Polynesian Stick Charts

The Polynesians, scattered as they were over 1,000 islands across the central and southern Pacific Ocean, were master navigators who tracked their way over a huge expanses of ocean without any of the complex mechanical aids we associate with sea fairing. They didn’t have the astrolabe or the sextant, the compass or the chronometer. They did however have aids of a sort, which though seemingly humble, were in fact the repositories of an extremely complex kind of knowledge. Called Rebbelibs, Medos. and Mattangs, today we call them simply “Stick Charts.”

08.23. filed under: design. history. science.


Polynesians are only just recovering from French colonialism - they’re starting to speak their own language again after decades of enforced French. But I don’t imagine they’ll go back to using these things, interesting as they are.
Also, how do we feel about a cultural artefact being kept “alive” only to be sold to/performed for tourists? Isn’t it better to let it die, if it’s not going to be used properly?

posted on 08.24 at 03:29 AMsimon


They won’t go back to using them because without the knowledge they symbolize (of ocean swells and floating flotsam,etc) they are of little use. Of course once the “great nations” finally bathe the world in flames the Polynesians will be forced to re-learn what they’ve forgotten, and then the skill to lash these things together will come in handy.

As to a cultural artifact being kept “alive” artificially… well I can only say perhaps the charts are more than just souvenirs but also a bit of cultural history which, however useless functionally, the polynesians are none the less proud of and want to sustain. Like, let’s say… the British monarchy.

In any case I can’t begrudge them. They have obviously chosen to continue making them. Must pull in an alright profit. Sure it’s sad somehow, but for me to impose my sense of decorum over their economic choices would be somewhat… colonial minded… no?

posted on 08.24 at 08:34 AMjmorrison


For Mr. A the meaning lays in the use. | For Mr. B the use comes from knowledge. | For Mr. A knowledge is a reflection of needs and necessity. | For Mr. B necessity is an attribute of history. | For Mr. A history is the consequence of conventional agreements upon time. | For Mr. B time is a measure depending on a reference mark. | For Mr. A a mark is but a step towards a meaning. | For Mr. B the meaning lays in the use…

In any case I can’t begrudge them ( and myself as well).

posted on 08.25 at 12:16 PMdaniel


For the record, I’d be happy to let the British monarchy die off too.

posted on 08.27 at 03:50 AMsimon


Coming from a colonial-strangulated culture myself, I’d like to stress the importance of hanging on to cultural habits and artifacts as a way of maintaining identity. Just because these Stick Charts have also become tourist geegaws doesn’t mean that they are not important for the Polynesians in retaining a trace of their cultural heritage.

That we have tourist shops here full of fake leprechaun crap and tweed hats doesn’t negate the fact that holding tenaciously onto our traditions throughout the years of occupation was a good thing. We have a rich musical, historical and mythological heritage that would have been lost had we at any point in our history we’d decided that they weren’t useful anymore.

posted on 08.29 at 04:46 AMPierce


I’ve enjoyed tremendously this post of yours. i’ve came across Polynesian Stick Charts before, i think it was in the book “You are here-personal geogrphy”  by Katharine Harmon (higly recommanded), but never before read more about it’s history and and saw so much examples of it. it is interesting as well as a concept, a concept so different from other ancient maps.

posted on 09.13 at 06:04 PMmoon


Nice work!

posted on 11.05 at 11:21 PM.


That is artistry and science combined. The stick charts are simply beautiful… Polynesia is not alone. Here in Asia, many cultural artifacts are being sold as souvenirs. Tourism commercialized and changed the meaning and purpose of these things. Locales only see money and profit in them.

posted on 07.30 at 09:34 PMqinox

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