In the past, I’ve written about Maori sea navigation by the stars and the legend of Matariki. Although nothing prepared me for the utterly beautiful Maori star compass which has been carved and placed on a remote and wild beach in the Hawkes Bay, between Hastings and Napier.
The Star Compass – Atea a Rangi
Atea a Rangi is a Star Compass that has been placed in the past year in a remote beach in the Hawkes Bay. Like the sun, stars seem to rise in the east and set in the west. If you know where stars rise and set the horizon can be your compass.
The Star Compass – Atea a Rangi splits the horizon into four quadrants of wind: Tokerau, Marangai, Tonga Puawanga and Tapata aitu.
The horizon also splits into 32 equal areas called whare (houses) which are the pou (tall poles) around the compass. The four main houses are Whitinga, Tomokanga, Raki and Tonga.
Stars rise and set in the same house,the Matariki stars at Maori New Year rise Kainga ki Tokerau and set in Kainga ki Tapatapa aitu.
Important dates on the Maori Pagan calendar
20-23 December – Summer Solstice
20-23 March – Autumn Equinox
20-23 June – Winter Solstice
20-23 September- Spring Equinox
The same seven houses repeat in all four quadrants
Ra – The Sun
Kainga – Where the sun lives
Ngoi – A land bird used to find land
Manu – The waka or canoe as a bird flying across the ocean
Nga Rangi – The heavens are where we get our clues
Nga Reo – The navigator listens to the voices of the stars
Te Kore – The void where there are no clues
The Pacific – Te Moana nui a Kiwa
Around 10,000 years ago people inhabited much of Earth’s land area having mostly travelled by foot or on the back of horses or camels.
The last region to be explored was the Pacific Ocean. Te Moana nui a Kiwa as it is named in Maori is the most vast and remote ocean in the world – taking up a third of the total surface area of the Earth.
The Pacific Islands migration between 3,000 BC and 1,000 was the very first and the greatest exploratory sea voyage of any people anytime in history. In terms of timing, it pre-dates the Vikings other sea-faring people by several thousands of years.
Voyagers travelled on multihull sailing waka guided by experts who were highly trained in the art of celestial navigation. This same structure of sea-faring vessels was adopted by modern sea-farers for obvious reasons, it is sturdy yet light, tough, built for speed and to last in unpredictable weather conditions. This traditional knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, master to apprentice for thousands of years.
Atea a Rangi – Star Maps of the Maori and Pacific Peoples
The star compass – Atea a Rangi is a training tool used by traditional nagivators. The rising and setting points of the sun, moon, planets and stars are memorised plus their position in the sky at any time of the year. The moon, stars and planets at night guide navigators in the most accurate direction.
During the day, the sun and moon are used. The direction of large ocean swells are also used to navigate the waka.
Navigating by hand
In the famous Disney flick Moana, we witness Moana using the hand method of sea navigation using the stars. According to The Conversation, if you look closely and you can see that she’s measuring the stars in Orion’s Belt. The position of Moana’s hand indicates the star above her index finger has an altitude of 21º. Given that the movie takes place about 2,000 years ago near Samoa, the position of Orion indicates they are travelling exactly due East.
Later in the film, we see Moana navigating by following Maui’s fish hook. In the various Polynesian traditions, the hook was used to pull islands from the sea. It is represented by the constellation Scorpius, which rises at dusk in mid-May. This indicates southeasterly travel.
If you can identify the stars as they rise and set, and if you have memorised where they rise and set, you can find your direction.
Since 1976, the famous Hokule’a voyages have demonstrated how Polynesians used traditional sea-craft and navigational techniques to cross the expanse of the Pacific, from Japan to Canada.
To calculate their position on Earth, voyagers memorised star maps and used the angle of stars above the horizon to determine latitude. For example, the top and bottom stars of the Southern Cross are separated by six degrees. When the distance between those stars is equal to the bottom star’s altitude above the horizon, your northerly latitude is 21º: that of Honolulu.
When the bright stars Sirius and Pollux set at exactly the same time, your latitude is 18º South: the latitude of Tahiti.
Voyagers measure the angles between stars and the horizon using their hands. The width of your pinkie finger at arm’s length is roughly one degree, or double the angular diameter of the Sun or Moon.
Hold your hand with the palm facing outward and thumb fully extended, touching the horizon. Each part of your hand is used to measure a particular altitude.
It makes me so very proud that my people managed to do all of that without any sort of modern technology and predating any European exploration by several thousand years.