Those Incredible Polynesian Navigators Followed the Stars


Master navigator Mau Piailug schools his son and grandson in ancient celestial sailing knowledge with the help of a star compass, a traditional method of passing on celestial knowledge. Anders Ryman, Satawal, Federated States of Micronesia Anders/Ryman/Corbis

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, currentswaves and other natural phenomena as guides 

Ancient Polynesians used different types of canoes, depending on the type and length of a voyage to get to their destination. Credit: Pinterest.

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 – 

European explorers discovered ancient, stone-age Polynesians could navigate across open bodies of water. Something they were afraid to do, but islanders over thousands of years developed a navigational science, second to none. Credit: PBS

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. 

Norweigan explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl is famous for Kon-Tiki expedition, during which he traveled over 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands in 1947. Credit: Wikipedia.

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. 

The Polynesian Voyaging Society used the Hokule’a, a traditional Hawaiian canoe to travel across the world during a five-year voyage. They navigated across seemingly endless bodies of open water using the wind, waves, stars, currents and other natural phenomena to guide them to their destination. Credit National Geographic

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. 

Polynesian islanders built purposeful canoes, each designed for a specific type of voyage, from hugging the coast to traveling across seemingly endless bodies of open water. Credit:

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. 

David Henry Lewis, DCNMZ (1917 – 23 October 2002) was a sailor, adventurer, doctor and Polynesian scholar. He’s best known for his work on the traditional systems of navigation used by the Pacific Islanders. His work, talked about in his book We, the Navigators, made these navigational methods known to a wide audience and helped to inspire a revival of traditional voyaging methods in the South Pacific. Credit: Wikipedia

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. 

The outrigger canoe is still an integral part of the Polynesian sailing tradition. Island navigators used this type of canoe for thousands of years to travel between islands. Credit: Nova

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. 

In the early 1970s members of the  Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii searched for Polynesians who remembered traditional navigation techniques. There were none, but they eventually tracked down Mau Piailug from the island of Satawal in Micronesia, who could navigate the open ocean without instruments. He guided the Hokule’a from Hawaii to Tahiti and back using a star compass, shown here. Mau Piailug shared his knowledge with Nainoa Thompson, who became the first Polynesian in centuries to use the ancient celestial navigation on long distance ocean voyaging when he repeated the journey in the same vessel in 1980. Credit:

Master astronomers

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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