Stone-age Polynesians crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean, populating islands in a deliberate manner, as far back as tens of thousands of years ago using the stars, winds, currents, waves and other natural phenomena as guides
Ancient astronomy – When Europeans first sailed across the Pacific Ocean in the 1500s, they made an amazing discovery. Stone-age people as far back as tens of thousands of years ago had found their way to small, scattered islands spread across an immense body of water covering three-quarters of the surface of Earth –
Local Polynesian traditions and folklore told of purposeful, long-term voyages of sea-going canoes across hundreds and even thousands of miles of open water. In this way, oral tradition and modern archaeology say groups of Pacific islands were deliberated populated by stone-age Polynesians thousands of years ago.
People intimately connected to the ocean environment in which they lived, ancient Polynesian islanders navigated by a precise science passed on orally from generation to generation. They sailed hundreds and even thousands of miles across the dangerous and deep ocean using only the stars, winds, currents and even waves to find their way to small islands scattered across millions of square miles of empty water.
Using natural science Polynesian islanders appear to have settled at least three groups of Pacific Ocean islands. Scientists have definite proof darker skinned people settled one group of islands, named Melanesia (Greek for black islands) by Europeans, stretching eastward from New Guinea to Fiji thousands of years ago. Humans with light-brown skin lived on Micronesia (little islands), north of Melanesia. Tall, pale-skinned people colonized Polynesia (many islands), a sprawling eastern triangle including Hawaii, New Zealand, and isolated Easter Island.
At first, Europeans refused to believe that stone-age people sailed to distant islands without using navigational instruments to plot position and stay on course. In the 1600s sailors noted even experienced Europeans couldn’t determine their position and course once losing sight of land for a few days. This belief concerning the navigational skills of islanders persisted until the end of the 1960s when New Zealand-born adventurer David Lewis discovered Pacific Ocean islanders still made long-distance fishing and trading voyages without modern navigational equipment.
Determined to learn all he could about the old navigational skills and lore of Polynesian islanders before it was totally supplanted by modern tools and techniques, David Lewis made a decision that would provide proof of their ancient navigational skills. During a nine-month period between 1968 – 1969, he journeyed across the West Pacific, sometimes in native canoes using the skills of islanders, other times in a 39-foot gaff ketch stripped of navigational aids. Guided by illiterate, but skillful and confident Polynesian islanders Tevake and Hipour, they traveled across thousands of miles of deep water using the stars, winds, currents, waves and other natural phenomena to guide them. Along the way, they talked at length with sailors from several different Pacific islands, including Tonga where navigational skills and knowledge were once considered family secrets.
In his book, “We, the Navigators” adventurer and explorer David Lewis tells of the navigational skills of Polynesian islanders who still use many of the same directional aids stone-age peoples used to colonize the islands of the Pacific Ocean. How they used guide stars to travel confidently to small islands far beyond the horizon, by simply steering toward a star known to stand above a given destination. Guide stars low in the sky were always selected. When heading east they selected a star that had just risen and one about to fall when sailing west. His islander guides followed a star path to their destination. After one guide star had risen too high or low below the horizon, they would select another that set or rose at the same position in the sky. Using this method, David and his companions made one nighttime journey by sailing a star path of nine guide stars in a row to reach a destination over 70 miles (112 kilometers) across open water.
Hawaiian and Tahitian islanders navigated to various islands hundreds of miles apart using a celestial “star compass” that uses the locations of 32 stars ascending and falling around the horizon at irregular distances apart. Using specific islands called etak (reference) islands for which the shift in apparent position from below one star to another during a journey was already known. An islander navigating from destination A to B would begin by selecting a certain island under star 1 as his etak. As he sailed on, the bearing of island 1 would change until it rested under star 2, the next point on the “star compass”. The navigator would just continue the process until the destination was reached. Through years of intensive, traditional land-based training using the placement of stones to represent star formations and other methods. They memorized various ancient astronomical charts to certain islands and became amazingly capable of reading and interpreting the night sky. Capable enough to pinpoint a ship’s location using only a few stars briefly viewed through an overcast sky.
During the daylight hours, they navigated using the position of the sun in the sky. But his guides didn’t solely rely on the stars and the sun, they had a confident understanding and way of reading the behavior of wind, waves, currents and other natural forces. During one nighttime journey through a storm, the old Polynesian Tevake confidently navigated more than 40 miles (64 kilometers), including bringing the boat expertly between two islands less than half a mile apart. Even when forced off course by a storm or unguided by the winds, stars, waves and other natural forces, navigators like Hipour and Tevake had traditional methods for navigating to unseen islands across vast stretches of the immense Pacific Ocean. For example, they often guided themselves and others toward an unseen island miles away by observing the clouds, which they explained appear slightly different in color and tone depending on the type of land or depth of ocean over which they are sailing. They also interpreted the flight of birds, floating debris or land waves they said can often cause a boat to pitch when over 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the island surf that created them. The most amazing and intriguing guidepost they used is an enigmatic, unexplained natural event referred to in different parts of the Pacific Islands as te lapa, te mata, or ulo aetahi (glory of the sea). Flashing steaks of light just feet below the surface that align with land up to 100 miles away, this “glory of the sea” is a ghostly phosphorescence ancient stone age navigators used to help deliberately and systematically populate the islands of the Pacific Ocean with amazing accuracy as far back as tens of thousands of years ago.
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