Marshall Islands Early History: First People, Navigators and Stick Charts

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The Republic of the Marshall Islands, formerly part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, gained independence as part of a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986.

The Marshall Islands are in the western Pacific Ocean, east of the Caroline Islands. Consisting of a group of atolls and coral reefs, they are grouped in two great chains, the Ralik in the west and the Ratak in the east, which run almost parallel northwest to southeast, covering an ocean area of 11,650 square kilometers (4500 square miles). The total land area of the Marshall Islands is only around 180 square kilometers (70 square miles). The capital is Dalap-Uliga-Darrit (on Majuro Atoll).

Spain first explored the islands in the early 16th century. Annexed to Germany in 1885, Japan occupied the group in 1914. US forces seized the islands in World War II. In 1947, the islands became part of the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Trusteeship ended in 1990, and in 1991 the islands became a full member state of the United Nations.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Marshall Islanders now speak mutually intelligible dialects of the same language, and each atoll group recognizes cultural affinities with at least some other atolls in its area. In precolonial times sporadic contact was maintained among all atolls—even the most distant—and occasionally the strongest chiefs were able to extend their reign over several atolls of the central Ratak or Rālik cultures for short periods of time. A common Marshall Islands identity, however, is a volatile notion developed in response to Western geopolitical agendas. [Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Names of the Marshall Islands

Official Name: Republic of the Marshall Islands; conventional short form: Marshall Islands. Former Names: Rālik-Ratak, Marshalls; Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, Marshall Islands District. Abbreviation: RMI. [Source: CIA World Factbook 2023]

The Marshall Islands derive their identity from British Captain William Marshall, who explored the area with Captain Thomas Gilbert in 1788. The atolls were not a cohesive entity until Europeans named and mapped them, and Rālik-Ratak, the Marshallese designation for the leeward and windward chains of atolls, was considered an appellation at the time of independence. [Source: Laurence Marshall Carucci, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group, 2001]

The Marshall Islands is perhaps best known for its impact on American swimwear—the bikini. The main atolls, island groups and islands of the Marshall Islands are Kwajalein, Majuro, Bikini, Enewetak, Ralik and Ratak.

First People in the Marshall Islands

Humans arrived in the Marshall Islands in the first or second millennium B.C. and gradually created permanent settlements on the various atolls. The oldest human artifacts found in Micronesia date back to around 2000 B.C. and were found on Bikini atoll, which is surprising because these island are much further from Indonesia and the Philippines than most of the islands in Micronesia.

Little is known about the origin or culture of the first Micronesian navigators who arrived in the Marshall Islands. It is believed that the first Marshallese arrived from the south, probably from Vanuatu, about 4,000 years ago. They lived by fishing and cultivating root and tree crops, collected turtle eggs and ate coconuts and arrowroot, and were known for their elaborate system of navigation.

The prehistory of the Marshall Islands is still debated among scholars. Researchers agree on little more than that successive waves of migratory peoples from Southeast Asia spread across the Western Pacific about 3,000 years ago and that some of them landed on and remained on these islands. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009]

The Marshallese language, a member of the Micronesian language family, is closely related to the languages of its Carolinian neighbors to the west. Although the Marshallese share a common language and cultural tradition, minor differences distinguish the eastern chain (Ratak) from the western (Ralik). [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Society was organized under two paramount chiefs, one each for the Ratak (Sunrise) Chain and the Ralik (Sunset) Chain. The traditional hierarchy continued even after contact with Europeans in the early 1500s. Paramount chiefs (iroij) once had absolute authority over their people and retain primary rights to the land today.

Skilled Navigators of the Marshall Islands

The Marshallese have always been skilled navigators, using celestial navigation systems similar to those used throughout Micronesia, as well as distinctive stick charts to map wave patterns. They frequently traveled long distances between atolls. [Source: Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450, Thomson Gale, 2007]

For the Marshall Islanders the Pacific Ocean was not an obstacle but a means of colonizing and trading over long distances. Evidence of traffic in precontact era includes a highly organized trading and exchange system.

