polynesian navigators
polynesian navigators

Better sailors than the British

You think of a navigator and you picture someone bent over charts and maps, studying a sextant and making longhand calculations on an enormous sailship. Or maybe you imagine someone checking in with a talking GPS that tells him which way to turn. Reading Wade Davis’  book The Wayfinders, I´ve been blown away by the story of how the ancient Polynesians sailed across the Pacific on tiny boats, the navigator plucking the islands out of the ocean with incredible intuition.

When the British bumped into the Polynesians on far-flung islands spread out over 25 million square kilometers, they assumed they had arrived there by chance. Fishermen blown offcourse. It was just too galling to think for the master mariners of England that a seemingly savage race could have achieved such incredible journeys connecting culture and commerce over thousands of islands.

The Polynesian naviagator had a unique perception of the ocean. There were stories of navigators who would be placed in rock pools by the beach when only a few months old to learn the feel of the tidal pull of the water. Another navigator tied the sail rigging to his scrotum so that he might perceive the rhythms of the ocean better. For, while the navigators would read the clouds, the winds, the sun, the birds, the fish and the stars to find their way across the Pacific, they could also perceive distinct ocean pulses resonating through the swell and waves.

The Polynesian naviagators didn´t look up at the stars and know where they were, they knew their location only in relation to where they had been. So while the captain and crew handled the boat, the navigator would sit in a kind of trance for 22 hours a day. He would track the rising and falling of the stars on the horizon, evoking the image that the vessel stayed still while the earth span.

When lost, the navigators were encouraged to ‘pull the islands out of the ocean’ by recognizing the distinct wave patterns generated by distant island groups. Such a feat would sound supernatural if it wasn’t for the fact that they did it and did so repeatedly over thousands of years, risking their lives to cross the ocean and deliver traditional necklaces and gifts that tied the Polynesian culture together even over such enormous distances.

When I read about these navigators in the Pacific or tribal peoples who could identify the urine of an animal in the forest from 30 meters, I’m left with some questions about what humans are capable of: if such incredible sensitivity is possible, what of the claims of other ancient peoples that they ‘talked’ to the plants to learn their medicinal properties? Could they simply have evolved their taste to such a sophistication that they could appreciate its effects and value?

In a world where we’re increasingly reliant upon digital devices it’s heartening to read about these navigators who crossed oceans with nothing but their knowledge and intuition. And. in fact, they still do, as you can see in the documentary below.