The Polynesians were master navigators who tracked their way across huge expanses of ocean without any of the complex aids, such as the Greek astrolabe or the sextant, compass and chronometer, which Europeans found essential.

As late as 1837 a British ship set sail for Rarotonga, in the Pacific, from an island less than 150 miles away, but even with the help of a chart, a compass and telescope failed to find it. Yet centuries before, the Polynesians had pinpointed a minuscule landmark like Easter Island.

How did they do it?

Like all navigators they used the stars as fixed points of reference. They understood the significance of stationary clouds, the presence of birds and flotsam as indications of nearby land. But most extraordinary of all, they had learned how to read and interpret the changing patterns created by ocean waves.

A stone thrown into a pond will set up a series of ripples. Any object, like a rock or even a mooring post, which breaks the surface, will affect the pattern of the ripples. Pond or Pacific Ocean, the same principal applies. Islands and atolls have the same effect as rocks and posts. The Polynesians observed that when waves hit an island, some are reflected back in the direction from which they have come while others are deflected at angles round the island and continue their passage in a modified form.

The art of reading the waves was taught to Polynesian boys with the aid of the mattang, a web of interlocking sticks which demonstrated all the basic patterns that waves can form when they are deflected by land.

The adult navigator gauged these wave patterns entirely by his sense of touch. He would crouch in the bow of his canoe and literally feel every motion of the vessel.
In this way the original colonizers of Easter Island might have ‘felt their way’ across thousands of miles of open sea to their remote new home.

The Mattang with which Polynesian boys learned to navigate over the trackless wastes of the Pacific Ocean by studying the motion of the waves.

From The Worlds Last Mysteries – Readers Digest