A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2018 Sep 18, 17:16 -0700
How do we know the Polynesian navigators used zenith stars? Don't get me wrong, they could have done something like that. But what is the evidentiary basis, the primary source historical evidence that they did so? Did Tupaia mention zenith stars? I sure don't think so. Do we even have any secondary source references to Polynesian navigators using zenith stars before the mid-20th century?
Gary, I agree completely with your point about landfall, and in fact, in many voyaging circumstances I think we can even go further. Imagine a navigator with no tools but a general understanding of the Pacific "map" sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti. A safe approach here would be to sail south and plan on arriving in the South Pacific well to the east since any southbound trajectory out east of Tahiti will likely intersect the enormous Tuamotu Archipelago. And though the total amount of dry land is tiny, the atolls are like a hundred necklaces, a hundred delicate rings scattered across the ocean. And you would have to try very hard to miss them all completely. You will, with high certainty, find one of those atolls... Once in among the islands, life is simpler. Chat with any locals you encounter. And sail generally west adjusting your course based on what you learn from the locals. You'll get there. With any luck, and a sufficient navigation culture, you might even recognize an island's name and know its relationship to Tahiti from previous exerience. So much the better. And while an indigenous navigator might gain some benefit from knowing generally what latitude the vessel is in, you could really live without it. Of course the return voyage would be tougher, but as I say, it depends on the voyaging circumstances.
We should consider the possibility that the concept of latitude stars is either wishful thinking, in which western navigators and navigation enthusiasts have unintentionally imposed their own knowledge on the part of the story that makes sense from their world view, or we may be seeing simple cultural contamination, in which western knowledge and concepts of navigation were assimilated into Polynesian navigation in earlier centuries, even as little as 150 years ago. Polynesian men found work aboard western vessels for centuries. They were valued for their hard work at low pay. They learned techniques of western navigation. Where can we look to find "pure" Polynesian navigation?
In the end, it doesn't matter much. Modern Polynesians are aware that they are reviving a lost body of knowledge with only a few bare bones remaining from the original culture. You work with what you have, and you make something that honors the tradition even if it can't hope to be historically accurate, however we choose to define that.