|Stamps featuring stick charts.
|Prize for Most Creative Answer
|How Jim Solved the Puzzle
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1. A Marshall Island stick chart used for navigation.
2. There are many reasons they have died out:
Canoes are not used to travel between the islands any more.
There are more accurate navigation aids now such as GPS.
The navigation masters with the knowledge on how to use them have died out.
|If you enjoy our quizzes, don't forget to order our books!
|Ancient Polynesian navigation instruments - held up in
the night sky with various stars at the junctures to guide
them to their island destinations.
Frank P. Nollette
|Prize for the Scariest Answer
|I googled the individual names from the photo and found
that they were all atolls or islands in the Marshall Chain.
Once I found that, a google of “stick map of Marshall
Islands” led me to an article with a picture of an example
collected by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Once again, a fascinating bit of trivia learned while doing
|Answer to Quiz #243
January 31, 2010
the presences of an island. Much of this empirical knowledge was not so well known
by scientific oceanographers of our society as it was by Marshallese seafarers until
aerial photographs were available for studying wave and swell action. When
oceanographers began to study ocean swells it was found that their action conformed
to the laws of wave theory in the same ways as do light and sound. For example,
when an ocean swell strikes a shore, part of it -- its energy, that i -- is reflected at an
angle equal to the angle of its incidence. And when a swell approaches, strikes, and
part of it moves part a small island, such as one of the Marshall Islands atolls, its line of
movement is changed according to the angle of shoreline toward which it is advancing.
The crestline of a swell approaching the shore of an island is bent and curved toward
conformity with the shoreline. This occurs because the inshore position of the wave is
slowed down as it encounters shallow water, its energy is expended by breaking or
peaking up the wave, thus slowing down the forward motion while the offshore portion
in deep water continues advancing at a constant rate of speed. This is swell refraction.
Cartography is an invention that is seldom encountered
among primitive, that is, non-literate peoples, for it seems
that be a development closely allied with writing
systems. One of the rare occurrences of map making in
a primitive culture -- and certainly the most
sophisticated of them -- it in the Marshall Islands of
eastern Micronesia, Pacific Ocean. Before their first
contact with European civilization in the 16th century the
Marshallese had perfected both ocean-going canoes that
were as maneuverable and swift as any small craft ever
devised, even by an industrialized society, and a unique
system of piloting that represented on a kind of chart.
The hulls of their canoes, constructed of hand-hewn
planks that were tightly fitted and stitched together with
coconut fiber cord, were knife-thin and kept stable in the
water by a cantilevered outrigger float on one side.
Driven by a lateen sail, the canoe could be easily tacked
and sailed up very close to he wind, without making
undue leeway, as well as sailed down wind with
minimum drag in the water. With such seaworthy and
manageable craft as these, regular communication among
the 34 coral atolls of the Marshall Islands was possible,
even though the tiny islands of this group ar widely
scattered and all are so low that none can be seen from
more than a few miles at sea.
BY accurate observation of the sea, the Marshallese had
accumulated a rich fund of accurate knowledge about
the action of ocean swells, what happens to them as they
approach and pass by land, and the characteristics of
two or more swell patterns interacting with each other in
|Marshall Island Cartography
by William Davenport
Expedition Magazine, Summer 1964
|Andrew Yeiser and His Stick Chart
|Meddo chart collected by
Robert Louis Stevenson.
Straight sticks represent
systems of swells rolling
into the Marshall Islands.
Shells tied to the
islands of the group. The
curved sticks depict
refracted swells. Most of
these kinds of charts
represent only a few
islands and their
patterns, but this one
covers nearly the entire
Marshall group. 29" x 49"
read the configurations of swells that
identify each unseen island as he passes
it. By lying on his back in the bilge of his
canoe and sensing the motion of the
canoe, the skilled pilot can "fix" his
position at night even without looking at
the sea, for the movement of the canoe
alone will tell him what kinds of swells are
acting on it.
Obviously, a certain amount of aesthetic
license is to be found on some charts.
