These “Stick Charts” Are Actually Traditional Maps to Navigate the Seas

The inhabitants of the Marshall Islands have traditionally used beautifully made “stick charts” that basically served as oceanographic maps to navigate the seas.

On stick-charts, the sticks represent wave patterns and shells mark the atolls. Marshall Islands, Micronesia, May 1967. Photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards, National Geographic

Of all sovereign states in the world, the Marshall Islands has the largest portion of its territory made of water, at 97.87%. The Micronesian country’s population of 58,413 people is spread out over 29 coral atolls, comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants needed some kind of aid to navigate in the archipelago even before the introduction modern maps or GPS technologies. They came up with stick charts.

The charts represent major ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupt 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.

A navigational chart from the Marshall Islands, on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It is made of wood, sennit fiber and cowrie shells. From the collection of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Date not known. Photo by Jim Heaphy

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.

Individual charts varied so much in form and interpretation that the individual navigator who made the chart was often 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 travel among islands by canoe subsided.

Stick chart in Überseemuseum Bremen, Germany. Photo: Sterilgutassistentin

Another great tradition gone with technological development, just like the traditional Micronesian canoe, on which the stick charts were used:

Traditional Marshall Islands canoe. Photo: Bruno Menetrier

Sources: 1, 2


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