Archaeoastronomy in Oceania

Oceania: from celestial seafaring to megaliths

Adriano Gaspani has carried out extended ethno- and archaeoastronomical studies of the ancient cultures from Polynesia, researching and interpreting their astronomical knowledge and sky observation practices. The analysis of any evidence confirming ancient practices related to the sky observation and interpretation in the wide area of the Oceania continent cannot be performed without properly considering the astronomical and nautical knowledge of the ancient voyagers of the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, the Polynesian celestial navigation represents one of the very earliest and most successful form of open ocean sailing in the history of mankind, although not based on scientific methods or instruments, but just on memory, experience, and naked-eye observation. The early Polynesians were a seafaring people with amazingly developed navigational skills, and a deep knowledge of the size of the waves and the flow of the ocean currents as well. But they were also great observers of the sky, the motion of the stars, the weather processes, and, last but not least, the behaviours of the wildlife species. Little by little, sailing miles and miles offshore on their canoes, the Polynesians managed to find the right path from one island to another, quickly colonising the whole of the wide Pacific area, from New Zealand to Easter Island.

Image: the Moai Statues at Ahu Akivi on Easter Island, details (public domain, source: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikimedia Commons).

Here below you can find Adriano Gaspani's contributions (mostly in Italian language) published on Historia Vivens Web. Texts and images, unless otherwise attributed, are provided by the Author himself, and are his copyright. Please note that, to ease the reading, all articles, in full version and accompanied by pictures and notes, are free to download in PDF format. We hope you will enjoy the contents and wish you a pleasant surfing. This section is constantly evolving, please come back often for the latest updates. Thank you!

Haamonga-A-Mui trilithon (Tonga archipelago)

The most spectacular and important megalithic monument of all Polynesia is undoubtedly represengted by the great Ha'amonga'a Maui trilithon (a structure that consisting of two vertical stones with a third stone supporting the top), which is located in the north of the Tongatapu island (Tonga archipelago), and reported to show the position of sunrise at solstices and equinoxes. In this article Adriano Gaspani presents the results of archaeoastronomical survey, that helped to point out how the orientation of the trilithon was set according to a significant astronomical criterion of lunisticial nature.

Image: the Ha´amonga´a Maui (meaning the burden of Maui) Trilithon in an early 20th century postcards (public domain, source: Tonga Tourism Office).

You can download here the full article (in Italian) in PDF format:

Polynesian seafaring and the colonization of the Pacific

The vast Pacific Ocean area was uninhabited 2,500 years ago. Within a thousand years the Early Polynesians managed to colonize previously unsettled islands by making long canoe voyages, and settling even the most remote islands of the so-called "Polynesian Triangle" with its eastern corner at Easter Island, the northern corner at Hawaii, and the southern corner in New Zealand. This vast area is scattered over 1/3 of the Earth’s surface, an area larger than the Moon's surface. The Polynesian mariners made the best use possible of the clues they had, relying often to their memory of important natural facts and features, such as the motion of specific stars and their rising and setting on the horizon of the ocean, but also the weather conditions, the seasonal changes, the behaviour of wildlife species, as well as the direction, size, and speed of the ocean waves and currents, the colours of the sea and sky, the shape of the clouds over sea and land, etc. They made use of the Sun when it was low on the horizon and gave him a different name depending on how the Sun was wide, and according to the different "colors" of its path on the water. When the sun is low, the path is narrow. When the sun is high, the path is getting wider. When the sun gets too high and it not possible anymore to know where it rose, then they had to use other clues. Dawn is the most important part of the day: at dawn the Polynesian sailors started watching the shape of the ocean waves: the "character" of the sea. They memorized from where the wind came and how it made the water swell. They determined the direction of the swells, and when the sun became too high, they navigate according to those clues. At sunset, they repeated the same observations. The sun went down, and they watched again the shape of the waves. At night they used the stars, about 220 of which they were able to identify by name. They knew when the stars rose and set. Finally, when it was cloudy and they could not use the Sun or the Stars, all they could do was rely on the ocean waves.

Polynesian Migration

Image: the Polynesian spread of colonization in the Pacific area: an equirectangular projection of Polynesia made by David Eccles (source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0).

Astronomy of the ancient Polynesians

Before the invention of the compass, sextant and watch, or - more recently - the GPS satellite navigation system, the ancient Polynesians were able to sail the vast Pacific Ocean along routes of thousands of miles to reach new lands to colonize, sailing on the open ocean without any tools and without having any exposed land surfaces, but only thanks to the careful observation of the signs of nature: the ocean currents, the wind, the clouds, and, above all, the celestial objetcs like, the stars, the Sun and the Moon. The Polynesians used to repeat: “if you can read the ocean, you will never get lost”, and indeed they made the best use possible of the available clues and resources...

Image: Hōkūle’a, the reconstructed Polynesian double-hulled oceanic canoe, ca. 1976, (copyright and source: Polynesian Voyaging Society via Kamehameha School Archives).

You can download here the full article (in Italian) in PDF format:


Credits & Navigation

Images: All images on this page are public domain or provided by the Author himself unless otherwise stated.





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