This Is How Ancient Micronesian Canoeists Learned to Navigate

by Owen James Burke

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(Illustration: Robert Krulwich/NPR)

Imagine navigating hundreds of miles between tiny spits of sand through wind and tide with nothing but your five senses, a canoe paddle and your wits to guide you. I’ll bet you can’t, but this is how the ancient Micronesians learned how to do it.

The ancient Micronesians lived out in the vast south Pacific Ocean, passing from one distant island to the next on what would have seemed to many to be a mere whim. The islands of Micronesia are few and far between, and to further add to their needle-in-a-haystack scenario, many of the islands are no more than three feet above sea level (save for a few palm trees). The fact that they were able to continually navigate with pinpoint accuracy might seem nothing short of miraculous, but assuming so couldn’t put you any farther from the matter of fact that everything they did was entirely based on ingenuity.

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(Illustration: Robert Krulwich/NPR)

The Micronesian sailors wouldn’t use their eyes to try to discern the “shadow of calm,” or the holes in the wind caused by land (or other large towering objects that might break up a breeze). Instead, they’d lie down and “feel” for the “shadow of calm” to find land, even if it was 30 or 40 miles away. By resting their head against the wooden deck of a canoe, they could tell whether land was ahead of, behind or beside them. The margin for error was almost unfathomable. If they weren’t able to detect land and overshot their mark, they’d end up lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with little to no chance of survival. Somehow, they did this confidently, over and over again.

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(Illustration: Robert Krulwich/NPR)

 In his book The Wave Watcher’s Companion, Gavin Pretor-Pinney writes of an 1862 account by a missionary who observed Micronesians learning to read currents in the absence of waves.

“If the stern lifted before the bow, the swell was coming from behind,” Pretor-Pinney writes. “If port lifted before starboard, it was coming from the left.” Sure, this make sense, but try reading, listening, observing, or feeling any of this out with pulses of current that could not be measured in feet or inches, but centimeters or millimeters.

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(Image: Library of Congress)

Above is a swell-reading chart called a mattang, made of palm fronds or sticks. The directions of the sticks depict how the swells deflect off the islands. Since swells are fairly consistent (as far as immediate predictions are to be concerned) navigators could pinpoint exactly where an island lay. According to author David Lewis, in his book We Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, this is how parents taught their children to navigate some 200 years ago in the south Pacific (and probably much, much earlier). Kind of makes you think twice about how much you need the Garmin, huh?

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