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. 

Learn more about the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Learn more about adventurer and explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

Take the space journey of NASA.

Learn more about adventurer and explorer David Henry Lewis here.

Voyage across the universe with the ESA.

Read more about the navigational skills and methods of ancient peoples here.

Read about the densest star cluster in the Milky Way, the Nuclear Star Cluster.

Take a look at an artist’s conception of the future Europa Clipper, which will orbit above Jupiter’s most famous moon.

Learn more about a supermassive black hole making astronomers think. A 17 billion solar mass monster that’s always hungry.

Nebra Sky Disk Portable Instrument for Syncing Solar and Lunar Calendar with Seasons

Bronze Age Europeans used the sky disk to determine if a thirteen month needed to be added to the year

The Nebra sky disk was found with a hoard of artifacts scientists are still studying to determine their origin and construction.
The Nebra sky disk was found with a hoard of artifacts scientists are still studying to determine their origin and construction.

Space news (ancient astronomy: ancient, advanced astronomical instruments; the Nebra sky disk) – astronomical clock from 3600 BCE Germany, discovered in 2003 

The trail starts in February 2003, when two treasure hunters tried to illegally sell Bronze Age artifacts to an undercover officer posing as an antiquities dealer, in the basement bar of the Hilton Hotel in Basle, Switzerland. Among the items found in the treasure hoard, investigators discovered a damaged 32-cm-wide (12.6-inch) bronze disk, with what appeared to be representations of the Sun, Moon and possibly stars.

Subsequent police investigations discovered the treasure looters found the bronze disk on the top of 252-meter Mittelberg hill in the German state of Sachsen-Anhalt in 1999. The hill at the time was part of a bigger archaeological site under study and is close to the famed Goseck Henge site. 

Archaeologists studying the 2.2 kg bronze disk found the symbols were inlaid with gold leaf and included a possible representation of the seven visible stars of the Pleiades star cluster (Seven Sisters) 3,600 years ago. 

Subsequent analysis found the bronze disk, which was called the Nebra sky disk, appeared to be an advanced astronomical instrument. A 1600 BCE Bronze Age disk Europeans used to determine the winter and summer solstices and other important dates of the year.

Archaeologists believe the Nebra sky disk was developed through four different stages over a 400 year period. Possibly used to accurately predict important events and times during the year, this handheld instrument was probably used by only a select few or one individual. A truly advanced astronomical instrument for the age and culture it was being used, the Nebra sky disk tells us how little we know about the celestial knowledge and skills of ancient people of the region and age.

Archaeologists studying the Nebra sky disk think it was constructed through four different phases, over a four hundred year period.
Archaeologists studying the Nebra sky disk think it was constructed during four different phases, over a four hundred year period.

Recently, a team of German scientists found evidence suggesting the disk was also used to synchronize the solar and lunar calendars people living in the region of Sachsen-Anhalt used during the Bronze Age. 

“This is a clear expansion of what we knew about the meaning and function of the sky disc,” said archaeologist Harald Meller.

The lunar calendar used by Bronze Age humans was based upon the phases of the moon, which ancient cultures observed for thousands of years. The lunar calendar is eleven days shorter than the solar calendar because it only takes 354 days for the moon to return to new phase 12 times. 

Ancient cultures around the world during distant times used a lunar calendar to keep track of celestial and yearly events.
Ancient cultures around the world during distant times used a lunar calendar to keep track of celestial and yearly events.

Archaeoastronomers think the Nebra disk was used to determine if a thirteenth month needed to be added to the lunar calendar to keep it in sync with the solar calendar and seasons. Bronze Age farmers used a combination of solar and lunar calendars to determine planting and harvesting times through the year. Ancient astronomers or shaman able to predict these yearly events accurately would have been very valuable to the survival of a tribe. Syncing calendars would need to be done every two or three years in order to make sure the crops were planted and harvested on the right dates.

Mysteries remain

The trail started to twist when archaeologists and archaeoastronomers noted the moon on the Nebra sky disk was too thick to be in a new moon phase. After consulting the Mul-Apin collection of Babylonian scripts from the 6th and 7th century B.C, they determined the alignment of the moon and the Pleiades pictured in the sky map is as it should be if a thirteenth month needed to be added. 


It puzzled scientists how Bronze Age cultures in Europe around 1,600 BCE, knew lunar and solar calendars needed to be synchronized, 1,000 years before the Babylonians? Where did they get the understanding and technology required to accomplish this feat?  

Were the sky disk and the knowledge to use it passed onto specific Bronze Age Europeans

Did they inherit the knowledge and technology to build the Nebra sky disk? 

What do we know?

The Nebra sky disk was a complex, portable astronomical clock used by Bronze Age Europeans to determine important seasonal dates and align solar and lunar calendars essential for determining planting and harvesting times of crops. What other ceremonial and astronomical functions was the sky disk used for?

If archaeoastronomers and archaeologists are right, 3600 years ago Bronze Age humans used the Nebra sky disk to help their society and culture survive the onslaught of nature. It probably also held both a ceremonial and cultural significance to the Bronze Age culture in terms of the best time of the year to trade for specific items and goods

Standing upon the crest of Mittelberg hill in Sachsen-Anhalt region of Germany 3600 years ago, Bronze Age astronomers would have held the disk against the sky to compare the position of the moon and stars of the Pleiades, to their positions as pictured in the face of the Nebra sky disk. 

