AP®︎/College Art History
Navigation between the islands
The Marshall Islands in eastern Micronesia consist of thirty-four coral atolls consisting of more than one thousand islands and islets spread out across an area of several hundred miles. In order to maintain links between the islands, the Marshall Islanders built seafaring canoes. These vessels were both quick and manoeuvrable. The islanders developed a reputation for navigation between the islands—not a simple matter, since they are all so low that none can be seen from more than a few miles away.
Navigation chart (rebbelib), probably 19th century AD, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, wood, shell, 1 meter wide, © Trustees of the British Museum
In order to determine a system of piloting and navigation the islanders devised charts that marked not only the locations of the islands, but their knowledge of the swell and wave patterns as well. The charts were composed of wooden sticks; the horizontal and vertical sticks act as supports, while diagonal and curved ones represent wave swells. Cowrie or other small shells represent the position of the islands. The information was memorized and the charts would not be carried on voyages.
This chart (above) is of a type known as a rebbelib, which cover either a large section or all of the Marshall Islands. Other types of chart more commonly show a smaller area. This example represents the two chains of islands which form the Marshall Islands. It was collected by Admiral E.H.M. Davis during the cruise of HMS Royalist from 1890 to 1893.
This chart (below) is of the type known as a mattang, specifically made for the purpose of training people selected to be navigators. Such charts depict general information about swell movements around one or more small islands. Trainees were taught by experienced navigators.
Navigation charts continue to be made, often simpler in form, to be sold as souvenirs.
Navigation chart (mattang), probably 19th or early 20th century C.E., Marshall Islands, Micronesia, 75.5 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
TW. Davenport., "Marshall Islands cartography," The Bulletin of the University Museum of Pennsylvania, 6: 4 (Summer 1964), pp. 10 -13.
J. Feldman and D.H. Rubinstein, The Art of Micronesia (Honolulu, The University of Hawaii Art Gallery, 1988).
A.C. Haddon and J. Hornell, Canoes of Oceania (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publications 27-29, Reprinted as one volume, 1975).
T.A Joyce, "Note on a native chart from the Marshall Islands in the British Museum," Man-1, 8 (1908), no. 81, pp. 146-49.
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Want to join the conversation?
- How accurate were these navigation charts? Are they still in use? Also, was there a reason the charts could not be carried on the voyage?(18 votes)
- They probably didn't carry them on the voyage because there wasn't room - room enough for people, supplies and fishing or trading gear... plus, if they weren't that friendly to their neighbors, why share a valuable map?(7 votes)
- It's pretty impressive that they not only indicated the location of the islands but also wave swells and possibly other information by means of these charts. It's sort of like a primitive form of GPS.
I know that the charts are still being made for sale to tourists, but do any Marshall Islanders use these charts nowadays?(6 votes)
- I have found an article that answers your question. It seems that the practice is still going on, but slowly dying out with the elder generation of Marshallese. The article is found here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-sticks-and-shell-charts-became-sophisticated-system-navigation-180954018/(3 votes)
- what inspired these people to build these wooden masks, and to make them out of wood.(1 vote)
- I think you may have intended this question for the essay on wooden masks, rather than the one on navigation charts. But, no matter. The Polynesian artists (these people) who made the masks were inspired by their religious faith, the encouragement of community members who admired their skill at carving, and by an inner sense of accomplishment. Masks were the "medium" in which they worked. They made the masks out of wood because that was the material which was available and workable with the tools they had.(5 votes)
- Are there any marks on this chart that determines the right side to read it? Because otherwise, it would have been impossible for people other than the ones who made this chart and their acquaintances to read it.(1 vote)
- From the author:Watch this video to learn more about your question: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history/art-oceania/micronesia/v/navigation-chart-marshall-islands(2 votes)
- How difficult would it be to memorize such a chart?(1 vote)
- What does each part of the charts represent?/(0 votes)
- It says it in the article.
"The charts were composed of wooden sticks; the horizontal and vertical sticks act as supports, while diagonal and curved ones represent wave swells. Cowrie or other small shells represent the position of the islands."(3 votes)
- Do people still use this navigation map nowadays?(0 votes)