Micronesians and Marshall Islanders used simple dugout canoes to get around protected waters and canoes with a single outrigger to navigate the open ocean. Small outrigger canoes have traditionally been made from a single breadfruit tree trunk hollowed and carved with simple hand tools. Large canoes, sometimes over a 100 feet long, were constructed of planks tied together with coconut-fibre rope. Larger and faster than the ships used by European explorers, these canoes carried a hundred men and supplies to keep them going for months at sea.

Navigation Methods Used by Marshall Islanders

Without compasses and maps, Micronesians navigated their way across thousands of miles of open ocean. In the open sea, they relied primarily on celestial navigation. Since they traveled mainly in east-west lines, they set their course based on the position of the sun and the rising and setting positions of certain stars which were associated with specific islands. To head north and south they followed the North Star and the Southern Cross. Knowledge of directions, and important stars and island positions were passed from generation to generation in the form of chants.

Because the Marshall Islands were so small and couldn't be seen from a distance and didn't alter cloud formations like the larger islands in Micronesia, the Marshallese developed a system of navigation based on the disruption of wave patterns by the islands.

Marshallese navigation relied understanding waves patterns and currents caused by the deflection and movement around the islands. The atolls that make up the Marshall Islands are grouped together northwest-to-southeast running diagonal lines that break up the large swells that move east to west across the Pacific Ocean.

Land was located by watching the birds (who usually returned to their island nests at night) and cloud patterns. Single stationary clouds, for example, usually formed around large islands. In some cases, pale green light reflected from an atoll's shallow lagoon could be seen on the underside of clouds.

Marshall Islands Stick Charts

Marshall Islanders used distinctive stick charts to map wave patterns, shapes and changes, which were used by Marshallese navigators to travel throughout the island chains. Stick charts are unique to the Marshall Islands.

In travels between the islands, early inhabitants learned to read the patterns of the waves and the positions of the stars, and they made stick charts to record and pass on their observations to less-experienced navigators. By tying flat strips of wood together with coconut twine in imitation of the wave patterns and attaching cowrie shells to the sticks to represent particular islands and atolls, the experienced navigator could memorize the patterns for when he was out at sea the charts were not actually taken on the journeys.

Navigational maps, commonly known as "stick charts," were originally used in the Marshall Islands by navigators during long ocean voyages. Although stylized, the charts were functional objects providing information on the locations of individual islands as well as wave patterns.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: For the people of the Marshall Islands, as for all Micronesians, navigation was and remains an essential skill on which the lives of navigators and all who sailed with them depended. Sailing among the scattered atolls of the Ralik and Ratak island chains, which together comprise the Marshall archipelago, the Marshallese made frequent ocean voyages. In former times long-distance voyages were made not by single vessels but by substantial flotillas, usually consisting of twenty-five to thirty, but at times up to eighty, large sailing canoes, each capable of holding forty or fifty people. The navigators, as a rule, all sailed aboard a single pilot vessel, which guided the other boats in the fleet. Restricted to chiefly men, the art of navigation was vital to the success of any voyage and possession of it brought great prestige and status.[Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Stick charts were used by ancient sailing masters to pass on their secret knowledge to the younger generation. The information on the stickcharts was memorized and the charts themselves were never taken on journeys. Stick charts were still in use as late as the 1950s. Although few people remember how to read the charts, the theory is still taught today and charts are made as souvenirs.

Using Marshall Islands Stick Charts

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Knowledge of navigational techniques was a closely guarded secret, kept and passed down only within certain chiefly families. To assist in recalling and, where appropriate, imparting the secrets of navigation, Marshallese navigators constructed schematic diagrams of the sea and islands that surrounded them from the sticklike midribs of coconut palm fronds. Commonly referred to as "stick charts," these objects were not charts in the strict Western sense of maps that recorded the position of every island and shoal. Instead, they were memory aids constructed as needed by individual navigators to remind themselves, and to instruct novices, about specific features of sea and land. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The form of stick charts was not fixed. The exact significance of a given example was known only to its maker, and even an experienced navigator could not fully interpret a chart made by another. Although they contained information essential to the navigator when at sea, stick charts were produced and consulted only on land, before the voyage began. For an individual to carry a stick chart along on a sailing canoe would be damaging to his reputation, as it called into question the extent of his knowledge and abilities.

