Lost Knowledge: Stick Chart Navigation

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Lost Knowledge: Stick Chart Navigation

Lost Knowledge explores the possible technologies of the future in the forgotten (or marginalized) tech of the past. We look at retro-tech, “lost” technologies, 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).


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:


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.


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


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.”

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.

2 thoughts on “Lost Knowledge: Stick Chart Navigation

  1. ratcheer says:

    I spent a few months in Micronesia in the 70’s – my parents had been working there for several years. I collected a few of these, though I’ve often wondered if most of them were fakes, randomly assembled for the (not very many) tourists.

    It was a great trip! I swam down to sunken WWII ships, learned how to get and open coconuts from trees (they’ll crack if you just toss them down – I should post that as Lost Knowledge), drank ‘sakau’ (called Kava Kava in the herb shops now, but there it was a slimy beverage pounded fresh from the root – MUCH stronger), visited the outer islands, went to a wedding (Catholic hymns sung in Trukese – amazing), caught a shark.

    I should write it up some time!

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance 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 to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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