Pitcairn Islands Expedition: Ancient Navigators and the Modern World

Over the past month, the Pitcairn Islands Expedition has taken us throughout the eastern South Pacific from Tahiti by plane to Mangareva, and from there by ship to the remote islands and atolls of Pitcairn, Ducie, Henderson, and Oeno.

Despite being several hundred miles from the next inhabited areas, I was surprised to find that I was never really struck by a sense of our extreme remoteness. Being surrounded by a competent and friendly team and crew, and having maps, GPS, and even a satellite internet connection, I had the same feeling as being a part of any community on land—the sense that you know where you are, where you’re going, and that you’re with friends and helpers.

When I compare this to how the ancient (and modern revival) Polynesian navigators must have felt out in the open ocean, I find I come to two contrasting visions.

Ancient Wonders

One is that boy oh boy, we have it easy and they had it hard. Open hulled canoes sitting just above the waves? No physical map to show the way? No compass, no radar? They must have been madmen, badasses, or a combination thereof, every one of them.

The other is that I’m being naïve, and using my own knowledge base to try to imagine their mental comfort levels. As NG Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis shows in “The Wayfinders” (watch the film), Polynesian navigators didn’t have printed maps, but they could lay out stones on the ground in a precise representation of the islands they were traveling. They didn’t carry magnetic compasses, but they knew the night sky so well that they could point their canoes in any direction and maintain a precise course even as the stars rose and set. When stars or the sun weren’t visible, they could orient themselves in relation to the consistent ocean swells, waves, and distinct ripple signatures from islands they knew.

Famously, the wayfinders could also detect the presence of nearby land by the identity and behavior of birds at sea, and by differences in cloud formations and the colors reflected on their undersides (the unmistakable turquoise of a lagoon for example).

Wade also makes the point that more powerful than any one of these bits of knowledge was the constantly synthesized whole picture that they presented. Polynesian navigators weren’t always desperately on the lookout for single bird or cloud, they were taking in the whole ever-changing environment.

Ancient Normalcy

This rich and diverse knowledge base was shared by many people, and had been shown to be reliable across generations and repeatedly throughout the lives of each member of the community. To set sail in an ancient Polynesian out-rigger canoe was not to set out into an unknown void, lacking maps, radar, and GPS. It was to set out on a well known part of your home country, fully armed and confident in the navigational tools that you had: the stars, the birds, the weather, the canoe itself, and your own hard-earned store of knowledge.

Once again as Wade Davis points out, other cultures are not failed attempts at being our own—they are unique expressions and solutions of the human spirit, each to be valued in its own right.

Timeless Inspiration

So while I am still blown away and inspired by Polynesian navigators’ wealth of knowledge and subtlety of discernment about the natural world, I also have a newfound appreciation of it all as simply another tool kit and skill set of a group of human beings. I imagine plenty of average Maori took it for granted that this was simply how you got around the world, just as today we hop in cars and listen to our GPS narrators without a second thought. The biggest lesson then for me is that we humans have developed  incredible ways of understanding and making use of the world around us, both by building tools, and by learning to perceive and interpret the natural world around us. We should keep aware of that, appreciate it, and be endlessly inspired by it.


More About Polynesian Navigators

Watch Wade Davis’ “The Wayfinders”

Polynesian Voyaging Society

Read All Pitcairn Islands Expedition Blogs

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.