The Navigators / Pathfinders of the Pacific – Sanford Low and Boyd Estus (1983)

Navigation on the open ocean has been a grand challenge for Humanity. Vikings used Icelandic feldspar chrystals called sunstones enabling detection of the direction of the sun through polarizing light. Chinese used magnetic compass. Calculation of the longitude was an immense problem. Celestial objects have been used by almost all seafarers globally. Polinesians mastered the star compass technique and carried it to a new level in Human history.

“The Navigators” was co-directed by Sam Low and Boyd Estus covering the revival of the navigational skills by the legendary master ocean navigator Mau Piailug. The film has a pleasant behind the scenes story and is particularly informative on the materials used for canoe building. The documentation of double-hull canoe construction is exceptional.

Peopling of the Pacific is a fascinating story. The Polynesians were without question the greatest open ocean voyagers in the human history. They built double-hulled canoes and traveled over the vast expanses of the Pacific settling both Hawaii and New Zealand. Finally, between 700 and 900, they reached to Rapa Nui – Easter Island which was possibly the last place on earth to be permanently settled.

Kon-Tiki was an ambitious expedition that was carried out in 1947 by the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl. The expedition tested a hypothesis whether Pacific Islands could have been colonized from Americas and thus wanted to demonstrate that waterways were not barriers but means of transportation and gene flow for human populations. Unfortunately Heyerdahl’s hugely mediatic campaign delayed advances in anthropological work. Since Captain Cook’s time there was an overwhelming body of evidence for colonization of the Pacific from Asia. Archaeological and linguistic evidence shows that navigators from Tahiti’s neighbor islands the Marquesas had been settled even earlier. Kon-Tiki expedition is now seen as an example for when the adventure wins over science.

In 1967 David Henry Lewis was awarded a research grant from the Australian National University. He sailed to remote Pacific islands in his boat Isbjorn to study and learn from traditional navigators. He sailed with master navigator Hipour from Puluwat to Saipan and back. He wrote two books We, the Navigators: the Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific and The Voyaging Stars in which the methods of traditional navigation have been documented. The knowledge was extinct in many parts of the Pacific. These books were highly inspirational for the revival of traditional Polynesian canoe building and voyaging.

The 1976 voyage of the Hawaiian canoe Hōkūleʻa ended this discussion once and for all. Hōkūleʻa’s voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti by demonstrated that Polynesians used sophisticated navigational skills to travel regularly across the Pacific. Piailug demonstrated his profound skill for reading the night sky and the ocean swells for navigation. David Henry Lewis was also aboard the Hōkūleʻa for this landmark voyage. Navigation is an impressive example when cognitive and perception capabilities are mixed with science. It requires impeccable knowledge of the night sky. Navigator must be able to recognize multiple projections of the sky and relate the view with latitude. Moreover, this projection must be updated according to the time of the year.

Based on the rise and setting of many stars, the direction and latitude can be determined. The reflection and refraction of the swells off islands create recognizable patterns. A master navigator can detect land far ahead of the horizon. Impressively, Mau was able to identify up to eight different directional swells. The canoe’s course could be adjusted and maintained by the angle of a swell to the hull of the canoe.

Scholars are also hypothesizing that annual migrations of land-based birds such as Long-tailed cuckoo, Pacific golden plower and Bristle-thighed curlew may have aided Polynesians to discover new islands. The flight patterns of these birds can be used as cues for proximity and direction to land. Cloud shapes on the horizon can also reveal the presence of land. The navigator keeps a mental record of distance traveled, speed, drift and currents.

Today the Hōkūleʻa uses a star compass developed by Nainoa Thompson based on celestial sphere. Celestial sphere is a great foundation for learning non-instrumental navigation. Many beginners employ the technique by training themselves using sophisticated astronomical software used in planetariums such as Stellarium. Through many voyages for more than 40 years, the Hōkūleʻa has “rediscovered” all the island groups of the Pacific and set out to circumnavigate the Earth.

“How shall we account for this nation spreading it self so far over this vast ocean?” — Capt. James Cook (1778)

Captain James Cook is one of the earliest explorers to reach the South Pacific. When he reached Tahiti and Ra‘iatea a high priest named Tupaia accompanied him through the rest of the journey. In 1778 Cook’s ship traveled towards northern latitudes. She passed the Equator to reach Hawaiian Islands unknown to Europeans. Tupaia was able to communicate with Hawaiians despite the fact that the islands are separated more than 2500 miles. Cook was fascinated: “How shall we account for this Nation spreading it self so far over this Vast ocean?” The linguistic unity was an obvious proof of connectedness. Cook coined the term “The Polynesian” defining Human populations spread over multiple islands from Easter Island in the East to New Zealand (Aotearoa) in the Southwest, to Hawaii in the North forming the Polynesian Triangle. The vast geographical region covers more than 1,000 islands spread over 16 million square miles. Polynesia is larger than Canada, the United States and Russia combined.

European prejudice for superiority were making it difficult to accept the fact that pre-industrial peoples with no navigational tools known to westerners could cross vastness of ocean in open boats long before Columbus against the wind and currents repeatedly and purposefully. The Maori scholar Te Rangi Hiroa compiled evidence in a 1938 book entitled Vikings of the Sunrise where he outlined his hypothesis for an eastward migration from Southeast Asia. His hypothesis was supported by oral tradition, archaeological data, linguistic structures and the species of plants and animals introduced by Humans to the islands they have colonized. Polynesians may have even reached the Americas.

Computer models simulated that colonization of New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaiian Archipelago that are positioned on the outer edges of the Polynesia by drift voyaging is close to improbable. Moreover, simulations of past wind patterns based on paleo-climate models have shown that contrary to common assumption there have been a few periods when the sailing directions were downwind. A detailed reconstructions of open routes are as follows: The CYAN route was open between A.D. 940–970 and between A.D. 1170–1210. The RED route was open A.D. 940–960, A.D. 1140–1160, A.D. 1210–1230, and A.D. 1240–1260. The WHITE route was open A.D. 910–960, A.D. 1140–1170, and A.D. 1200–1240. The BLUE routes were open from A.D. 800–910, A.D. 1010–1030, A.D. 1040–1060, A.D. 1080–1100, and A.D. 1250–1280. The more southern route from the Austral islands was open from A.D. 1290 to A.D. 1440, A.D. 1500–1540, A.D. 1550–1570, and A.D. 1590–1610. The YELLOW route was open from A.D. 910–950, 1140–1170, and A.D. 1230–1250. Return voyaging along the RED and WHITE routes was open in A.D. 960–990, and mainly open from A.D. 1260 to A.D. 1550.

The Solomon Islands were the initial gateway to the Pacific island colonization. From there in about 300 year period sailors traversed more than 2,000 miles of open ocean to colonize islands like Tonga and Samoa. Curiously, this fast expansion was interrupted for about 2,000 years. Archeologists call this period as the Long Pause or Settlement Pause. Computer models of the past wind patterns now provides clues that for what may have caused the Long Pause that delayed the colonization of Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand. People may have had to wait until a key innovation in boating or navigation technology that was going to unable them to sail through the strong winds that surround Tonga and Samoa.

One of the most curious questions in this fascinating oceanic saga is the evolution of canoe design. Archeological findings will eventually help trace the chronological advances in design that lead to key innovations that ended the settlement pause.



  1. Luc Rayphnd says:

    Great learning tool but could not find the share button for Facebook.
    But thank you in advance.

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