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The Wayfinders of the South Seas

I was looking through an old copy of Classic Boat magazine (September 2004) when I discovered this article on how traditional Polynesian navigators operated.

I have précised this article. For me, the importance of all this is that humans are animals but we can communicate together so that insights on how we navigated before the modern era may help us understand how animals might navigate too. Our problem is always, “how do animals inherit the information they need to navigate”.

Polynesian navigation was a complex science handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. A skilled navigator (Palu) was held in high regard. His training required him to develop acute powers of observation and memory. By the time a Palu graduated he possessed an intricate knowledge of the sun, stars and planets, his geographical environment for a radius of a thousand miles and how to read the waves and clouds.

The Polynesian navigator orientated himself from home by keeping a mental record of all courses steered since departure and any factors that might affect the course. This is just what dead reckoning is. At any stage he could run through this data and tell you the approximate direction of his home and roughly how long it would take to get there. Did they posses a sense of direction, I ask?

Observation of natural features was very important. The departing canoe would look out for landmarks as long as they were available, then use the rising and setting positions of stars to guide them by. They knew their stars and what rose up and set where. It is easier in these latitudes as the stars come up virtually vertically over the horizon. These star sights along with their local knowledge of such things as the winds, currents, ocean swells, and relative locations of islands, reefs and sea lanes put everything in context.

When the sky is overcast, a helmsman could maintain his course relative to the ocean swells or wind. Low lying islands in the distance were identified by distinctive cloud formations, reflected swells, drifting flotsam, or the sighting of shore birds.

Certain stars were known; their reach, their zenith over certain islands, while a night entrance through a reef passage might be made by lining up a geographical feature with a star close to the horizon.

Richard Nissen

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