Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Methods of Ancient Navigators

How could ancient peoples sail around the world with only primitive ships, no computers, and only the lousiest of maps--or no map at all?

This question has baffled historians for centuries, despite the unmistakable existence of people who inhabited remote islands throughout the Polynesians. Basically, the answer the historians came up with was that it didn't happen.

Only smart sailors from Europe could possibly make maps and develop sailing technology for long voyages, or so the theory went. European vessels were gigantic constructs, stuffed with supplies of food, water and cargo of different sorts, suitable for very long voyages.

So if primitive peoples were inhabiting remote islands in the Pacific and the Atlantic, they must have gotten there by accident. Perhaps they were caught in storms, and just happened to be swept to islands of safety. Well there must have been a lot of storms, and a lot of lucky people.

Particularly baffling is the civilization at Easter Island, which is 600 miles from the nearest land mass. To make a long story short, the inhabitants of Easter Island spoke Polynesian dialects, so they probably came from islands, located thousands of miles away. More embarrassingly for Eurocentric historians, the Polynesians had no giant ships, but only glorified canoes with no instruments.
Nevertheless, Easter Island was populated by Polynesian people at the time of its "discovery" by Capt James Cook in 1774. Not to mention that over 1000 other islands were also inhabited. Face it, folks, the Polynesians knew how to sail!

But how did they do it? One great way was to follow the paths of migrating birds. If the island has birds--and even Eastern Island does, then a person could find the island by following the birds.

Moreover, by traveling light, the Polynesians could also travel fast. Picture the paddlers as sort of the Polynesian version of the Tour de France. If you can imagine scheduling shifts, with each paddler spending several hours per day paddling, perhaps a canoe could average five knots, or some 4000 miles per month.

Greg Taylor (Honolulu Advertiser) painted this picture of a Polynesian canoe. 

Polynesian navigators also knew a lot about the waves, and how they alter their appearance subtly within hundreds of miles of land. They understood the path of the sun and the stars, and could probably maintain their bearing and latitude with reasonable accuracy.

And if Polynesians knew such tricks, it shouldn't be surprising if other people, say Native Americans or Vikings, were sailing back and forth between North America and Europe at the same time. When I was in elementary school, we were taught that Christopher Columbus was the first person to sail to America. Later we learned that the Vikings may have explored North America. By now, it is generally acknowledged that ancient people were actually very mobile, and a lot of people may have been piling up miles on their Frequent Sailor's cards.

Just because sailors lived in the Stone Age doesn't mean they were dumb. It was really a combination of genius and athleticism that allowed people to find new lands and to trade with remote civilizations. A task awaiting future historians is to get a better understanding of their methods, and to figure out just who was visiting who and when.

No comments:

Post a Comment