Polynesian Navigators

Raymond A. Duranton, a member of ALAF, has kindly allowed us to publish his article which appeared in note #23 of the CEIPP Domain.

We would like to thank him on behalf of the members of ALAF. You can download the original ici.

Polynesian Navigators


Don’t look for it – if you still have it – in the October 2019 Bulletin #192.  We talked on pages 3 and 4 about the “Polynesian Puzzle” exhibited by Christina Thompson. She asked how with so little land on so much water these peoples were able to colonize most of the Pacific in two millennia. She provides some answers, but mostly she relies on their ability, more than other peoples, to cover fairly large distances across the immense ocean. The book by David Lewis that I am talking about here, published in 1972, “We, the Navigators” explains this ability in more detail.

Resurrection of ancestral skills

The subtitle is more precise. It is about the ancient art of finding land in the Pacific. In Micronesia and Polynesia especially, several times the area of Europe, the lands have the tiny density of two in a thousand, except New Zealand.

These people of the water orient themselves better than the most experienced European sailors. James Cook had charged the Polynesian Tupaia in the Leeward Islands who guided his ships to the next land without error. There is nothing lucky or supernatural about this, as ancient sailors might have imagined. The reason explains the thousands of observations of the ocean that allowed them to do so. Especially orally, they were transmitted in these peoples for centuries. This until the arrival of the Western civilization in the 19th century that almost stopped this chain. David Lewis was able to save it by assimilating it in the islands and spreading it. He understood that many oceanic populations of the planet were orienting themselves without compass.

Author and book

Educated as a young man in Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Lewis travelled all over the Pacific and in particular sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand, his native land, using only, with the help of Polynesians, the techniques described in the book.

This book is not only an explanation of techniques grouped by concepts, with texts and drawings. On 440 pages, in addition to 8 chapters explaining the techniques, there are also numerous explanatory maps, translations of the terms used, the location of the main islands, the Tahitian names of the stars used and, of course, an abundant reference.


The book is dense and difficult for me and I think for many readers. I describe only a little of what is useful for the navigation of the dugouts built by these peoples. The technical indications would require a good knowledge in astronomy of day and night light position, in observation of the sea in detail. The text and the images try to teach us them with perseverance.

Distances and boats

Except for New Zealand, Rapa Nui and Hawaii, an island is about 200 km from its neighbor and in practice often less than 50 km away where internal crossings are the most numerous as shown on the map. The author distinguishes between voyages of this size and those of greater distances (“offshore”), each with its own techniques. For the boats and their sails, their human and animal contents and their conduct depend on the projected voyage.

The sails are often of the “claw” type, which I translate as “crab claw”, the dictionaries giving “Austronesian sail” which is true but does not explain their shape.

Swells and waves

I learn that, in the state of the sea, these characteristics, not to be confused, carry a lesson ignored by many, except perhaps some sailors, shore dwellers … and rescuers. Each one depends on the current winds and the winds of before, are not the same in the open sea and in the approach of a coast. With drawings, the book shows how the distant shore influences the waves.

Stars and lights

During the day, you can be guided by the sun, the paths of birds and turtles, some fish and the visible glow of the sea.

At night, the stellar compass includes, depending on the time of day and the season, in addition to the moon, the detectable stars, each one bearing a name. The most important one is the small and easily recognizable constellation called the Southern Cross (Tauha.) It indicates (almost) the direction of the South Pole. It is mostly combined with Sirius or Antares, which are quite visible. Drawings show how these stars, kept in the angles of the rigs, allow to follow the course or to turn. A diagram is given opposite of navigation with the Southern Cross and Antares.

Ocean Phosphorescence

Among many other reference points, the Polynesians oriented themselves according to shades of what has been translated (wrongly) as the phosphorescence of the water. This is not the reflection of the air and sky but, in the physical sense, luminescence. That is to say, the light emitted directly into the water by the billions of marine animals, including the phytoplankton shown opposite. There are some animals on earth that emit permanent or temporary light (mushrooms, birds, insects, etc.) but in the ocean many are endowed with this property, enough to create a light that is constantly changing and difficult to interpret.

Pacific sailors observed this changing light at night and could deduce their approximate orientation and especially the proximity of land long before they saw it. The Polynesians spot the daytime fish by their light… but that’s another story.


Was it the scientific success of the book and the commercial boom that followed?

The diffusion of these techniques by David Lewis to all the navigators of the world – some of them took advantage of it – was not without criticism. This is not the end of a long and lively polemic on how to find distant lands.

I am thinking especially of Andrew Sharp, who in the JPS (Journal of Polynesian Society) denounced this contribution as insufficient to explain the “prehistoric” (i.e. pre-European) voyages of the ancient Austronesians.

For me, in reading Lewis, one discovers some keys to reading the sea, better than before reading. “This quiet roof…the sea, the sea always beginning again” said Paul Valéry.

RAD – Raymond A. Duranton

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