Although Marshallese stick charts indicate the positions of islands (their locations, in many examples, are marked with cowrie shells), Marshallese navigation was based in large part on the detection and interpretation of the patterns of ocean swells. Much as a stone thrown into a pond produces ripples, islands in the sea deflect and interrupt the orientation of the waves that strike them, creating distinctive swell patterns, or dunung, which can be felt by experienced navigators in the motion of canoes at sea and used to guide the vessel to land. The presence and orientation of dunung and other ocean phenomena such as currents are the main features indicated on the stick charts.

A late-19th-to-early-20th century Marshall Islands stick chart at the British Museum is composed of wood and cowrie shells and measures 60 by 55 centimeters (2 feet by 1.8 feet).. According to Archaeology magazine: The education of a navigator in the Marshall Islands, a Micronesian archipelago in the South Pacific, traditionally began by being blindfolded in a canoe. Young sailors learned to feel and intuit the motion of the sea before ever venturing out on ocean journeys. The deep Marshallese connection with waves and their movements reaches back more than 2,000 years to land-finding techniques used by the islands’ first settlers. [Source: Marley Brown, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2019]

Types of Marshall Islands Stick Charts

Stick charts were highly variable in their individual content and occurred in three types: mattang (nonspecific diagrams used to teach general principles of navigation), meddo (charts that show the swell patterns of a few specific islands), and rebbilib (charts covering all or most of the Marshall archipelago). Brandt, states that the "sticks" were made from the roots of the pandanus tree. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

There were charts for the open ocean and charts for home waters. “Mattang” which were sometimes used as teaching instruments, showed the wave patterns around a single island or atoll. “Medos” showed wave patterns around a small group of atolls and “rebilit” showed the patterns for an entire string of atolls.

One Navigational Chart (Rebbilib) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of coconut midrib and fiber. Dated to the 19th-early 20th century, it is 35.25 inches high, with a width of 43.25 inches and a depth of 1 inch (89.5 x 109.9 x 2.5 centimeters). This example consists of a gridlike structure of seven vertical sticks lashed to four horizontal ones. The corners extend outside the main grid, while three curved strips, possibly representing the patterns of ocean swells, extend from side to side. The intersections created by the slanting sticks at the corners may indicate the locations of specific islands. In some instances, small cowrie shells, absent on this example, are also used to indicate the positions of individual islands.

This work is of the rebbilib type. As was true of all stick charts, the precise features that this chart records were known only to its creator. However, as a general rule navigators used bent sticks to indicate the swells created by islands, and the intersections of the sticks marked places where swell patterns met in the open ocean. Short straight sticks indicated currents, whereas longer ones showed the direction of travel to specific islands.

According to Archaeology magazine: “Scholars have identified two different types of Marshall Islands stick charts, wooden diagrams the Marshallese have been producing since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. The first and probably older type, shown here, contains abstract representations of how waves interact with bodies of land in general. The second type illustrates actual islands, often represented by cowrie shells, along with swell patterns identified and recorded by pilots. “There aren’t that many examples from across the Pacific of this kind of navigational knowledge being encoded or physically represented,” says anthropologist Joseph Genz of the University of Hawaii. He says the charts were used mainly as teaching devices rather than real-time way-finders. They help to impart perhaps the most crucial concept in the Marshallese navigational tradition, that of the dilep, or “backbone wave.” “People still describe the dilep as the most important wave to find,” Genz says. “It’s like a path you can follow to the next atoll. Instead of going landmark to landmark, you go seamark to seamark.”[Source: Marley Brown, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2019]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2023; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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