Marshall Islands stick chart, 1800/1900
Royal Museums of Art and History
Inv. ET.3903

Marshall Islands stick chart, before 1931
Royal Museums of Art and History
Inv. ET.3904


The peoples of the Pacific Ocean are among the greatest seafarers in history. They had already populated Australia some 60,000 years ago, while in Europe, it was still the age of the Neanderthals. About 6,000 years ago, various groups of people from Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan began to colonise the rest of the Pacific Ocean.

Reconstructing navigational tools that date back so far in history is no easy task, not least because our knowledge of them is limited to the testimonials of Europeans who explored the largest ocean in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, a number of engravings allow us to form a picture of the voyaging canoes which would be shaped and decorated differently depending on their origins.

Several of their orientation techniques have also survived. Of course, like sailors around the world, they used the stars. However, the Polynesians were more concerned with knowledge of the route to be travelled than determining their exact location. This is a key aspect of their approach: knowing how to get from point A to point B, as opposed to situating these two points on a map, reveals a completely different outlook on the world.

Thus, the maps used by the peoples of the Marshall Islands in Micronesia appear quite strange to Western eyes. Seashells or pieces of coral represent islands or atolls and are connected by sticks representing the ocean currents, which can be recognised based on the texture or intensity of the waves. These maps describe the journey to be made without any reference whatsoever to the actual distance to be travelled.

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