Friday, August 12, 2011

Some thoughts on the Hokule'a

The above video contains an interview with master navigator and President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Nainoa Thompson, discussing the ocean-going double-hulled waʻa kaulua, Hokule'a.

In the video, he describes some of the traditional navigation techniques he uses to guide the vessel, as well as the importance of the Hokule'a in helping to restore a spirit that had been all but lost due to oppression. He also describes this voyaging canoe's role in refuting the demeaning theories of scholars who over the centuries had argued that the Polynesians drifted through the oceans unintentionally and only accidentally discovered the islands of the vast Pacific.

The amazing voyages of the Hokule'a are undertaken without modern navigational equipment such as GPS devices, and even without compasses: ancient traditional navigation techniques are employed instead. In a remarkable book entitled The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, author and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis describes in compelling prose the techniques used on these journeys:
Enshrouded by the night, the canoe itself became the needle of a compass that was the sky. Behind us sat the navigator, a young woman named Ka'iulani, Nainoa's protege. She would remain awake for twenty-two hours a day for the entire voyage, sleeping only for fleeting moments when the mind demanded a rest.

Ka'iulani, like Nainoa and all of the experienced crew, could name and follow some 220 stars in the night sky. She knew and could track all the constellations, Scorpio and the Southern Cross, Orion, the Pleiades and the North Star, Polaris. But for her the most important stars were those low in the sky, the ones taht had just risen or were about to set. Nainoa explained: As the Earth rotates, every star comes up over the eastern horizon, describes an arc through the sky, and then sets on a westerly bearing. These two points on the horizon, where a specific star rises in the east and sets in the west, remain the same throughout the year, though the time at which a star emerges changes by four minutes every night. Thus, as long as one is able to commit to memory all the stars and their unique positions, the time at which each is to appear on a particular night, and their bearings as they break the horizon or slip beneath it, one can envision a 360-degree compass, which the Hawaiians divide conceptually into thirty-two star houses, each a segment on the horizon named for a celestial body. Any one star is only dependable for a time, for as it arcs through the sky its bearings change. But by then there will be another star breaking over the horizon, again on a bearing known by the navigator. [. . .]

[. . .] The navigator by day conceptually divides the horizon ahead and behind, each into sixteen parts, taking as cardinal points the rising and setting of the sun. Thus by day he or she replicates the star compass of the night. The metaphor is that the Hokule'a never moves. It simply waits, the axis mundi of the world, as the islands rise out of the sea to greet her. 57-58.
It is remarkable that the stars were so vitally important and so well known by the ancient civilizations whom condescending scholars also have long said could not possibly have navigated the oceans. Just as Nainoa Thompson in the video above is saddened and angered at the racism of those who once said that the Polynesians "didn't have the intelligence" to navigate more than 100 miles, we should be saddened and angered by any scholars whose conclusions are based upon racist suppositions.

I argued in my previous post that there appears to be clear evidence (or at least evidence that should be discussed more thoroughly and not dismissed out of hand) that ancient voyagers from many of the families of mankind came to the Americas from Europe, Africa, and Asia. That men of different ethnicity and physical characteristics may have dwelt together in peaceful coexistence at some point during that time is one possible conclusion suggested by the many different sculptures found in sites belonging to the mysterious ancient Olmecs. And yet to suggest today that such ancient voyages took place is dismissed as racism and ethnocentricity. This is unfortunate.

In a previous post I have argued that to assert that the ancient timeline of mankind may have been different from what we are taught today should not automatically be considered some form of racism or ethnocentricity, unless someone moves from saying "X may have happened thousands of years ago" to saying "because X happened thousands of years ago, group Y or Z is better / worse / more valuable / less respectable than group A or B." It is true that some people do say or think or suggest such conclusions, but that does not mean that everyone who suggests an alternative theory from the consensus intends to take away or detract from one group or another.

Wayfinders author Wade Davis argues that Thor Heyerdahl's theories are objectionable in this very manner, because he interprets Heyerdahl's theories as denying the culture of Polynesia its greatest achievement, which is "the ultimate insult" (47). We have examined the theories of Thor Heyerdahl in several previous posts (see here and here) and it is hard to see why arguing that the Polynesians may have come from the east to the west (as many of their own legends state and as Heyerdahl believed took place) rather than from the west to the east (as most historians today assert) means that one wants to deny them their achievements.

Thor Heyerdahl clearly believed that the Polynesians were incredible mariners who were capable of deliberate voyages from Hawaii to Aotearoa and all points in between. He himself relates the oral traditions of Polynesia describing voyages from Hawaii to Tahiti and back and says he believes they took place, and he notes the accuracy of the directions given for sailing from Aotearoa back to Hawaii, and states that he thinks such oral traditions demonstrate the ability to make such voyages deliberately and not by accident.

The fact is that nobody knows for certain what took place in mankind's distant past. We are very much in the position of detectives examining clues and piecing together theories, some of which appear more plausible than others. To declare that a culture or a people could or could not do something based on presuppositions of any sort is very unwise. This blog has already discussed numerous items of solid evidence for the likelihood that ancient cultures could and did know and do things that scholars and historians dismiss as impossible (there is evidence that the builders of the Giza pyramids and of Stonehenge knew the size and shape of the earth, for instance, and that the builders of Avebury Henge knew about earth's naturally-occurring telluric energy, and additional evidence that Avebury may have functioned as a training complex for open-ocean navigation). These are possibilities that scholars adamantly deny, and yet the evidence is at least worth further consideration, as is the evidence that ancient cultures from multiple continents visited the Americas.

Such possibilities are not brought up in an attempt to take anything away from any family of mankind. In fact, it is quite clear that the true story of mankind's ancient past, if it ever could be known, would show that the wisdom and accomplishments of our distant ancestors surpass anything we attribute to them today. The parts of that wisdom which have somehow been preserved, or revived, such as the ancient knowledge that enables the magnificent voyages of the Hawaiian navigators (and the techniques handed down through the generations to the late master wayfinder Mau Piailug) should humble the proud attitudes of those who believe that "modern technology" makes those who possess it superior to everyone else, and competent to judge what other cultures could or couldn't do.

There appears to have been an extremely sophisticated understanding of the stars and their importance that was shared across a very wide variety of cultures, and which was preserved in certain parts of the world long after it had been stamped out and forgotten in Europe (if indeed it was ever shared there beyond a limited circle). It is highly possible that this knowledge was connected with open-ocean navigation.

The intrepid men and women who pilot the Hokule'a today have proven beyond a doubt that very ancient techniques, based upon deep understanding of the stars and other signs present in the sea and sky, can enable deliberate and successful voyages across vast distances to very small targets.

Whether these capabilities are somehow connected to the little-understood capabilities and astronomical knowledge of other ancient civilizations and cultures is not certain, but where we find evidence of similar extreme awareness and understanding of the stars and the sun, we might be wise to remain open to possibilities that the consensus rejects as impossible.