, following more complex courses, or exploring rather than traveling to predetermined and familiar places, navigators needed a wider knowledge of the stars in order to set different courses from different locations in the ocean. The difficulty is that there are so many stars in the sky that to memorize the rising and setting positions of many hundreds of them would surely be impracticable. One Micronesian example of a star compass, which was analyzed in detail by the ethnographer Ward H. Goodenough in the 1950s, overcame this problem in a clever way. (It existed in a number of slightly different forms among the Caroline Islands of the western Pacific, although the underlying principles are common to all the variants.) The Carolinian navigator typically relied on just fifteen reference stars or star groups whose rising and setting positions marked thirty directions around the horizon. The north and south directions, in addition, were indicated by Polaris and the upright Southern Cross. The relative positions of these thirty-two guide points around the horizon were carefully memorized: the spacing was not particularly regular, but then it didn't need to be.

In practice, at a given time on a given night, few of the guide stars would generally be anywhere near to rising or setting, and many would not be visible in the sky at all. However, the Carolines are situated quite close to the equator, and the paths of the stars through the sky in this region are more or less vertical (this is only not the case in the vicinity of the celestial poles). This means that it was relatively easy to trace the paths of visible stars down to the horizon. This technique provided a number of reference points. The experienced navigator could then fill in the gaps and deduce the positions of all of the thirty-two guide directions that constituted his mental compass in order to orient himself.

No such detailed accounts exist of star compasses in Polynesia, although it is clear from the accounts of Captain James Cook and other early European explorers that Polynesians made extensive use of directional stars for navigation. There is, however, a suggestion that a navigational device in the form of a large hollowed-out gourd was used in Polynesia. The "sacred calabash" was carried in the canoe for use as a horizon compass or a sort of sextant for determining latitude. This interpretation has been hotly contested, but there is certainly evidence of the use of navigation gourds in the Hawaiian islands after European contact. In addition, at least one Hawaiian account recorded in the nineteenth century suggests that large gourds were used, back on land, as visual aids for teaching about the skies.

See also:

Navigation in Ancient Oceania.

Azimuth; Celestial Sphere; Star Rising and Setting Positions.

References and further reading

Finney, Ben. Voyage of Rediscovery, 55-57. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Gladwin, Thomas. East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll, 148-160. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Goodenough, Ward H. Native Astronomy in the Central Carolines. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1953.

Hodson, F. R., ed. The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, 137-139, 141-142. London: Royal Society, 1976.

Johnson, Rubellite K., and John K. Mahelona. Na Inoa Hdku: A Catalogue of Hawaiian and Pacific Star Names, 62-65, 70-74. Honolulu: Topgallant Press, 1975.

Lewis, David. We the Navigators (2nd ed.), 102-111, 283-284. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 106-108. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

0 0

Post a comment