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    Polynesian navigation
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2009 Jun 5, 20:02 -0700

    I wrote previously:
    "Is it possible that the "dead reckoning" cues in the tropical Pacific, things 
    like bio-luminescence, are so much better there than in the Atlantic that 
    Polynesian navigators simply never had any practical reason to go beyond the 
    tools of dead reckoning (and possibly basic zenith stars)?"
    
    Peter, you replied:
    "Seems to me that they weren't mechanically minded; is all."
    
    They built beautiful ocean-going sailing vessels. Why not a cross-staff?
    
    And also you wrote:
    "You might as well ask why they didn't invent the wheel.  Which suggests its 
    own answer: wasn't much use to them."
    
    Well, yes, that's what I was asking -- were the conditions of Pacific 
    navigation such that the moderately greater accuracy provided by a 
    cross-staff simply wouldn't have helped enough to make it worth having? Take 
    bio-luminescence, for example. This phenomenon comes from certain specific 
    species of marine organisms. There's quite a variety, but it's not ubiquitous 
    and in latitudes with seasons, it's not a year-round phenomenon (off New 
    England, the comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi --now the scourge of the Black Sea 
    thanks to some bilge water transfers-- glows in vast numbers when oars are 
    dragged through the water, but out of season, the waters are dark). So could 
    it be that some of the unique conditions of the Pacific, incoluding perhaps 
    widespread bio-luminescence, particularly in the heartland of Polynesia, made 
    celestial navigation even its most primitive form largely irrelevant.
    
    And you wrote:
    "The genius of many indigenous peoples appears to be the practical uses they 
    could drive from keen observance of their natural world."
    
    Yes, sure, but frequently it seems that we have a "four legs good, two legs 
    bad" thing going on here. Every single one of us alive on Earth today is a 
    descendant of some indigenous culture. The western Europeans who invented 
    scientific navigation were not androids from an alien planet. They knew many 
    of those natural tricks, too, and used them on a regular basis. Read any 
    sailing guide to entering the English Channel from the 16th right through the 
    early 20th centuries. They're filled with details about "black ooze" under 
    this part of the channel or "fine sand" over there or "tiny cockles" near 
    some headland. Navigating by the properties of "mud" is about as basic as you 
    can get in navigational technique and surely no less "naturalistic" than the 
    methods used by the Polynesians. What has happened, of course, is that those 
    naturalistic tricks have become less and less important as scientific 
    navigation has advanced. This is true in the English Channel as well as among 
    the atolls of the Pacific, for the simple reason that the technological 
    solutions work much better: you get greater economic efficiency and lower 
    risk to lives and property.
    
    Peter, you added:
    "I'm not sure Frank is being fair by claiming limitations associated with dead 
    reckoning or zenith stars."
    
    Peter, actually I did not suggest any limitations. I have said in a number of 
    NavList posts over the years that dead reckoning (not literally DR, but DR 
    enhanced by knowledge of currents and other factors) is much under-rated. In 
    fact, what I was suggesting is that the semi-dead reckoning techniques which 
    work so well in the unique conditions of Polynesia may have simply made 
    angle-measuring devices, even as crude as the cross-staff, superfluous there 
    compared to the Atlantic. Oceans can be "oceans apart".
    
    And you concluded:
    "Amongst other techniques, they knew the navigational stars and observed their 
    appearance above the horizon and subsequent setting, although the writings of 
    the westerners who have recorded this (we need to remember that they may not 
    have been privy to the full story) suggest that these observations were used 
    for orientation, ie; they had the same function as a compass."
    
    Well, what we have is the evidence available. Some Micronesian navigators 
    definitely used the stars for compass heading. There is good oral history on 
    that. There also appears to be ample evidence that some Polynesian navigators 
    used zenith stars for a rough estimate of latitude (could you do better than 
    +/-3 degrees s.d. with zenith stars? Not likely). Did they do more? What more 
    could they have done??
    
    -FER
    
    
    
    
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