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Meto Navigation Chart

Meto Navigation Chart - American Museum of Natural History

Meto Navigation Chart

Master navigators once used Navigation Charts like this one from the Marshall Islands for navigation between the islands by showing currents and wave patterns. These types of Stick Charts were made to represent significant ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupted those patterns. Island locations were represented by shells tied to the framework, or by the lashed junction of two or more sticks.

The threads represented prevailing ocean surface wave-crests and directions they took as they approached islands and met other similar wave-crests formed by the ebb and flow of breakers. The charts were studied and memorised, and Marshallese navigators used their senses and memory to guide them on voyages by lying down in the canoe to feel how the canoe pitched and rolled by underlying swells.

The stick charts are a significant contribution to the history of cartography because they represent a different system of mapping ocean swells. They represent a culture that mapped the earth differently to the maps we use today. Only a select few leaders knew the method of making these charts, and the knowledge was only passed on from father to son. Their secret knowledge was kept secret until the late 1980s.

The use of stick charts ended after World War II when new electronic technologies made navigation more accessible and travelled among islands by canoe lessened. Marshallese now display Meto on their walls to reflect their proud island tradition.

Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands is an island country near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, slightly west of the International Date Line. Geographically, the state is part of the larger island group of Micronesia. The country’s population is spread out over 29 coral atolls, comprising 1,156 islands and islets.

The first Micronesian reached the Marshall Islands using canoes circa 2nd millennium BC, with interisland navigation made possible using traditional stick charts. Islands in the archipelago were first explored by Europeans in the 1520s, starting with Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese at the service of Spain. Other expeditions by Spanish and English ships followed. The islands derive their name from British explorer John Marshall, who visited in 1788. The inhabitants historically knew the islands as “jolet jen Anij” meaning the “Gifts from God”.

The Marshall Islands Stick Charts

Stick charts were made to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe off the coast of the Marshall Islands. The charts represented significant ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupted those patterns, typically determined by sensing disruptions in ocean swells by islands during sea navigation. Most stick charts were made from the midribs of coconut fronds that were tied together to form an open framework.

Island locations were represented by shells tied to the framework, or by the lashed junction of two or more sticks. Individual charts varied so much in form and interpretation that the individual navigator who made the chart was the only person who could fully interpret and use it. The charts, unlike traditional maps, were studied and memorised before a voyage and were not consulted during a trip.

Meto Navigation Chart

  • Title:           Meto Navigation Chart
  • Date:          1970
  • Place:          Marshall Islands
  • Material:     Wood, shell, string
  • Museum:    American Museum of Natural History

Reflections

  • The island’s traditional name was “Gifts from God”. And their navigators could interpret currents and wave patterns.

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“Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!”
– Orville Wright

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Photo Credit: JOM

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