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A Gathering of Wayfinders of the Pacific

National Geographic’s 2012 Explorers’ Symposium ended yesterday.  It was a mind-bending, week-long exploration fest.  Yet, despite the most daring and innovative presentations illustrating the technology and development of the metropolitan world (and there were many), I couldn’t help but reflect on the brilliance of native cultures from the world’s most remote regions.

Consider this: before GPS, before sextants, even before compasses, Polynesian non-instrument navigators also known as wayfinders sailed across thousands of miles of ocean.

Until 1500 A.D., few Europeans had ventured out of sight of land yet indigenous mariners of Oceania had been sailing the nearly 20 million square miles of Oceanic seas in double-hulled canoes for more than a thousand years.


How Did They Do It?

Polynesian navigators  had a sophisticated technology all their own.  Their specialized science, now referred to as wayfinding, was a system of observation that synthesized patterns in nature and allowed seafaring cultures to navigate with keen accuracy.  The shape and sequence of waves, the rising and setting of stars, even the flight patterns of specific birds served as instruments for the wayfinder.  Intimately wedded to his environment, the navigator employed a highly developed facility  for observation, memorization, and integration.  These skills required a lifetime of study and commitment.  In the Hawaiian system, the training was so rigorous that few apprentices ever achieved the rank of kahuna ho’okele, navigator-priest.

Wayfinding is a revered science and a priestly profession that links the cosmos, sea, and land.  In generations past, the initiate had to be not only a superior wayfarer but also a healer, leader, and interdisciplinary scholar in subjects as diverse as astronomy and botany.

Master Navigator and Mentor Piailug with Elizabeth Lindsey. Photo by Alice Humbert.


An Extraordinary Gathering

Today I leave for Vanuatu where I’ll board a Polynesian voyaging canoe bound for the Solomon Islands.  Weather permitting we’ll leave Vanuatu’s Port Vila on the summer solstice stopping briefly on Meskelyne before landing at Honiara.  We’re sailing to the Solomons where more than 3,000 cultural practitioners from more than 27 countries will gather.

Join me for the next three weeks as I share stories of masters from the Pacific who, like my mentor renowned wayfinder Pius “Mau” Piailug, live by the wisdom of stars.


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  1. Navigating Education | Monkeymagic
    August 30, 2016, 6:16 pm

    […] [If you want some more snippets, the rest of the highlights I made from the book are here: The Wayfinders – Wade Davis. The image is from Elizabeth Lindsey’s National Geographic series] […]

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    August 20, 2012, 2:50 pm

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