Celestial Navigation Before 1400

Before the 1400s Pacific Islanders, Persians, Arabs, inhabitants of Indian Ocean islands such as the Maldives traversed the open seas. While all depended fundamentally upon the ocean's currents and winds, they used the heavens for navigation, since stars and planets were their most dependable "landmarks" on open oceans.

Before scientific navigation, Indian and Pacific Ocean sailors created detailed star maps in their minds and elaborate ways of remembering them. Arab Indian Ocean navigators used sounds--relying on poetic verses--to remember the stars and their position. Polynesians and Micronesians used elaborate visual images--darting parrot fishes (on left) or trigger fish (on right) or even the circular base of a gourd, lines burnt in to show the meridian of Hawaii. Polynesians and Micronesians, who sailed the greatest distances--thousands of miles across open oceans--created the most elaborate star maps. Hawaiian Star Map or Micronesian Star Chart at other sites.

Both Polynesians and Micronesians also created elaborate compasses using the stars--while traditional Indian Ocean sailors did not. When the Chinese developed a compass for navigation in the 11th century, it was quickly adopted in the Indian Ocean and Europe, but not the Pacific where traditional Hawaiian Star Compass or Micronesian Star Compass were adequate for navigation. (Both compasses elsewhere on the net.)

But none of these techniques of celestial navigation relied upon science. All were good enough for navigating when the winds and currents were predictable. But none of these techniques were adequate for the combination of intense storms and lengthy calms in the South Atlantic.

Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia are the three divisions of the Pacific Islands peoples created by the French explorer de Surville after his voyage in 1828, and continue in use today.

On-Line Sources

On-Line Sources

On-Line Sources

Polynesia: Map of Polynesian Voyages | Introduction to Polynesian Navigation | More on Hawaiian Navigation
Micronesia: Legendary Micronesian Navigator Mau Piailug | Introduction to Micronesian Navigation | Documentary on Micronesian Navigation
Aotearoa (New Zealand):
Polynesian Voyagers. The Maori as a Deep-sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer
Traditional celestial navigation on land (1900s):
Lakota Use of Celestial Navigation

Classic Books on Polynesian & Micronesian Navigation

Thomas Gladwin. East is a big bird; navigation and logic on Puluwat atoll Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1970
Richard Feinberg, Polynesian seafaring and navigation : ocean travel in Anutan culture and society Kent, Ohio : Kent State University Press, c1988.

David Lewis, We, the Navigators : The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific Sir Derek Oulton, editor. 2nd ed.Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, 1994
Ben R. Finney, Hokulea : The Way to Tahiti New York : Dodd, Mead, c1979.
Ben R. Finney, Voyage of Rediscovery Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Ben R. Finney, A 1995 Voyage and History of the Controversies surrounding Polynesian Navigation (a must read for advanced students)

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