If the positions matched, the astronomer would know it was time to add a thirteenth month to the lunar calendar. It’s possible that after generations of use, the knowledge of how it was devised was lost. The use of the Nebra sky disk doesn’t require knowledge of its engineering and design. In the end, it might have just been a ceremonial or cult object of worship, once the knowledge of its use was lost.

How and why the sky disk came to be buried upon Mittelberg hill in Sachsen-Anhalt Germany is an interesting question? Was it buried and then somehow forgotten? 

Archaeologists do know that when the Nebra sky disk was buried, it had thirty-nine or forty holes punched out along the perimeter of its face. They also know the gold and tin used in the metallurgy of the bronze was from the river Carnon in Cornwall. A portable device of such construction and importance would have been very valuable to its owner. The owner carried a portable Stonehenge in their pocket, one of the most important and monumental ancient astronomical constructions of its age. With this astronomical device in your pocket and the knowledge how to use it, a traveler could go places and be valuable to any society. 

Not all archaeologists agree the Nebra sky disk was used for astronomical measurements of the Sun, the moon, and stars pictured on its face. Instead, they point out the features pictured on the disk tend to be inexact and were more likely used in shamanic rituals.

Perhaps one day, archaeologists will discover additional artifacts that will shed more light on the mysteries surrounding the Nebra sky disk. Until that day arrives, the oldest known example of an astronomical clock sits awaiting additional confirmation of its uses and importance to ancient Europeans.

Learn more about the Nebra sky disk here.

Learn more about Stonehenge here.

Discover the oldest known solar observatory in the world, Goseck Henge here.

Learn about the Mul-Apin collection of Babylonian scripts from the 6th and 7th century B.C here.

Learn what astronomers have discovered about young, newborn stars.

Read about the ocean of liquid water beneath the icy shell of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Learn more about what astronomers have discovered about the evolution and growth of the Milky Way Galaxy.

7,000 Year Old Solar Observatory Built to Mark the Winter and Summer Solstice

Goseck Henge is believed to be possibly the oldest example of the desire of European Neolithic farmers to measure the heavens to gain knowledge and understanding of the world around them

Considered by many to be the oldest known solar observatory in the world, Goseck Henge is an example of the determination and ingenuity of European Neolithic farmers.
Considered by many to be the oldest known solar observatory in the world, Goseck Henge is an example of the determination and ingenuity of European Neolithic farmers.

Ancient astronomy – 7,000 years ago

It all started in 1991 when German officials noticed dark ridges in an aerial photograph of a wheat field 40 miles southwest of Leipzig, Germany. Dark ridges forming a giant circular ridge, confirmed later by a magnetometer survey to be part of a 7,000-year-old circular enclosure, with southeast and southwest gates interestingly aligned. 

The dark ridges in this aerial photograph (left) taken by German government officials in 1991 showed something unusual. The magnetometer readings taken later showed a definite anomaly.
The dark ridges in this aerial photograph (left) taken by German government officials in 1991 showed something unusual. The magnetometer readings taken later showed a definite anomaly.

Global Positioning System data and scientific analysis by archaeologists Peter Biehl and Francois Bertemes in 2002 determined the southeast gate of the ancient enclosure is possibly an entrance way aligned to mark the arrival of the winter solstice (first day of winter) and old man winter. The southwest gate is aligned to the summer solstice (first day of summer) and the coming of warm weather and youthful summer.

We had just started our archaeology program, and we wanted a place near the university for our students to practice,” says Biehl, formerly a professor at Halle-Wittenberg University and now at Cambridge.” 

The evidence collected thus far indicates Goseck Henge is possibly the world’s oldest known solar observatory. The Neolithic farmers of 7,000 years ago in Europe were doing more than tilling the land with basic tools to increase production. They were also watching and measuring the heavens using primitive, yet inventive technology in order to know the best time to plant crops to maximize growing time.

Goseck Henge isn’t unique to the region, archaeologists have excavated hundreds of similar wooden circular enclosures built in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, all dated to a 200-year period around 4,600 B.C.

Except for the difference in size, all have basically the same features. Neolithic farmers dug a narrow ditch around a circular wooden wall, with large gates equally spaced around the outer edge.

Archaeologists for years tried to make sense of the hundreds of 7,000-year-old circular enclosures found dotting the landscape of Neolithic Europe. All created during a period when the Stroke-Ornamented Pottery Culture (STK) dominated Central Europe, which confuses archaeologists.

The Goseck site is helping to provide the answers archaeologist have been searching for after years of painstaking work at the enclosure. Analysis of the site indicates Neolithic farmers probably used the circular enclosure to worship celestial objects and constellations. Celestial objects and constellations they linked to natural events which determined their survival or death. 

Archaeologists believe such sites were probably used for much more than just the worship of the Sun, moon or constellations. This was probably the first monumental architecture in the world,” says Biehl, noting that the sites served as ritual observatories two thousand years before the ancient Egyptians erected pyramids along the Nile.

