Friday, April 25, 2008

Traditional Navigation in the Western Pacific

We know that all people, if raised in the appropriate environment, prove capable of learning to speak any language and to think and operate effectively in the context of any culture. But what about different people's traditional bodies of specialized lore? Are they organized in similar ways, or not? Cognitive psychologists are interested in understanding how specialists mentally process and store their knowledge so that they can retrieve it as needed.

Traditional navigators of the Central Caroline Islands provide a case in point. The Carolinian art of navigation includes a sizable body of knowledge developed to meet the needs of ocean voyaging for distances of up to several hundred miles among the tiny islands and atolls of Micronesia. Lacking writing, local navigators have had to commit to memory their knowledge of the stars, sailing directions, seamarks, and how to read the waves and clouds to determine currents and predict weather.

Before Europeans entered Micronesia, the known world of Carolinian navigators extended from Palau and Yap in the west to Ponape in the east and from Saipan and Guam in the north to Nuquoro and Kapingamarangi in the south. Their sailing directions also included places beyond this region in the west, south, and east, but these lay outside the limits of intentional voyaging and were mostly mythical rather than real places. Knowledge of such distant places met no practical need but served to show off one's learning.

Within Micronesia, the low islands of the coral atolls are where navigation and seafaring have been known and practiced. People living on the high islands of this region - Palau, Yap, Truk, Ponape, and Kosrae - did not maintain seafaring traditions and depended on the atoll dwellers for trade and ocean travel. Puluwat, Pulap, and Satawal, all west of Truk, were where Carolinian navigation was most highly developed, and where it continues to be in active use today.

Basic to the entire navigational system is the "star structure," as the navigators call it. Observed near the equator, the stars appear to rotate around the earth on a north-south axis. Some rise and set farther to the north and some farther to the south, and they do so in succession at different times.

The "star structure" divides the great circle of the horizon into 32 points where the stars (other than Polaris) for which the points are named are observed to rise and set. These 32 points form a sidereal (star) compass that provides the system of reference for organizing all directional information about winds, currents, ocean swells, and the relative positions of islands, shoals, reefs, and other seamarks. The diametrically opposite points of this compass are seen as connecting in straight lines through a central point. A navigator thinks of himself or of any place from which he is determining directions as at this central point. Whatever compass point he faces, there is a reciprocal point at his back.