Wave patterns rarely, if ever, occur in
such perfectly symmetrical relationships
as shown on charts. Creative liberties
hardly can be attributed to the scientific
naivete of a tribal people; the trained
technicians who construct the colored ball
and wire models of the atom in order to
illustrate principles of nuclear physics also
seem to sacrifice some scientific accuracy
for visual appeal.
1. What is this?
2. Why aren't these used any more?
Click here for hint. If you are still stuck, you may write me for a second hint.
|Reflection and refraction of ocean
waves as they strike a small atoll. (a)
Waves are straight as they travel
towards the atoll; (b) waves are bent
(refracted) as they strike land and
conform to the contour of the shore; (c)
part of each wave is reflected back after
it strikes the island; (d) shadow of
turbulence created by refracted
portions of waves as they curve around
|More about Wave Types
from "Native Navigators" by Dr. M. W. de Laugenfles
Research Reviews, June 1950
Finally, a turbulent shadow of a
special kind, resembling a
penumbra, is to be found extending
out from the lee side of an island
for several miles.
Reflection, refraction, the shadow
phenomenon, and several other
ancillary wave actions were well
understood by the Marshallese
who studied them, not from the
vantage point of aerial photographs
where they can be observed with
ease, but from the surface of the
sea in their canoes and from th
shores of their atolls which offer
elevations never more than a few
feet above sea level. They not only
recognized these complex swell
and wave patterns, they put this
empirical science to practical use
by developing a system of piloting
and navigation from it. It is these
oceanographic phenomena that are
depicted on their charts. The
charts are used by sailing masters
to teach the principles of wave
action and the use of them in fixing
a canoe's position when it is near
to but out of sight of land.
Marshallese charts are not drawn
on flat sheets, they are models
constructed of sticks. There are
two types, the mattang,
constructions that illustrate the
|Congratulations to Our Winners!
Mr. Rick and the Quiz Kids are right on course with this one!
Timothy Fitzpatrick (Brother of the Quizmaster General)
Susan Fortune Tamura Jones
Peter Norton Jim Baker
Laurie Pierce Anne Alves
Gina Ortega Teresa Yu
Lauri Pierce Bill Burrows
Collier Smith Diane Burkett
Mike Swierczewski Joe McCabe
Donna Jolley Dennis Brann
Margaret Paxton Carl Blessing
Sandy McConathy Alan Cullinan
JoLynn Pfeiffer Dale Niesen
Daniel E. Jolley Jim Kiser
Suzanne Rude Bill Hurley
Linda Williams Joshua Kreitzer
Ben Truwe Stan Read
Judy Pfaff Frank Nollette
John Sims Karen Kay Bunting
Justin Campoli Marilyn Hamill
Wayne Douglas Laurel Fletchner
Maureen O'Connor Pat McChesney
Nicole Blank Edee Scott
Gary Sterne Milene Rawlinson
Debby Sterbinsky Karl Brossard
Mike Dalton Robert W. Steinmann Jr.
Eva Royal Jocelyn Thayer Beth Long
Robrt Edward McKenna, QPL
abstract general concepts of swell movements and interactions in the vicinity of one or
more small islands; and the meddo ("sea") constructions depicting particular islands in
the Marshall group and their distinguishing wave characteristics. The former are, in
effect, science models; the latter, piloting instructions. Neither kind was carried on
board a voyaging canoe, for all the oceanographic erudition was stores inside the
Marshallese navigator's head. And these navigators, even today, guard this information
carefully and pass it on only to others who have been specially selected for the
training. Only when the information is to be conveyed to an apprentice are the best
charts -- that is, those with complete information -- constructed. One of the finest
meddo type charts in any museum collection is the model collected by Robert Louis
Stevenson and his wife when they were in the Marshall Islands in 1890. It is displayed
in the Oceania Hall of the University Museum. (See image above.)
The problem for the Marshallese pilot is to be able to sail up and down the whole chain
out of sight of land and to know his position relative to the nearest islands all the time;
knowing this he can correct his headings as needed in order to make accurate landfalls
when currents, which cannot be observed, affect his traversed course. TO do this he
mush know the relative geographic positions of all the islands in the group, the expected
sailing distances between then under varying conditions of wind, and must be able to
|THE INVENTION OF ANOTHER TIME
Necessity being the Mother of Invention,
Was proved in the Marshall Island Chain.