Since the discovery of Goseck Henge, news media has named the enclosure the “German Stonehenge” and public interest has increased to the point the German state of Saxon-Anhalt decided to make an investment in its past and present.

History relived

Today, standing on the original site of Goseck Henge is an authentic reconstruction of the circular enclosure. Composed of over 2,000 oak posts stripped by hand in order to give the site the look and feel of a Neolithic site of 7,000 years ago. European farmers and public gather on the winter solstice every year, to watch a pale winter sun blaze its final rays on the southeastern gate as their ancestors did over 7,000 years ago.

European farmers and astronomy enthusiasts can today gather to pay respect to ancient Neolithic farmers and the Sun and stars.
European farmers and astronomy enthusiasts periodically gather to pay respect to ancient Neolithic farmers and the Sun and stars.

You can learn more about Goseck Henge here.

Read more about Stonehenge here.

Discover the journey of NASA here.

Read about the exciting work being done in the field of star formation

Read about the recent flare-up of the Monster of the Milky Way

Read about astronomers confirmation of evidence proving there’s an ocean of liquid water beneath the icy shell of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Thousands of Years Ago Ancient Peruvians Used 13 Towers Spread Along the Horizon to Mark the Rising and Setting of the Sun Through the Year

The rise of the sun between Tower 1 and Cerro Mucho Malo at the June solstice, 2003, viewed from the western solar observaotry. The sunrise positionInserting image... at the solstice has shifted to the right approximately 0.3° from year 300 BC.  Credit: Ivan Ghezzi
The rise of the sun between Tower 1 and Cerro Mucho Malo at the June solstice, 2003, viewed from the western solar observatory. The sunrise positionInserting image… at the solstice has shifted to the right approximately 0.3° from year 300 BC.
Credit: Ivan Ghezzi

Observations of the number of days between the rising and setting of the sun from tower to tower allowed ancient astronomers to create a solar calendar  

Chanquillo is considered the oldest solar observatory so far discovered in the Americas
Chanquillo is considered the oldest solar observatory so far discovered in the Americas

Ancient space astronomy – 

2,300 years ago (fourth century B.C.) ancient Peruvian astronomers living along the coast near the Casma-Sechin Oasis built a solar observatory used to mark the rising and setting of the sun. Called the Chankillo archaeological site, it consists of 13 towers spanning 980 feet (300 meters) north to south along a low rising horizon, which form an ancient observatory archaeoastronomers believe was used to track the rising and falling Sun. By timing the days it took the sun to travel between towers, the solar year could be broken into periods, scientists believe, forming a sort of solar calendar used for ceremonial and cultural purposes.  

Archaeologists believe ceremonies and cultural events were held in buildings close to this ancient solar observatory. They found pottery, shells and stone carvings at the end of the 131-ft corridor in the building west of the towers, possibly left by commoners participating in solar observing ceremonies and cultural events. They also found a pair of inset staircases leading upward to each tower summit, suggesting the area was well traveled. 

Chankillo is arguably the oldest solar calendar that can be identified as such with confidence within the Americas,” said lead study author Ivan Ghezzi from Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru. 

“Many indigenous American sites have been found to contain one or a few putative solar orientations,” Ghezzi said. “Chankillo, in contrast, provides a complete set of horizon markers and two unique and indisputable observation points.” 

Around 230 meters (750 feet) to the west and east of the north and south running line of 13 towers astronomers discovered possible observation points. They also discovered that seen from these positions the 980-foot span of the 13 towers closely matches the position of the rising and falling Sun through the year. 

“For example,” said Professor Ruggles, “If you stood at the western observing point, you would see the Sun coming up in the morning, but where it would appear along the span of towers would depend on the time of the year.” 

“So, on the summer solstice, which is in December in Peru, you would see the Sun just right of the right-most tower; for the winter solstice, in June, you would see the Sun rise to the left of the left-most tower; and in-between, the Sun would move up and down the horizon.” 

“This means ancient Peruvians could have regulated a calendar, he said, “by keeping track of the number of days it took for the Sun to move from tower to tower.” 

Archaeoastronomers have found similar solar observing sites in South America built by the Incan empire between 1100 and 1530 A.D. This ancient observatory predates the Incas by 1700 years and it’s massive in size and sophisticated for its time. It also highlights the importance of observing the Sun in the daily lives and cultural of ancient Peruvians and is a testament to the scientific knowledge and will of ancient Peruvian builders and astronomers.  

“Chankillo was built approximately 1,700 years before the Incas began their expansion,” Ghezzi said. “Now we know these practices are quite a bit older and were highly developed by Chankillo’s time. 

Some archaeologists think more work needs to be done

If archaeologists and archaeoastronomers are correct. Possibly as early as 600 BCE, ancient Peruvian astronomers used the Chankillo site to track the rising and setting of the sun through the solar year. As a calendar to determine moments to hold important ceremonial and cultural events. The oldest solar calendar discovered to this date in South America.

Read about future space telescopes

Learn about the ghostly afterglow of streaking Orionids meteorites

Read about plate tectonics on Europa