In the Pacific Ocean, the Micronesians settled the Marshall Islands three thousand years ago. They had to travel frequently between 1,100 islands, which are spread out over a total of 29 coral atolls. Despite the lack of modern navigational tools like compasses and sextants, they were highly skilled at seafaring, knowing things like wave patterns, swells, and currents, which they used to devise a simple yet highly effective means of navigation.
A frame like structure is created from thin strips of coconut frond and midribs or pandanus root, all bound together using coconut fibre. The frame was filled with a series of small sea shells connected by two or more sticks, which were used to create junction points. Because the shells and junctions are markers for the location of islands, and the sticks represent sea currents and waves, they can be used to locate underwater points of interest. To sum it up, stick charts are basic ocean maps.
The stick markers indicate where waves were pushed away by an island. The short, narrow strips point to island currents. This was the reason for using the long strips to track the islands, and the smaller cowry shells served as their representatives.
Sticks charts are not literal depictions of the sea, but rather abstract representations of the interaction between the sea and the land. And in fact, each individual chart varied so greatly in form and interpretation that the majority of the time, only the person who made the stick chart could read it. It’s also important to note that those maps weren’t employed for navigation in the way we use maps and charts today. There is no evidence that sailors kept maps with them when they travelled. If they did, they did not use them on their long voyages. Instead, navigators used their memory and senses to navigate instead of needing a visual aid.
The Marshallese were expert ocean swells spotters. In the canoe, they would kneel or lie down to feel how the canoe was being tossed and rocked by waves below the surface. The distinct ocean swells they identified, which they called rilib, kaelib, bungdockerik, and bundockeing, could be detected by simply observing how their canoe rolled.
Of the four ocean swells, the rim wind is the strongest. The trade winds in the northeast generate it, and it’s present throughout the year. This lesser swelling is less noticeable than the rilib and can only be detected by people who are knowledgeable about it, but it is also a year-round phenomenon. In addition to being year-round, the Bungdockerik occurs in the southwest. In the southern islands, the rilib is equally forceful. The Northern Islands are the most heavily affected by the relatively weak uptick.
Not everyone was capable of creating or reading the charts. Only a few powerful rulers were aware of it, and it was only passed on from father to son. A fleet of fifteen or more canoes set out on a journey accompanied by a lead navigator who was adept at reading maps.
The piloting system was never made public until a resident missionary released a description in 1862. After World War II, the use of stick charts came to an end. Today, Polynesians still craft their customary art for sale to tourists as souvenirs.
A mattang is the term used for a specific chart, which is made for training individuals chosen to be navigators. Charts like these illustrate patterns in swell activity that occurs around a small island or group of islands. Khan Academy image courtesy of Trustees of the British Museum.
Wikipedia explains that stick charts are ‘a notable addition to the history of cartography because they represent a system of mapping ocean swells, which was never before achieved
via Amusing Planet