Polynesian and Micronesian Astronomy


The ancient Oceanic peoples populated a vast area of the earth, successfully colonizing a diverse range of island environments prior to European contact. Astronomy was a major factor in their ocean navigation. Directional stars were used to guide navigators to familiar and not-too-distant islands. On land, directional stones or even stone canoes were set up so that would-be voyagers could sight along them and learn the appearance of the stars in the required direction of travel. For longer journeys, one of the most important prerequisites was acquiring a knowledge of the rising and setting positions of various stars around the horizon, the so-called star compass. This, combined with various techniques for dead reckoning, allowed navigators to estimate their current position in relation to the island they had left or to the one they were trying to reach. There is also patchy evidence for the use of a variety of other techniques, such as the use of zenith stars passing directly overhead to estimate the current latitude, and even (in the Hawaiian islands) the use of gourds as instructional aides or navigational devices.

But objects and events in the skies were also important to ancient Oceanic peoples in a variety of other ways. They certainly had an extensive knowledge of astronomy: ethnographers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries recorded a great many names for stars, planets, nebulae (such as the Magellanic Clouds), areas of the Milky Way, and so on—things actually visible in the sky—as well as for purely conceptual constructs related to the motions of the heavenly bodies. As an example of the latter, the Hawai-ians had names for what we might call the celestial tropics—the most northerly and southerly paths followed by the sun around the sky at the times of the June and December solstices, respectively. The northern tropic they termed “the black shining road of Kane” and the southern one “the black shining road of Kanaloa,” Kane and Kanaloa being two principal creator-gods. The same or similar names for certain celestial objects (with dialectic variants) can often be found right across the linguistically homogenous area of Polynesia and even farther afield, which indicates considerable antiquity. For example, the Pleiades were known in Hawai’i as Makali’i, in Samoa as Li’i, in Tonga as Mataliki, in Tahiti as Matari’i, and by the Maoris of New Zealand as Matariki. To the west of Polynesia they were known, for example, within Vanuatu (Melanesia) as Matalike and in Pohnpei (Micronesia) as Makeriker.

Stars and constellations were frequently associated with gods, culture heroes, or living chiefs, as well as featuring in stories of ocean voyaging and of ancient homelands. A form of genealogical prayer chant common in Polynesia served to place those of the highest rank in a cosmic scheme of things that includes everything in the sky as well as on earth. A famous example of this is the Hawaiian Kumulipo.

Another way in which astronomy permeated the lives of Oceanic peoples was through the calendar, which had a common form all over Polynesia and Micronesia. It consisted of an annual cycle of months based on the lunar phases, with a named sequence of days (or rather, nights) in each month. Many of the same or similar month or day names occur over a wide area, indicating considerable antiquity, and in certain places there is clear evidence that months shared their names with stars or constellations used to identify them. Yet some of the variants from region to region were major, such as when in the solar year a given month actually occurred. There were also significant, though generally more minor, local variations (for example from one Hawaiian island to another, or between different Maori groups in New Zealand). Systems of prognostications and observances associated with the calendar seem to have grown to their most complex on those groups of islands where powerful social hierarchies developed. The Hawaiian calendar at the time of European contact, for example, involved an elaborate system of cycles of ritual observances and taboos tied both to the time of the year and the time of the month.

Traditional astronomical practices in Oceania have left their mark in the material record in a number of ways. The purposes of some of the more recent artifacts, such as sighting stones, can be verified using recorded oral history or ethnography. Clues to older, pre-contact practices within Polynesia may be encapsulated in the temple enclosures and platforms that were ubiquitous throughout this region. These do not manifest any systematic astronomical alignments on a large scale, but a few are known from oral history to have been used for sighting the sun or stars. Occasionally we find firmer archaeological evidence of deliberate orientation, such as a group of temple enclosures (heiau) on the Hawaiian island of Maui that are aligned upon the rising position of the Pleiades, apparently for reasons associated with the calendar and worship of Lono, a prominent god of agriculture.

Although a number of claims have been made that Oceanic peoples determined the solstices and equinoxes to high precision, most of these stem from a desire (witting or otherwise) to impose Western aspirations and do not fit the evidence. However, ethnography confirms that the inhabitants of one Polynesian island, Mangareva, did indeed mark the solstices to considerable precision by erecting pairs of stones as horizon foresights.

In the Hawaiian islands there is a particularly rich heritage of oral literature in the form of creation myths, stories, and chants. Some were recorded by early missionaries or published in the Hawaiian language in local newspapers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The small proportion that have been translated and republished contain numerous references to the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Some chants clearly describe places in the landscape and appear to provide explicit descriptions of astronomical alignments. An example is the so-called “Na Pali chant” from the islands of Ni’ihau and Kaua’i.

Throughout Oceania, astronomical knowledge was sacred knowledge, much of it the exclusive preserve of navigators and priests. This fact, added to all the other processes of change that have occurred since European contact, means that only a few fragments have been preserved of what was without doubt an enormously rich and far-reaching knowledge of astronomy. Sky knowledge was nonetheless framed within worldviews that governed all aspects of existence and were woven into everyday life in a variety of ways. In the Gilbert Islands, for example, conceptual divisions of the sky (the “roof of voyaging”) were based upon the structure of actual house roofs. If we are trying to understand more about that worldview, then it is misleading to divide Oceanic astronomical knowledge using such categories as pragmatic and ritualistic, or useful and conceptual. These are divisions that only have meaning from a Western perspective. To ancient Polynesian and Micronesian peoples, all their sky knowledge was useful, all vital within their framework of understanding the cosmos and how it functioned.

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