Ancient Navigators

Did ancient explorers cross oceans to reach the New World?

Many popular theories explaining the peopling of the Americas, including Clovis First (See earlier post on the Clovis theory) claim that people first arrived in the Americas by walking across Beringia, the Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska  around 13,000 years ago.  From there they eventually spread overland all the way across and down the Americas.

Monte Verde

Mario Piño, from Chile, and Tom Dillehay, from the USA, provided the best challenge to the Clovis-first theory with their work on the Monte Verde site in Chile (See map).  In 1977, they published their findings, which included evidence of human presence at the site 14,200 years ago.  The upper level yielded interesting finds, including the remains of 20’ long structures made of walls of poles covered with animal hides, large hearths lined with clay, coprolites containing remnants of 45 different plant species including nine species of seaweed, seeds, nuts, berries, remains of local animals, and wild potatoes.  Some of their food came from 150 miles away, indicating either a large gathering area or a functioning food network.

In 1997, the Monte Verde dates were rechecked and confirmed by previously doubting archaeologists, some of whom were forced to admit they might need a more complex answer to the question of how people arrived in the Americas.

However, that wasn’t the real shocker.  Tom Dillehay knew more than he said in his published paper.  He and Piño had excavated a lower level with dates Dillehay knew would never be accepted, so he ignored the lower level in his paper, except to note “although the stratigraphy is intact, the radiocarbon dates are valid, and the human artifacts are genuine, I hesitate to accept this older level without more evidence and without sites of comparable age elsewhere in the Americas.”  Later, he admitted he had found “charcoal scatters which may be the remnants of fireplaces next to possible stone and wood artifacts, and these were dated to at least 33,000BC.”

Mario Piño had fewer reservations.  He asserted the 35,000 years ago date based on his finds at Monte Verde and corresponding dates from an animal bone found at another archaeological site 120 miles north.

Pedra Furado

Another pivotal discovery was made in South America at a site called Pedra Furado in eastern Brazil.  Here, the dates were so revolutionary that few American archaeologists accepted them. In 1986, a woman named Niede Guidon published a paper claiming she had discovered the oldest known site of human habitation in the Americas (at least 33,000 years ago; some dates range from 41,000 to 56,000 years ago).  Included in the strata dated 32,000 years old were fragments of pottery and rock art figures.

Not only did this find challenge the cherished view that the first people to visit the Americas came across the land bridge from Asia into North America 13,000 years ago and then populated the Americas; it blew it out of the water by 20,000 years!  And in South America!  And discovered by a woman!

Even more shocking was the level of sophistication of the very early explorers, with pottery and art.  Its location on the east side of Brazil was also troubling.  If the first people in the Americas came across the Bering Strait, getting to eastern Brazil would mean a sea journey of 10,000 miles down the west coast of the Americas, followed by an incredibly difficult overland journey of thousands more to reach the Pedra Furada sites.  Even some Clovis-Firsters thought it seemed far more plausible that the early explorers in Brazil came from Africa, making a trans-Atlantic journey of about 2000 miles, with both currents and wind in their favor.  (In 2012, Katie Spotz, a 22-year old woman, rowed her way from West Africa to South America, solo, in 70 days.)

More recent finds at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania have been dated to 14,250 years ago, pre-dating the Clovis sites by a thousand years.  Other ancient sites in Delaware and Virginia have again raised the possibility that ancient explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean long before Leif Erickson and Saint Brendan did.

The problem, it seems to me, is underestimating both the intelligence and the navigational skill of the ancient explorers.

Amazing explorers

Homo floresiensis, the “Hobbit” people whose remains were found on Flores Island in eastern Indonesia, lived from 94,000 to 12,000 years ago.  The oldest bone fragment unearthed at the dig site was dated to 74,000 years ago.  People settled in Australia at least 45,000 years ago, though some claim the date is more than 60,000 years ago.  In order to reach these places, even with the ocean levels much lower than they are today, people needed to use boats.

Ancient Polynesian navigators, the greatest open ocean explorers in the world, found their way from Indonesia and New Guinea out into the Pacific Ocean, covering an area larger than North and South America combined, including Fiji, Hawaii, and Easter Island.  (DNA studies have shown the Easter Islanders to be Polynesian.) It’s 4,610 miles from Fiji to Easter Island.  Many believe that the Polynesians went on from Easter Island to explore the west coast of South America, (only 2,400 miles farther) bringing chickens from Asia to the New World and taking sweet potatoes back with them to Easter Island and Polynesia.

