Sticks and Stones: Polynesian Nautical Charts (14 pictures)

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 ended after World War II, when new electronic technologies made navigation more accessible, and travel between islands by canoe lessened.

Stick charts were not made and used by all Marshall Islanders. Only a select few rulers knew the method of making the maps, and the knowledge was only passed on from father to son. So that others could utilize the expertise of the navigator, fifteen or more canoes sailed together in a squadron, accompanied by a leader pilot skilled in use of the charts.

It was not until 1862 that this unique piloting system was revealed in a public notice prepared by a resident missionary. It was not until the 1890s that it was comprehensively described by a naval officer, Captain Winkler of the Imperial German Navy. He became so intrigued by the stick charts that he made a major effort to determine navigational principles behind them and convinced the navigators to share how the stick charts were used.


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