Micronesian Stick Charts

The Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, are only a few feet above sea level, making them nearly invisible from a distance.  They cover an area of 112 miles, and have 5 islands and 29 atolls.  Ancient mariners settled these islands thousands of years ago.  Despite lacking modern day navigational tools, the islanders were able to travel from island to island for food, trade, and social gatherings.  They did this in dugout canoes, using stick charts made of palm or coconut strips and cowrie shells to guide them.

Micronesian Navigation Chart

There were two types of stick charts: meddo, which were a sort of map in which the shells marked the position of islands in relation to one another, and mattang, which modeled ocean phenomena.  The mattang were used to teach swell movements, wind patterns, and wave interactions that indicate land.

The charts were fragile, and weren’t taken on voyages.  Rather, they would be memorized by the navigator before heading out.

The art of map-making was passed from father to son.  This traditional knowledge is dying out, as modern technologies like GPS have nearly completely replaced it.


Smithsonian – Micronesian Stick Charts

Wiki – Marshall Islands Stick Chart

Khan Academy – Micronesia – Navigation Charts

Smithsonian Magazine – How Sticks and Shells became a Sophisticated Navigation System