When European explorers arrived in Polynesia, they were amazed that the native mariners regularly sailed far out of sight of land and returned safely, maintaining a wide-area trade system that linked over a hundred islands, all without use of maps, compass, or sextant.

Later colonizers refused to believe these “savages” could be so skillful, dismissing their claims as fiction.  In the 20th century, when the old ways of the navigator had almost disappeared, some Western sailors decided to learn the ways of the native navigators.  The most famous was David Lewis, an accomplished sailor whose book We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific became the best source of information on the fading art of the South Pacific navigator.  The 13,000 miles he sailed with native navigators in the South Pacific showed him how amazingly accurate their methods were.  On some of the early voyages, he kept a compass and charts locked away in case he needed them.  He didn’t.

Steering by the Stars

A traditional Polynesian navigator needs to know the night sky so well that he can mentally see the whole sky even if most of it is obscured by clouds.  (I’m using he because all of the traditional Polynesian navigators still alive are male, and instruction in the art is now limited to males.  However, ancient pictographs of Polynesian explorers show men, women, and children on board, in addition to lots of plants, even trees, and animals.)

He needs to memorize the exact path, including rising and setting points, of at least 36 major stars and over a hundred secondary ones.  For example, some stars rise in the east, such as Altair, the brightest star in our constellation Aquila the Eagle, and arc toward the north, so they can be used as reliable indicators of east only for a short time after they rise, a period usually measured in fists.  The navigator holds out his arm so his fist lies between the horizon and the star he’s using.  He knows this particular star is only reliable until it reaches two fists above the horizon.  After that, he needs a new star to take him to the east.  It might be a new star rising in the east or a star like Spica, which sets directly west. Navigators who travel to particular islands regularly know a sequence of stars to follow to each destination.  The star compass pictured includes many of the stars navigators would know though they were known by different names in different areas.  This knowledge was carried in the navigator’s memory, not on paper.

If the eastern part of the sky is obscured by clouds, he must be able to use whatever part of the sky he can see to give him the orientation he needs to fill in the rest of the sky.  Absolutely accurately.

Pictured above is the Universal Star Compass, from The Barefoot Navigator.


He also needs to read the pattern and direction of the waves passing under the flexible hulls of his boat.  Ocean currents in Polynesia tend to be very consistent.  As the long waves pass under the boat at a consistent angle, the navigator knows where the currents are coming from and judges his direction accordingly.  He knows that the currents bend and shorten as they near land.  If storms are coming in, the surface currents will be different from the deeper currents. In some cases, he has six or seven different currents to track.  Some navigators lie down on the deck or the outrigger to get an exact reading of the multiple currents.

The stick chart pictured shows the currents in a particular area.  Islands are marked with shells.  While navigators sometimes studied charts like this before a voyage, they were not typically brought along on the boat.  Few navigators explained the charts to outsiders.

Birds, Vegetation Mats, Clouds, Colors, Smells

The traditional navigator knows that while certain birds are trans-oceanic flyers, like the albatross, others serve as good indicators of nearby land. Terns and noddies fly out from land in the morning and return at night.  Frigate birds released from their cages are another good indicator of land.  Since the birds will drown if they get their wings wet, they will either fly toward nearby land or head back to the boat.

The migration of the Pacific golden plover was said to inspire the ancient Polynesians in Tahiti to look for the land the plovers were heading toward, which turned out to be the Hawaiian Islands.  Later, Captain Cook also used the migration of the plover as an indication that land lay to the north, which is how he found Hawaii in the middle of the ocean.  The golden plover, kolea, appears on the Hawaii state stamp (pictured) and on petroglyphs on Hawaii (illustration). 

Mats of vegetation are also reliable indications that land is fairly close.  Farther away, the mats break up due to wave action.  The navigator looks to the clouds for information on wind velocity and approaching weather.   In addition, clouds tend to form over land due to transpiration, so a lone cloud on the horizon might indicate an island lies beneath it.   Sky color is also important, as is the color of the water, paler over reefs or submerged islands, darker in very deep sections.

A traditional Polynesian navigator had to use his entire body as a sensor.  It’s no wonder the ancients respected him.

A Polynesian Network

Upon discovering the remains of a reed boat and wild sweet potatoes on Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl theorized that South Americans drifted with the western current to Easter Island, bringing both the boat and the sweet potato with them, then later drifted all the way to Polynesia.  While this theory has since been discarded, it may be partially correct.  If the Polynesians went east all the way to South America, they may well have made the round-trip, bringing chickens to South America and the sweet potato to Easter Island.

