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Stick Chart for Sea Navigation

Stick Chart for Sea Navigation - American Museum of Natural History

Stick Chart for Sea Navigation

This Stick Chart for Sea Navigation made of split reed and cowrie shells were used by Pacific Islanders to help navigate their ocean. The cowrie shells represent stars in the constellations. The three shells in the pointed oval at the bottom right represent the boat. The sailors placed the chart over their heads at night, and by orienting the map to match the position of the constellations, they determined their desired direction. This chart was used to determine the direction of travel and similarly for their return home.

These types of Stick Charts were used across the Pacific Islands, and each chart varied so much in form and interpretation that the individual navigator who made the map was sometimes the only person who could fully interpret and use it. The use of stick charts ended after World War II when new electronic technologies made navigation more accessible and traveled among islands by canoe lessened.

Stick Charts were also 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.

Stick Charts

Stick charts were made by various Polynesian cultures to navigate the Pacific Ocean by canoe either by mapping wave patterns or star patterns. The charts either 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. Or Stick Charts represented the stars or constellations in the night sky.

Most stick charts were made from coconut fibers that were tied together to form an open framework. Shells tied to the structure represented Island locations. Different categories of Stick Charts were used for instruction and teaching principles of navigation and as maps of island positions relative to ocean swells and the stars.

Stick Chart for Sea Navigation

  • Title:                    Stick Chart for Sea Navigation
  • Date:                   1945
  • Place:                  Saipan, Mariana Islands
  • Material:             Split Reed, cowrie shell
  • Museum:             American Museum of Natural History

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  • Is this wisdom developed by the Polynesians to help them navigate across 1,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, an example of the knowledge of first people’s, that modern man failed to recognize?
  • How much wisdom and knowledge from the first people have we lost?
  • Is this a great example of humanity’s ingenuity?


“The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides, and in its depths, it has its pearls too.”
Vincent van Gogh


Photo Credit: JOM