Polynesian Wayfinders
The knowledge of the ancestors

October 12 2016

The ancient art of wayfinding, once an essential skill for the survival of man, withered away to the mere act of asking the computer where we are at and where we are going. To me this seems to be true also in a metaphorical sense. Maybe that’s why this topic touched me so deeply. It’s the story of a time when life could be navigated by celestial objects. Today we move in complex built environments relying mostly on the guidance of a system that is breaking down in front of our eyes. We have to reconnect to the magic! Let’s raise our heads to the stars once again and listen to the ripples of existence so that it will guide us home.

Far more than three thousand years ago the first peoples populated the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Their world was flat and of an unimaginable vastness (the surface area of the Pacific is larger than all of the Earth’s land area combined). They travelled across thousands of miles of open ocean, using only their own senses and knowledge passed by oral tradition from master to apprentice. Polynesian navigators memorize the motion of specific stars, read the shape of clouds, the colors of the sea, wildlife species and, what I find most fascinating, the waves itself. Crouched low in the wooden canoe, the navigator feels an island. He navigates by interpreting the swells beneath his vessel.

The last grandmaster of this dying skill once common throughout the Pacific was Mau Piailug. In 1976 he led an expedition set out to retrace the legendary travel route from Tahiti to Hawaii. With that he proved to the world that non-instrumental voyaging throughout Oceania was possible. Mau trained and mentored Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, who later would become a master navigator himself. The success of Mau’s navigational feats sparked cultural pride in Tahitians, Māori and Hawaiians and connected all Polynesians to stories their forebears told of similar voyages of generations past.

The Navigators: Pathfinders Of The Pacific (1983)

There’s another film about the lasting legacy of the Micronesian master navigator:
Papa Mau: The Wayfinder

Besides the great documentary above I also found these mind-boggling pictures of stick charts (mattang). It is made of sticks and shells, tied with palm fibre — the curved sticks representing ocean currents and swell, curving from contact with islands; the shells representing islands. Apparently the Marshall Islanders memorised the patterns on the charts but they were not carried on voyages.

Stick charts from the Marshall Islands