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lk banner2 Lost Knowledge: Stick chart navigationThe twice-monthly Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those just slightly off to the side). Every other Wednesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE, Volume 17

This week, we look at an awesome, indigenous type of ocean mapping and navigation technology known as stick charts (aka Marshall Islands stick charts, Micronesian stick charts, or Polynesian stick charts).

stckchrt1 Lost Knowledge: Stick chart navigation

The Wikipedia entry for Marshall Islands stick chart starts:

Marshall Islands stick charts were made and used by the Marshallese to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe off the coast of the Marshall Islands. The charts represented major ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupted those patterns, typically determined by sensing disruptions in ocean swells by islands during sea navigation. Stick charts were typically made from the midribs of coconut fronds tied together to form an open framework. Island locations were represented by shells tied to the framework, or by the lashed junction of two or more sticks. The threads represented prevailing ocean surface wave-crests and directions they took as they approached islands and met other similar wave-crests formed by the ebb and flow of breakers. Individual charts varied so much in form and interpretation that the individual navigator who made the chart was the only person who could fully interpret and use it. Use of stick charts and navigation by swells apparently came to demise after World War II, when travel between islands by canoe halted.

An article on Jaime Morrison’s wonderful blog, The Nonist, identifies three basic types of stick charts:

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The “MATTANG” or “WAPPEPE” is a small, square-shaped chart which shows wave patterns around a single island or atoll and was used for teaching purposes only.

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The “REBBELIB” is a general wave navigational chart mapping an entire chain, showing the relationships between the islands and the major ocean swells.

stckchrt4 Lost Knowledge: Stick chart navigation

The “MEDO” covers only a few islands and is useful for specific voyages.

The Nonist article goes on to describe that the charts were made “from thin strips of coconut frond midribs or pandanus root. They were then bound together with coconut sennit in geometric patterns depicting sea currents around the low lying atolls. Small money cowrie shells or coral pebbles indicated islands and curved sticks represent wave patterns.”

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On the site Ethnomathematics (!) Digital Library (EDL), they have a number of fascinating PDF papers on Micronesian, Polynesian, and Marshallese navigation, including Marshall Islands stick chart (PDF) and Mapping the world in the mind: a case study of the unwritten knowledge of the Micronesian navigators (PDF).


This page, from Topical Stamps, shows several Micronesia postage stamps that pay homage to stick chart technology.

Wikipedia goes on to conclude:

The stick charts are a significant contribution to the history of cartography because they represent a system of mapping ocean swells, which was never before accomplished. They also use different materials than is common in other parts of the world. They are an indication that ancient maps may have looked very different, and encoded different features from the earth, than the maps we use today.

The charts, unlike traditional maps, were studied and memorized prior to a voyage and were not consulted during a trip, as compared to traditional navigation techniques where consultation of a map is frequent and points and courses are plotted out both before and during navigation. Marshallese navigators used their senses and memory to guide them on voyages by crouching down or lying prone in the canoe to feel how the canoe was being pitched and rolled by underlying swells.


Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor for Boing Boing and WINK Books. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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