There natives created the Stick Chart navigation,
A story of fascinating ingenuity that will remain.
I wonder what those natives today would think,
Of our modern bells and whistles, and will they prevail.
They would be in awe by the GPS system,
But would ask, What do you do if the battery fails?
Robert Edward McKenna
Quiz Poet Laureate
|Comments from Our Readers
|This is a stick chart used to navigate between islands. The curved lines denote the wave
action and currents around specific islands. We had a class in ancient navigation
techniques in one of my search and rescue classes. Tim Fitzpatrick
Brother of the Q.G.
Good quiz, very impressed with their knowledge. The idea of holding all of that
information in your memory and extrapolating just the piece you need is truly mind
boggling. Gina Ortega
I agree with you about the stick charts. Can you imagine floating across open waters
feeling the waves in your canoe? Lauri Pierce
Great Idea here!! Maybe we'll make a coupla of these for Mr. Rick, since he has big
problems programming his GPS...and like a man, he NEVER stops and asks for
directions. He is always late to our houses Mr. Rick and the Quiz Kids
My first impulse was it was the framework of a hut which when layed down with two
bamboo runners it could have a pitched roof and then covered with fronds.
I googled Rongelap and Rongerik and found they were atolls and using that I speculated
that it was a map of sorts. Turns out that the other names on the chart are also atolls
so there we have it. BTW, I did not know that nuclear testing there contaminated so
many of those natives. We obviously either were not aware of the long term effects of
radiation or the need for such a weapon outweighed the damage in such a remote place
in the world.
These charts or maps took into consideration the oceans swells and the location of the
surrounding islands ant the effect they had on these swells. Very advanced thinking for
such a primative culture. Jim Kiser
What a neat tool! Judy Pfaff
I got lucky this time - knew this was a map of some sort so I typed in 'stick maps' and
was immediately rewarded by Google with a Polynesian Stick Chart website - complete
with this very picture: http://thenonist.com/index.php/thenonist/permalink/stick_charts/.
These charts give a fascinating glimpse into a people in exquisite proximity to their
environment: "If my canoe is oscillating like THIS, then the island I seek is precisely
THERE." This kind of meticulous observation seems to come only from an intense
practical need or from scientific curiosity, another sort of intense need.
Thanks for this quiz. Odds are long that I would not otherwise have run into Marshall
Islands stick charts. I find a rather blissful melancholy in knowing that they exist.
That's "technology-based navigation systems."
Now Colleen, I want to know if you are trying to tell us that you are already tired of
winter and cold rain? This is the third tropical island quiz in a month. You must be
dreaming of lying on a warm beach in the South Pacific baking your cold out of your
system. Milene Rawlinson
At first I thought this was some type of mapping tool due to "North" at the top. I
googled some of the names on the map which led to the Marshall Islands. Then I
noticed the clue, which sent me straight to this website - and found out it was a
Navigational "stick chart". I wasn't too far off!
To be honest it reminds me of one of those clothes hanger things they used to keep in
the house to dry clothes on!
This is a very interesting quiz question.
The northern most point (labelled "NORTH") represents Bikini (or Pikinni) Atoll were
23 nuclear devices were detonated between 1946 and 1958 seriously irradiating the
Bikini Atoll people who had been moved to a nearby atoll, other Marshall Islanders, as
well as the crew of a Japanese fishing boat. Bikini is still uninhabitable despite the US
declaring that it was in 1968 when people were moved back there. Within a few years
it was very clear that it wasn’t! There was a US$150 million damages settlement, but
that pales into insignificance when you think about the islanders losses, and fat cat
executive salaries and bonuses. Karl Brossard
This weeks quiz is about how to go from point A to point B without the benefit of
modern technology such as loran, gps, mapquest, compasses, astrolabes or sextants or
other mechanical aids to navigation of recent centuries.