Another fascinating hint at a Polynesian network comes from a Peruvian mummy examined by the University of York’s Mummy Research Group.  They found it had been embalmed with the resin of the Araucaria conifer, closely related to the Monkey Puzzle Tree found in New Guinea.

The Importance of the Sea Explorer Community

Exploration by sea may have played a very important role in the development of human society.  It necessitated an exact and widespread language, a desire to act together for the common good, advanced tool use, engineering skill, and extensive knowledge of the natural environment.  It would have been driven by a need for constant innovation: stronger, flexible hulls, a more complete star map, different sail, hull, and paddle designs, double masts, outriggers.  Knowledge was power.  The person who could take a boat out of sight of land and return again was recognized as special.  The person who could manage the same feat by night was very special.  If he could manage a voyage of many days and nights between distant islands, he was extraordinary.   Sea exploration created a society made of an accepted leader and his followers.  The navigator’s word was law, just as it is today onboard a ship.  Once the explorers formed a settlement in the new land, it would have been natural to maintain this social order, at least until populations grew and resources became scarce.

The ancient navigators faced a world ready to kill them if they were stupid or careless, maybe even if they weren’t.  They accepted life that way.  Sometimes I think it’s sad that so many people hunger for that kind of adventure today and find it only inside a video game.

Sources and interesting reading:

Guidon, N. and B. Arnaud. “The chronology of the New World: Two Faces of One Reality,” Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences, Sociales, Paris

Guidon, N. and Delbrios, G. 1986 “Carbon 14 dates point to man in Americas 32,000 years ago,” Nature, 321:769-771.

Gladwin, Thomas.  East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

“Homo Floresiensis,” Wikipedia

Lagan, Jack.  The Barefoot Navigator: Navigating with the skills of the ancients.  Dobbs Ferry, New York: Sheridan House, 2005.

Lewis, David.  We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, second edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994 (an excellent source)

“Monte Verde,” Wikipedia

“New Evidence from Earliest Known Human Settlement in the Americas,” Science Daily.

“Pedra Furada, Brazil: Paleoindians, Painting, and Paradoxes,” Athena Review, vol. 3, no. 2: Peopling of the Americas.

“Pedra Furada sites, (Piaui, Brazil)” by George Weber, 54

“Polynesian Discovery,” History channel, available on YouTube

“Sailing by the Stars – How the Ancients Did It”

Schmitz, P. I. 1987. “Prehistoric hunters and gatherers of Brazil.” Journal of World Prehistory, 1:53 – 126.

The Night Sky: Calendar, Compass, Culture

For some modern viewers, the sight of a sky full of stars is unnerving, making them feel small and insignificant.  In “We’ve Got Tonight,” Bob Seger sings, “Why should we worry, no one will care, girl.  Look at the stars, so far away/ we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?”  This makes a curious statement.  Because the stars are so far away, what we do is irrelevant.  No one will care if we spend the night together, just as the stars don’t care.   Not much in the romance department.

Ancient people had a very different view.  Their lives were inextricably linked to the stars and planets.  The rising and falling of stars with the seasons, the appearance and disappearance of the planets determined what happened on earth.  We see this as astrology, but the ancient people saw no difference between astrology and astronomy.  They needed to understand the motion and patterns of the night sky because their lives were entwined with them.  The stars weren’t distant at all.  They were immediate and active.


For the ancient peoples, the sun and moon provided easy measures of time.  Every 29 days or so, the moon begins a new cycle of waxing from a slim crescent to a full moon and then waning back to the last crescent before it goes completely dark, only to start over again.  Some modern people still use a calendar based on the cycles of the moon.  The Chinese traditional calendar, the Islamic calendar, and the Jewish calendar are all lunar, with twelve months of 29 or 30 days.  The Chinese calendar adds extra days as needed at the end of the year to correspond to the solar calendar.  The Jewish calendar adds them every Leap Year.

For many ancient societies, each of the moons had a name, indicating a significant seasonal marker: New Rains Moon, Deep Frost Moon, etc.

By the stars’ position, people could identify which moon it was.  Take the most identifiable asterism in the night sky, The Big Dipper, which many ancient people saw as part of a celestial bird.  In the early evening in January, the dipper seems to stand on its handle (or wing).  By April, it lies upside down.  By July, it seems to stand on the outside of the cup.  In October, it lies right side up.



The pointer stars, the outside of the dipper’s cup, point to the North Star.  You can find approximate north by sighting along any straight object aligned with the North Star.  The opposite end of the same stick points south.  Once those two are established, you can find east and west with only a little more work.  As recently as the 1800’s, escaping slaves used the Big Dipper, “The Drinking Gourd,” as a guide to lead them to freedom in the north.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross serves the same purpose as a circumpolar asterism, but the pole itself is an empty space, sometimes referred to as a cave, unmarked by a star.  This was the case in the Northern Hemisphere as well 10,000 years ago, when the center was between stars.

