Aeons ago, the seas appeared considerably more expansive, seemingly uncharted. Before sailors established reliable navigational methods, navigating the oceans required a lot of guessing, or, to put it in a more hipper context, “dead reckoning.”
Our forebears progressed gradually from their first blind stabs. Some turned to the sky, hoping to get a deeper understanding of life on Earth by applying their newfound knowledge of the cosmos. Others developed a deep fascination with the oceans, becoming adept at navigating the enormous distances by feeling their currents and swells.It took a long time to get here, but these days, owing to GPS, navigating around is rather simple. More than 3,000 years ago, how were Polynesians able to travel thousands of miles across the open ocean? Which maritime culture could have utilized crystals to navigate successfully? Which persistent fallacy about navigation just won’t go away? Take a look at these six facts to help you get your sea legs.
The Open Ocean Was Pioneered by Polynesians
When ocean navigation first began, explorers kept relatively near to the coast and marked their position with easily identifiable landmarks. On the other hand, in 1500 BCE, Polynesians—the pioneers of open-ocean exploration—left New Guinea and traveled east. They started out by going to the nearby Solomon Islands and then gradually made their way eastward. Their preferred craft was a double canoe, resembling a catamaran in design with two hulls joined by crossbeams.These seafaring adventurers eventually arrived in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Tahiti. After that, they journeyed more than 2,600 miles north to Hawaii, which is more than they did to get from Portland, Maine, to Seattle, Washington, across the United States. The descendants of those first explorers inhabited the whole Polynesian Triangle by the year 1,000 or perhaps even 1,200 CE, with Hawaii, Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island), and New Zealand serving as its three corners.How did the Polynesians manage to navigate without any known navigational instruments? Historians believe that although their navigational methods were passed down orally, they used migratory birds, the sun, moon, stars, and ocean surges. Some people from the Pacific Islands were able to navigate by just using the waves. Using a traditional voyaging canoe and no navigational aids, a group of Polynesian canoeing enthusiasts made the Tahiti-Hawaii trip in 1976. They have since accomplished this feat multiple times.
Shells and sticks were used to make some early nautical charts.
A nautical chart gives information about the behavior of the sea, including the interaction of tidal patterns, in addition to topographical characteristics. Although modern technology makes it simple for us to interpret this data on screens and paper, ancient Micronesian navigators known as ri-metos used complex “stick charts” made of cowrie shells, palm strips, and coconut strips to record their knowledge. These charts, as you may guess, were not very portable, therefore the idea was to commit them to memory prior to a voyage. The charts can be challenging for contemporary viewers to understand because they were not constructed in a standardized manner and some of them were intended only to be read by the creator. However, we are aware that certain charts included specific piloting directions, while others showed broad ocean patterns.
The Early Magnetic Compasses Were Not Much Like Their Current Equivalents
These days, magnetic compasses are so commonplace that we just refer to them as “compasses.” The ends of them point to magnetic north and south, which are moving targets that are somewhat close to true north and true south but can cause inaccuracies when traveling very far north or very far south. This is because they contain a magnetized needle that naturally aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field.Although the inventor of the compass is unknown, scientists think that China produced the first compasses that were used for navigation in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. By the end of the 12th century, compass use was documented for the first time in Europe. In order to float in water, these early prototypes were tied to sticks or corks with magnetized lodestones or lodestones, which are naturally occurring magnetic ore fragments. Magnetic compasses were first mostly used as backup navigational aids, but as engineers gained more experience, compasses started to become more dependable. The compass’s design evolved to include a magnetized needle set on a pin at the base of a bowl by the thirteenth century. Gradually, the 32 primary points of direction on a directional card started to be positioned beneath the needle. The card’s actual design changed over time as well. Originally, the north point was indicated by a spearhead and a “T” for the Latin term Tramontana, which means “the north wind.” These symbols were replaced about 1490 by the fleur-de-lis, which is still a popular design on compasses today.
Not All Uses of Astrolabes Were for Navigation
Although its precise origin is unknown, the idea of an astrolabe—a instrument used to estimate the locations of heavenly bodies—dates back to ancient Greece in the third or second century BCE. Astrolabes were well developed and used in Arabic cultures by the ninth century CE. The instruments returned to Europe in the twelfth century, and by the end of the fifteenth century, the mariner’s astrolabe had become an indispensable tool for navigation—just in time for the Age of Exploration.Astrolabes are tools that are used to find celestial bodies in relation to the user. A “mater” is a disk that contains several smaller revolving and sliding disks, one containing the latitude lines of Earth and the other containing stars and constellations that are well-known. A sight aids in determining the height of the sun or another star that can subsequently be utilized as an anchor point. A straight “rule,” or bar, revolves around that. Because one’s latitude affects the geography of the sky, astronomical plates generally corresponded to the various latitudes of important towns.Even though these gadgets were excellent for navigating, that wasn’t their only distinction: They played a role in determining Mecca’s direction and the times of prayer across the Islamic world. Similar to modern horoscopes, they were consulted during the European Middle Ages to aid in decision-making. More banally, they could be employed in the creation of topographical surveys.
Crystals May Have Helped Vikings Navigate
A group of maritime Scandinavian warriors known as the Vikings were also expert ocean navigators. About 900 CE, they started to settle in Iceland, which is 500 miles away from their home country of Norway. Eventually, they made their way to North America. Their exact navigational methods remain somewhat of a mystery, however new evidence suggests they might have employed crystals.Viking explorers enjoyed up to 24 hours of nonstop daylight since they navigated the far North Atlantic on their longships, but they also faced a great deal of fog. Scientists now believe that “sunstones,” which were stones that assisted their bearers in finding the sun, may have actually existed as mentioned in Norse literature from antiquity. In 2011, scientists were able to determine the sun’s location to within one degree using calcite crystals. Despite sounding magical, it’s not: Crystals can display patterns of sunlight through polarization that are invisible to the unaided eye.These crystals might have been used in conjunction with a sun compass, according to a 2014 study. A disc thought to be a part of a sun compass was used to identify the spring equinox and summer solstice, two dates that researchers recreated 3,600 journeys between Norway and Greenland at. They discovered that 92% of the time, the computer-generated expeditions succeeded in reaching Greenland when they checked the crystals every few hours.Although the study hasn’t been verified in practice yet, it provides some insight into how Viking navigators managed to navigate without the aid of astrolabes or magnetic compasses.
Surprisingly, navigators were aware that the Earth was round much earlier.
There is a widespread myth that claims Christopher Columbus, who arrived in the Americas several centuries after his European expedition, “proved” the Earth was round during the 15th century. In actuality, scientists and mathematicians may have known as early as the sixth century BCE, but formally educated individuals understood the world wasn’t flat starting as early as the third century BCE. Columbus just assumed the Earth’s circumference was smaller than it actually was and that he would wind up in Asia, which had nothing to do with his unexpected landing in the Americas. This persistent myth originates from a heavily inflated 1828 biography of Columbus penned by Washington Irving, the novelist best known for his writings on Rip Van Winkle and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”Similar to the scientists and academics described above, seamen discovered the roundness of the earth at a very young age. When sailors looked at ships in the distance, they saw that the tops of sails and masts showed up before the decks and hulls of the ships they were attached to. Also, they reported being able to see several constellations as they journeyed to various parts of the planet. Otherwise, celestial navigation would have been somewhat challenging.