Continuing this year’s goal of looking at maps from a more diverse range of peoples, today I wanted to feature the Micronesian style of cartography.
Micronesia is a collection of over 2,000 islands in the South Pacific, covering almost three million square miles of ocean. It was settled thousands of years ago, and came into contact with European explorers in the 16th century. The islands were soon colonized by the European empires, which began importing Western technology to the tribal societies. But one piece of technology was already in Micronesia long before the Europeans came: the map.
The Micronesian map does not look anything like the Western style of map. It is made of palm fronds and shells, with shells representing islands, and fronds representing the quickest route to sail between two islands. More commonly called stick charts, or rebbillib in Marshallese, these maps were used by sailors to travel from island to island, but not in the way you might think. The sailors were able to study the maps before their trip, commit the routes to memory, and then lay on their backs on the canoe, feeling the swell of the ocean currents in order to measure the distance of their journeys.
Here is one stick chart showing all the islands of the Marshall Islands chain, which is part of Micronesia:
And below, you can see how the stick chart relates to the Western-style map of the Marshall Islands.
Just goes to show that maps can come in many forms, and they can all serve a purpose. European explorers may have created rich, elaborate maps, but they often turned out to be full of errors, exaggerations, and mythical beasts. Sometimes the simplest maps work best for getting where you need to go.