The sailors of the Marshall Islands used a simple stick chart made out of coconut
fronds to show relevant location of one island to the next. These sailors certainly used
natural navigation aids such as reading of currents to determine where they were in the
open ocean even with no land in sight. Those who knew the lay of the ocean, were
amazingly accurate in their navigation and were probably awarded a lei or two, upon
reaching their destination. What would we do if someone pulled the plug on modern
technology? Mike Dalton
A GPS can never replace the bond forged between elder and youth in the learning
process as was had among these native peoples as they taught the young to navigate
safely and understand the ways of nature. It is sad that we have lost a lot in our quest
for efficiency and technology. In reading about the Marshall Island people, they did/do
just fine without the interference of well-intentioned, yet misguided, so-called civilized
folk... Different is not necessarily worse/better. It is just different. Who are we to
judge or impose our culture upon others? Karen Kay Bunting
I once read an account of a traditional South Seas navigator standing at the tiller in the
stern, "feeling" unseen islands by the direction he was being rocked. Steering by [inner]
ear. Ben Truwe
This picture of a Marshall Island stick chart was
submitted by Marilyn Hamill. This scared the be-jesus
out of me because it is a picture of the stick chart on
the wall in Andy's kitchen. (See below.)
I was having trouble coping with the fact that Marilyn
had sneaked into our house when we weren't home and
taken a picture of the kitchen. This was especially puzzling to me seeing as she lives in
DUH. As Marilyn explained, "When you are on Skype there is an option to snap a
picture any time. Just trying it out. Scary, isn't it?"
Then I remembered we had given her a video tour of the house using our webcam
when we Skyped her one night. Yes, scary.
|(Top) The Marshall Islands consist of two
parallel island chains called Ratak & Ralik.
(Bottom) The corresponding rebbilib stick
chart which depicts the islands of the
To demonstrate the way the
natives are able to locate land, let
us first assume that the navigator
gazes out over the waves and
decides that they show the pattern
which in Marshallese is called
rilib. This must be compared most
carefully to the undisturbed
pattern. The more distant the land,
the less is the difference, or
course, but in the trade wind
regions, the land effect can be
seen for more than 20 miles. A
rilib pattern means that the land is
off in the general direction towards
which the waves are
traveling. The reflected waves are coming back against the main series, and intergering
with them, but the secondaries ar parallel to the primaries. The rilib ara is a quadrant,
and the navigator does not know whether he is in the middle of it, or to the left or right
of center, but he has a first general direction which he takes.
Now he watches a line which he calls Jurrinokamie; there are two such, at about 90
degrees apart, with the island at the apex, and the rilib in between. At the
Jurrinokamie, the reflected waves are no longer parallel to the primary swells, but at
such an angle that they form a choppy interference pattern. When he sees it, the wise
old native turns parallel to the Jurrinokamie and follows it neatly to land.
In another example let us assume that the navigator decides that the swells show the
pattern which the Marshallese call Kailib. THis tells him that the land lies off in th
direction from which the waves ar coming. The main stream has passed on each side
of an obstruction and the two fractions have reunited with effects on each other,
something like the situation in the wake of a ship. Yet one must compare a ship of zero
draught; in the ake of a real ship, most of the pattern is due to the turbulence of watr
currents. In the Kailib, however, currents play no part -- in fact, the current is often
directly countr to the direction of wave travel (the famous equatorial counter-current).
The Kailib, liek the Rilib, is a quadrant, and the navigator at first knows only that he
now can set his course in the general direction of land. Again he watches for a line,
which he calls the Nittinakot. This is where the waves which have passed on the
right side of the island no longer are affected at all by those which have passed to the
left of the island, or vice versa. When the navigatopr sees this line, he turns parallel to
it, and thus is able to find land.
Finally, let us assume that the navigator decides he is in a region neihter Ribil nor
Kailib, but in one which we may call Bungdok, although this is really a term of wind
direction. These quadrants are very difficult to recognize. The best one can say is that
the wave pattern just isn't what it ought to be if it were affected by the wind alone.
The angles made by the swells are slightly at variance with the perpendicular to the
direction of prevailing winds, as though they were being held back a little at one edge.
This indicates that there must be land in that direction.
Again, the general course is set, and lookout kept for either Nittinakot or
Jurrinokanie, and when either is sighted, the helmsman turns parallel to it, and follows
it to land.