The flightless birds of New Zealand disappeared within a generation of settlement. Polynesians were fully capable of overexploiting the natural world, and when their populations exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, they had no choice but to move on.
This implied heading out to sea. Whatever the ultimate motivation, the ancient Polynesians sailed. To the contrary, all evidence suggests that regular long-distance trade along established routes crisscrossed the ocean. But how did the Polynesians do it? They left no written records. Theirs were oral traditions, with all knowledge stored in memory, transmitted generation to generation.
One of the tragedies of history was the failure of early Europeans, with notable exceptions such as Captain Cook, to make any effort to study and record, let alone celebrate, this extraordinary repository of seafaring knowledge. The prestige and authority of the traditional navigators should have been evident to any unbiased observer; they were the cultural pivots of every community.
Navigation fundamentally defined the Polynesian identity. That these masters were ignored was no mere oversight, but an inevitable consequence of the clash of cultures that came with conquest. Contact brought chaos and devastation. The two pillars of Polynesian society, aside from the navigators, were the chief and the priest. The authority of the chief was based on his capacity to control and distribute surplus food.
The power of the priest lay in a spiritual capacity to enforce tapu, the sacred rules of the culture. Missionaries, who in considerable numbers crossed the beaches in the wake of sustained contact, blamed the people themselves for their misfortunes, even as they dismissed their religious beliefs as crude idolatry. In such an atmosphere, it would have been difficult indeed for Europeans to acknowledge that Polynesians possessed navigational skills that rivalled and even surpassed those of their own sailors, especially given that seamanship, particularly in Britain, was the pride of the nation.
But they most assuredly did. Bring to these the raw power of empirical observation, of universal human inquiry. The skills of the traditional navigator are not unlike those of the scientist; one learns through direct experience and the testing of hypotheses, with information drawn from all branches of the natural sciences, astronomy, animal behaviour, meteorology, and oceanography.
Temper this with a lifelong training of impossibly intense commitment and discipline, all to be rewarded with the highest level of prestige in a culture where status counted for everything. Mau grew up on a coral islet less than 1. His universe was the ocean. His grandfather was a navigator, and his father before him. At the age of one Mau was selected to inherit the ancestral teachings. As part of that training he was placed as an infant in tidal pools for hours at a time that he might feel and absorb the rhythms of the sea.
As a young man of fourteen he tied his testicles to the rigging of the vessel to more carefully sense the movement of the canoe through the water. Mau learned not only to sail, but also to understand the secrets of the Big Water, both the physics and metaphysics of waves.
It was said he could conjure islands out of the sea just by holding a vision of them in his imagination. The prevailing trade winds do indeed come out of the east, Nainoa told me, but they do not dominate in the simple manner envisioned by Thor Heyerdahl and others. As the navigator Tupaia once explained to Captain Cook, there is a time each year when the winds reverse, and westerly breezes blow across the Pacific.
A trough of low pressure forms a corridor running east from northern Australia, the very route along which the Lapita civilization migrated from the Bismarck Archipelago into the central Pacific. Similarly, farther north, closer to Hawaii, the winds do not consistently and only blow from the east.
The ancient Polynesians, Nainoa added, were not navigators in a modern sense so much as wayfinders. Sailing from Tahiti for Oahu, for example, they did not set course for Pearl Harbor; they set out to find a chain of islands, the Hawaiian Archipelago.
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Moreover, the distances in the Pacific are not as formidable as they appear on a chart. With the exception of the three most distant points of the Polynesian Triangle, Rapa Nui, Hawaii and Aotearoa New Zealand , no voyage from Melanesia through Polynesia has to traverse more than kilometres of open water, at least as the crow flies. And there is more land than the maps reveal. Clouds also provide clues to the wayfinder — their shape, colour, character, and place in the sky.
Brown clouds bring strong winds; high clouds no wind but lots of rain. Their movements reveal the strength and direction of winds, the stability of the sky, the volatility of storm fronts. There is an entire nomenclature to describe the distinct patterns clouds form as they gather over islands or sweep across the open ocean. Light alone can be read, the rainbow colours at the edge of stars, the way they twinkle and dim with an impending storm, the tone of the sky over an island, always darker than that over open sea.
Red skies at sunrise and sunset indicate humidity in the air. A halo around the moon foreshadows rain, for it is caused by light shining through ice crystals of clouds laden with moisture. The number of stars within the halo anticipates the intensity of the storm; if there are fewer than ten, expect trouble, high winds, and torrential rain.