Night Clock

The Big Dipper appears to move in the course of the night, swinging around the unmoving center of the sky, the North Star.  It would be easy for people to judge how late it was by how much the dipper had moved.


More importantly, for the ancient peoples, the night sky, especially the Milky Way, was a powerful, frightening force that was connected to all life on earth.  It contained creation and death, darkness and light.

Seeing The Milky Way

The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in.  It contains, according to the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, over 400 billion stars, including our sun.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Milky Way, start with finding a familiar constellation like Orion (diagram).  The Milky Way passes over the figure’s shoulder.  You’ll need a dark sky, away from sources of light pollution that will rob you of all but the brightest stars.

The three “belt” stars, the very bright shoulder star Betelgeuse, and the very bright “foot” star Rigel make this constellation easy to differentiate from others.



With some help from the Hubble telescope, you can see the rest of the story!

Source: httyp://















(Photo source: Patrick’s Photoblog,

In the photo, look for the three stars of Orion’s belt and the bright smudge that is the Orion Nebula.   The Milky Way rises almost vertically in the center of the photo.

The Milky Way looks like a river of bright stars flowing across the sky.  The name comes from the ancient Greeks, who said it was milk from cows, with each star a cow, though the story was later changed to milk spilled by the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, as she suckled Heracles.  The confusion probably came from the ancient Egyptians, for whom the Milky Way was sacred cow’s milk of Hathor, a goddess who was often represented as a woman with a cow horn headdress, or a sacred cow.  (See earlier post “The Eye in the Hand” for more on Hathor and Tanit.)

For the East Asians, it was the Silvery River of Heaven. For Finns, the Pathway of the Birds.  For Hungarians, the Warriors’ Road.  For many cultures, including the Maya, the dark rift within the white band was considered the Black Road, the Pathway of the Dead.

Linda Schele and other prominent Mayanists have held that for the ancient Maya, the movement of the Milky Way in the night sky repeated their creation story.  When it is vertical, it is the World Tree, first used by the creator gods to lift up the sky and separate it from the water.  (See the dramatic Milky Way photo by Dyer.)  As the night goes on, and a different section of the Milky Way becomes visible, the shape is interpreted as the Crocodile Tree, where the World Tree grows out of a crocodile’s back, and again later, when the Milky Way stretches horizontally across the sky, it is seen as the Celestial Canoe that carries the Paddler gods to the place of Creation, near Orion, where they set the first stone.  The placing of the hearthstones and the lighting of the first fire began our time, the fourth age.



The Dark Patches

The Australian Aboriginal peoples see their creation stories in the Milky Way as well, but they deal more with the black areas of the Milky Way, what astronomers today refer to as dark dust clouds.  If you have a really good sky for viewing, you can see these dark areas quite clearly.  (In the stunning photo by John Gleason, you can understand how people could see shapes in the dark sections.)

According to Bill Yidumduma Harney, his Wardaman people see all their creation figures in the Milky Way.  Even more, the important sites for viewing specific moments echo in the landscape the position of the important stars in the sky.  At those special places, when the sky is in perfect harmony with the land, the Wardaman feel the sky is alive and star beings can easily go from one world to another.   Note the carving of the emu on the rock that coincides with its appearance in the sky.

(For a complete though not easy explanation of Wardaman cosmology as expressed in the night sky, see Dark Sparklers by Hugh Cairns and Bill Yidumdum Harney.)

The night sky – The World Tree, The Crocodile, The Emu, The Dolphin, The Paddler Gods, The Seat of Creation, The Birthplace of the Stars, The River of the Dead, The Black Dreaming Place, The Warrior Road, The Pathway of Birds – is still there, waiting to amaze you, to fill you with wonder.  Find a dark spot on a clear night and let it become part of your world.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Creation, Cosmos, and the Imagery of Palenque and Copan,” by Linda Schele and Khristaan D. Villela, University of Texas, Austin

Maya Cosmology,

“2012 and the Milky Way Tree,” by Brian Keats, October 2009

A Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, by Lynn V. Foster

“Beautiful Milky Way Photography,” in Paulo Gabriel’s blog,

Professor Gene Smith’s Astronomu Tutorial: The Sturcture of the Milky Way,” University of California, San Diego,

Tony Garone’s simulations of Maya Creation story superimposed on star maps,

Patrick’s Photoblog,

Observatorio ARVAL,