Navigation charts made with sticks, the amazing system used by the natives of the Marshall Islands

In the Marshall Islands, an ingenious and advanced system was used until the middle of the 20th century to map the waves and facilitate navigation, which is unparalleled in the world.

The Marshall Islands are today an independent country located in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia and east of Micronesia. But before they belonged to Spain, which conquered them in 1528, ceding them to Germany in 1885. They were occupied by Japan during World War II and, after this, administered by the United States, obtaining their independence in 1990.

The Marshallese have always been excellent sailors, and it is not for nothing that the two archipelagos that make up the country have a total of 1,152 islands, islets and atolls. They were also experienced canoe builders, and in fact there is still an annual competition for the manufacture of this type of traditional boat today.

But the most interesting thing is how they oriented themselves in the sea, for which they used some navigation charts made with sticks that constitute the first cartographic system of marine waves known in the world. Its complexity and precision are an achievement that continues to amaze experts today.

The system was not known to the Western world until it was revealed in 1862 by a missionary named Gulick, around the same time that Gustav Holm discovered the three-dimensional maps used by the Greenlandic Inuit, but even so its operation remained a mystery. mystery.

Identification of the islands in one of the letters / photo The Nonist

It would be the captain of a German ship stationed in the islands in 1896 who would carry out the first functional description of the method in a publication two years later.

Captain Raimund Winkler, who commanded the SMS Bussard, was curious about the principles behind these strange wooden maps, the secret of which was only passed down from father to son, and got the natives to reveal to him how they were used.

These artifacts are not navigation charts as the concept is understood in the Western world, but rather mnemonic and learning instruments, because surprisingly the maps were not consulted during navigation, but were memorized before the trip, something logical considering account the fragility of the artifacts and the limitation of movement on board the canoes.

Not all Marshallese knew about the system, only a small number of the ruling elite controlled the secret of the creation of navigational charts, which was passed down exclusively within the family itself.

For this reason, when they went out to sea, they did so in groups of 15 or more canoes, in front of which was a single pilot, precisely the one who knew the exclusive cartographic method.

Traditional canoe from the Marshall Islands / photo Seidel, 1902

The navigation charts were made with sticks attached with coconut ropes, which delimited the different wave zones, with the islands represented by shells tied in the corresponding place. Using strings, they pointed out the direction of ocean waves as they approached the islands, as well as the ebb and flow of the breakers.

It is possible that at first the system was common to all its connoisseurs, but over time it became so exclusive that only the creator of one of these maps himself knew how to interpret and use it.

Letter kept in the Historical Museum of Bern / photo NearEMPTiness on Wikimedia Commons

They identified four types of waves, called rilib (generated by northeasterly trade winds), kaelib (weaker and only detectable by the most experienced sailors), bungdockerik (very strong swell from the southwest) and bundocking (the weakest of all, present in the northern islands), which were represented on the maps by curved sticks and threads, mainly around the islands, so that they could identify safe access routes through the swell.

Navigation maps were of three types: Mattang they were used for instruction in the art of navigation; the medo they were partial maps that only showed some of the islands in their relative or exact positions, as well as the direction of the deep swell; and the Rebbelib were similar to medo but they included the position of all the islands of the Marshallese archipelagos, thus being the most complete.

After the Second World War, this type of map stopped being used due to the arrival of new technologies, although the knowledge of its elaboration continues to be kept alive.

Today copies of the preserved old maps are also made, which are sold to tourists as souvenirs. Luckily there are many original specimens left in museums around the world.


We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific (David Lewis) / Nautical Cartography and Traditional Navigation in Oceania (Ben Finney) / Traditional and nineteenth century communication patterns in the Marshall Islands (Dirk HR Spennemann) / Micronesian Stick Charts / Polynesian Stick Charts / Wikipedia.