If a double halo surrounds the moon the weather will move in on the wings of a gale. Other signs are found in wildlife and seamarks, as opposed to landmarks. A tan shark moving lazily in the sea. A lone bird separated from its flock. Dolphins and porpoises swimming toward sheltered waters herald a storm, while the flight of a frigate bird heading out to sea anticipates calm.
A sighting of a white tern indicates that land is within kilometres; the brown tern reaches out as far as 65 kilometres, the boobies rarely more than Phosphorescence and the debris of plants in the sea, the salinity and taste and temperature of the water, the manner in which a swordfish swims, all these become revelatory in the senses of the navigator.
All of this made sense until we rounded the backside of Molokai and in the darkness of night sailed north into the face of a distant storm. As Nainoa told me, it was one thing to know what to look for, these clues and signs and indications; it was quite another to pull it altogether and confront in the moment the ever-changing power and reality of the sea.
The sky was still clear, the ocean black, the heavens dominated by the innumerable silences of the stars. The crew worked in two-hour shifts, with everyone taking a turn at the helm, which was not a rudder but a long steering paddle that took three to handle. Enshrouded by the night, the canoe itself became the needle of a compass that was the sky. But for her the most important stars were those low in the sky, the ones that had just risen or were about to set. Nainoa explained: As the Earth rotates, every star comes up over the eastern horizon, describes an arc through the sky, and then sets on a westerly bearing.
These two points on the horizon, where a specific star rises in the east and sets in the west, remain the same throughout the year, though the time at which a star emerges changes by four minutes every night. Thus, as long as one is able to commit to memory all the stars and their unique positions, the time at which each is to appear on a particular night, and their bearings as they break the horizon or slip beneath it, one can envision a degree compass, which the Hawaiians divide conceptually into the thirty-two star houses, each a segment on the horizon named for a celestial body.
Any one star is only dependable for a time, for as it arcs through the sky its bearings change. But by then there will be another star breaking the horizon, again on a bearing known to the navigator. Over the course of a night at sea — roughly twelve hours in the tropics — ten such guiding stars are enough to maintain a course. Any consistent point of reference will do. With the dawn comes the sun, always a critical transition for the navigator. It is a moment to take measure of the sea and sky, study the winds, and observe their impact on the waves.
All of these told him something about the day to come. There are eight marks incised along the railings on both sides of the vessel, each paired to a single point in the stern, giving bearings in two directions, fore and aft — thirty-two bearings altogether, which correspond to the thirty-two directional houses of the star compass. The navigator by day conceptually divides the horizon ahead and behind, each into sixteen parts, taking as cardinal points the rising and setting of the sun. Thus by day he or she replicates the star compass of the night.
It simply waits, the axis mundi of the world, as the islands rise out of the sea to greet her. Beyond sun and stars is the ocean itself. And these swells, in turn, must be differentiated from the deep ocean currents that run through the Pacific, and which can be followed with the same ease with which a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to its mouth.
The Antikythera mechanism is one of the most amazing mechanical devices discovered from the ancient world. Further, I am convinced based on my study of the celestial patterns in the myths that the ancient wisdom uses the starry heavens as a means of pointing us towards the Invisible World which we cannot physically see with our ordinary vision. The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Yet vertebrate species, including humans, retained certain basic things in common, such as the third eye, the five senses -- and even tails! The "solar boat" seems to have a large square "notch" in its upper lines, because the Painted Rock enclosure itself actually has a deep notch in it as well, which can be seen in the photograph immediately above this one. One of the better known Rainbow Bridge monuments is the Gateway Arch!
Expert navigators like Mau, sitting alone in the darkness of the hull of a canoe, can sense and distinguish as many as five distinct swells moving through the vessel at any given time. Local wave action is chaotic and disruptive. But the distant swells are consistent, deep and resonant pulses that move across the ocean from one star house to another, degrees away, and thus can be used as yet another means of orienting the vessel in time and space. Should the canoe shift course in the middle of the night, the navigator will know, simply from the change of the pitch and roll of the waves.
The truly great navigators such as Mau can identify the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be read with the same ease with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint. All of this is extraordinary, each one of these individual skills and intuitions a sign of a certain brilliance.
Three seconds and the speed will be 8. But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves. The science and art of navigation is holistic. The navigator must process an endless flow of data, intuitions and insights derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and interactions of wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef — in short, the constantly changing world of weather and the sea.
What is even more astonishing is that the entire science of wayfinding is based on dead reckoning. You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are. But this is precisely what the Polynesians managed to do, and all without benefit of the written word.
There were no logs, notebooks, or charts, no speedometers, watches, or compasses. Every bit of data — wind, currents, speed, direction, distance, time — acquired over the course of a deep sea voyage, including the sequence of its acquisition, had to be stored within the memory of one person, the navigator.