Monday, September 8, 2014

Polynesian navigation: Robust, varied.

Smithsonian Institution geographer Doug Herman, who is following Hokule`a’s voyage around the world, has written a fine summary on recent thinking about Polynesian navigation.

The essence of the piece recalls that in the mid-1900s, standard thought was that early Polynesians could not have had the capacity to navigate long distances, to sail into the wind, and that the population of the Pacific islands could be explained by accidental drift voyages.

(Image: Hokule`a sailing in the rain during a voyage through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Credit: Jan TenBruggencate)

This theory ignored clear indications in the oral traditions of Pacific peoples, which review repeated back-and-forth voyages. Even Capt. James Cook in the late 1700s knew Polynesians had done the hard work of active discovery. So did many of the researchers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including the great Maori scholar, Te Rangi Hiroa.

But in 1947 an extremely popular voyage by Thor Heyerdahl reset popular thinking. Heyerdahl argued that Polynesians had simply drifted from island to island. And he built a balsa raft that drifted from South America to the eastern Pacific islands of the Tuamotu to show it was possible.

It includes the great 1983 video “The Navigators, Pathfinders of the Pacific” on navigation, Hokule`a’s first voyage, and Satawal navigator Mau Piailug. The video additionally has fascinating imagery of traditional canoe building, rope making and navigation training.

Herman makes the point, as the title suggests, that Thor Heyerdahl and Kon Tiki misrepresented the evidence.

But Herman misses the, perhaps, bigger point—the Hokule`a and David Lewis’s seminal work on Polynesian navigation occurred in large because of Heyerdahl, and his followers, like the dismissive Australian Andrew Sharp, who denigrated Polynesian skills and intellect.

Were it not for the naysayers, would Hawaiians have risked their lives to prove that their voyaging ancestors could and did navigate? 

Modern research proves not only that they could, but that they did, and that their navigational skills were not only robust but quite varied. 

Mau Piailug and Satawal navigators used  a star compass. Chief Kaveia and the Duff Island navigators of the Solomons use a wind compass and mysterious lights in the water called Te Lapa, as described by anthropologistMimi George. Modern navigator Nainoa Thompson uses still a different system ofhis own.

Different tools. Same result. Another proof. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

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