The best way of not losing our way is by remembering every little detail of the journey. If you cannot find new land, you will at least find your way back home. That’s why, once you learn how to trace your path you will never be lost. This precept —which operates both in the physical and the experiential world— was mastered by Polynesian wayfinders when the only instruments they had at hand were memory and courage.

Imagine, for a moment, you did not have to depend on your GPS or a printed map to set forth to an unknown location, thousands of miles away from your home. That your memory, your instincts and your knowledge of the atmosphere were enough. This is the art of Polynesian wayfinding.

To navigate, Polynesians entirely depended on three faculties: knowledge of the stars, understanding of the atmosphere and, above all, their memories. Although there are several theories on how the Polynesians spread to other islands, there is linguistic, anthropologic and genetic evidence to sustain that the first Polynesians were originated from Austronesian sailors, who trace their prehistoric origins (5000 to 3000 years ago) to what today is Taiwan. From there they expanded to the entire Polynesian triangle, which includes more than a thousand islands —with three main locations in New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Firmament:

Polynesians noticed that each star and constellation would predictably appear in a part of the sky and disappear in another. One could unfailingly rely on the Ursa Major rising to a certain position during the summer from a given island, and hiding from the opposite side. By memorizing hundreds of stars in relation to the horizon in their system of “houses”, sailors could deduce how these constellations would look from their point of origin using this as referential latitude when in open sea.

Without any instruments, Polynesians could use simple calibration methods and their hands to calculate the distance of constellations and stars in the horizon. By combining this with their impressive mental encyclopedia they could go from island to island without ever losing their way.

Weather:

Meteorology was, naturally, another amazing resource. The presence of an island will often alter the direction of a wave: sailors would devote their entire attention to the direction of the wind in contrast to the sea currents. Generally, the wind and currents move in the same direction, unless a nearby island affects the current. Sighting particular things —such as driftwood or certain birds— usually means there is land nearby. Some sailors even used the color of the clouds as an indicator of land below (land and lakes can reflect a subtly different color to that of open sea).

Memory:

“Remember everything” was the most important rule of Polynesian navigation. Every route adjustment, every change in the wind, every constellation. Among the crew there was always someone designated to elude any kind of distraction (even sleep) and interpret and memorize all external conditions. For them there were no maps, pens or paper to record the trajectory of their journey. Every image was linked to muscular or thermal sensations, whether it was the color of a cloud or the direction of an undercurrent, in a way that could not be forgotten. The body remembers.

The Polynesian Triangle is an emblem of the magnificence of human memory. It’s hard to believe that something as perfect and advantageous as the ability of knowing how to remember was forgotten. It is a paradox of time. Therefore we should take a closer look at our catalogue of sailor idols (that today carry names like Christopher Columbus or Nelson), to make room for the anonymous Polynesians who, without astrolabes or compasses, traced the most vigorous triangle of them all: an almost equilateral triangle in the apparent uniformity of the Pacific, drawn entirely by memories.

The best way of not losing our way is by remembering every little detail of the journey. If you cannot find new land, you will at least find your way back home. That’s why, once you learn how to trace your path you will never be lost. This precept —which operates both in the physical and the experiential world— was mastered by Polynesian wayfinders when the only instruments they had at hand were memory and courage.

Imagine, for a moment, you did not have to depend on your GPS or a printed map to set forth to an unknown location, thousands of miles away from your home. That your memory, your instincts and your knowledge of the atmosphere were enough. This is the art of Polynesian wayfinding.

To navigate, Polynesians entirely depended on three faculties: knowledge of the stars, understanding of the atmosphere and, above all, their memories. Although there are several theories on how the Polynesians spread to other islands, there is linguistic, anthropologic and genetic evidence to sustain that the first Polynesians were originated from Austronesian sailors, who trace their prehistoric origins (5000 to 3000 years ago) to what today is Taiwan. From there they expanded to the entire Polynesian triangle, which includes more than a thousand islands —with three main locations in New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Firmament:

Polynesians noticed that each star and constellation would predictably appear in a part of the sky and disappear in another. One could unfailingly rely on the Ursa Major rising to a certain position during the summer from a given island, and hiding from the opposite side. By memorizing hundreds of stars in relation to the horizon in their system of “houses”, sailors could deduce how these constellations would look from their point of origin using this as referential latitude when in open sea.

Without any instruments, Polynesians could use simple calibration methods and their hands to calculate the distance of constellations and stars in the horizon. By combining this with their impressive mental encyclopedia they could go from island to island without ever losing their way.

Weather:

Meteorology was, naturally, another amazing resource. The presence of an island will often alter the direction of a wave: sailors would devote their entire attention to the direction of the wind in contrast to the sea currents. Generally, the wind and currents move in the same direction, unless a nearby island affects the current. Sighting particular things —such as driftwood or certain birds— usually means there is land nearby. Some sailors even used the color of the clouds as an indicator of land below (land and lakes can reflect a subtly different color to that of open sea).

Memory:

“Remember everything” was the most important rule of Polynesian navigation. Every route adjustment, every change in the wind, every constellation. Among the crew there was always someone designated to elude any kind of distraction (even sleep) and interpret and memorize all external conditions. For them there were no maps, pens or paper to record the trajectory of their journey. Every image was linked to muscular or thermal sensations, whether it was the color of a cloud or the direction of an undercurrent, in a way that could not be forgotten. The body remembers.

The Polynesian Triangle is an emblem of the magnificence of human memory. It’s hard to believe that something as perfect and advantageous as the ability of knowing how to remember was forgotten. It is a paradox of time. Therefore we should take a closer look at our catalogue of sailor idols (that today carry names like Christopher Columbus or Nelson), to make room for the anonymous Polynesians who, without astrolabes or compasses, traced the most vigorous triangle of them all: an almost equilateral triangle in the apparent uniformity of the Pacific, drawn entirely by memories.

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