The Stick Chart Navigation of Marshall Islands

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The Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean was settled by the Micronesians more than three thousand years ago. These early settlers had to make frequent journeys between more than 1,100 islands spread out over 29 coral atolls. They lacked modern navigation equipment such as compasses and sextants, but possessed an incredibly detailed knowledge of the sea, the waves, the swells and the currents which they utilized to develop a simple yet sophisticated system of navigation made up of sticks and shells.

These so called “stick charts” consist of thin strips of coconut frond and midribs or pandanus root bound together in straight or curved lines using coconut fiber to create a frame like structure. At various places in the frame, small sea shells were tied together by creating junctions, using two or more sticks. The shells and junctions represent the location of islands, whereas the sticks represent currents and swells in the sea. In essence, stick charts are crude maps of the ocean.

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Photo credit: Walter Meayers Edwards/National Geographic

The curved sticks show where swells are deflected by an island. The short, straight strips indicate currents near islands. The longer strips may indicate the direction in which certain islands are to be found, and the small cowry shells represent the islands themselves.

Unlike modern maps, stick charts are not literal representation of the sea, but more an abstract illustration of the ways that ocean swells interact with land. Indeed, individual charts varied so much in form and interpretation that many times a stick chart could only be read by the person who made it. The charts were also not used for navigation in the way we use maps or charts today. Seldom did sailors carry the charts with them when they made their journeys, or even if they did, they probably did not consult stick charts on their long journeys. Instead, navigators memorized the chart before the journey was made and then used their senses and memory to guide them on voyages.

The Marshallese had an astounding knowledge of the ocean swells. They would crouch down or lie prone in the canoe to feel how the canoe was being pitched and rolled by underlying swells. By simply feeling how their canoe roll, they were able to identify and distinguish between four different ocean swells, which they called rilib, kaelib, bungdockerik and bundockeing.

The rilib is the strongest of the four ocean swells. It is generated by the northeast trade winds and is present during the entire year. The kaelib swell is weaker than the rilib and could only be detected by knowledgeable persons, but it is also present year round. The bungdockerik is present year round as well and arises in the southwest. This swell is often as strong as the rilib in the southern islands. The bundockeing swell is the weakest of the four swells, and is mainly felt in the northern islands.

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Not everybody knew how to make or read the charts. It was a closely guarded secret that only a select few rulers knew, and the knowledge was only passed on from father to son. When making journeys, fifteen or more canoes would sail together in a squadron, accompanied by a leader pilot skilled in use of the charts.

This unique piloting system was only known to the outside after 1862 when a resident missionary published a description. The use of stick charts came to end after World War 2. The Polynesians still make them but only to sell them as souvenir to tourists.

“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,” writes Wikipedia. “They also use different materials from those 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.”

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This type of chart is known as a mattang, and is specifically made for the purpose of training people selected to be navigators. Such charts depict general information about swell movements around one or more small islands. Photo credit: Trustees of the British Museum/Khan Academy

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Modern copy of a stick chart, acquired in 1991 in Majuro. Photo credit: marshall.csu.edu.au

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Modern copy of a stick chart, acquired in 1991 in Majuro. Photo credit: marshall.csu.edu.au

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Photo credit: thenonist.com

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Stick chart with location of various island mapped. Photo credit: thenonist.com

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Photo credit: unknown/reddit

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Photo credit: www.nla.gov.au

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An unknown stick chart recovered from Marshall Islands. Photo credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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A stick chart displayed in the UK’s Science Museum. It’s 69 centimeters square and made of the midribs of palm fronds. Photo credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Sources: Wikipedia / Smithsonian

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