Finding your way like a Polynesian
This is the story of two groups of people who independently solved one of humanity’s greatest challenges, succeeding on very different timelines and in very different ways. On one side, a global superpower with the most advanced technology of the day, while on the other is an indigenous population with a much different toolbox.
One would conquer the problem with incredible feats of engineering and technology, while the other with an incredible feat of focus. In the end, the lessons they provide through their successes and failures remain just as pivotal today as we navigate the many challenges and distractions of modern living.
The problem of longitude
Christopher Columbus and I have both made some wrong turns, but at least mine never led to colonization. Am I more impressive than Columbus? It remains to be seen, but at least when I fail to find pepper, nobody dies of typhus.
Columbus was trying to find a faster way to Asia and their magical spices when he failed by running into the Caribbean (points for knowing the Earth is round, I suppose). It’s wild to think that half the world didn’t know the other half existed at the time. While this seems like a comical fact to be unaware of, exploration on the open ocean was made extremely difficult due to the lack of longitude.
If you look at a globe, lines of latitude, such as the equator, run east and west. Combining knowledge of these lines (let’s all raise a Spanakopita to the Greeks for that one) as well as the positioning of the stars, moon, and planets allowed for fairly accurate (ish) positioning while at sea, as long as you were crossing them, travelling north and south.
If you were to travel east and west, however, you need other lines going from pole to pole. Without both sets of lines, figuring out your position becomes a dreadful challenge.
Unfortunately, determining the lines of longitude presented a unique challenge because they split the globe into uneven sections. Imagine cutting an orange into slices. If you cut the orange sideways (say, to put on the rim of a glass), the slices could all have a consistent thickness. Cut them that way for your kid’s soccer game, though, and you’ll have a mutiny on your hands (sailor callback, YES). If you cut the orange to make traditional slices, you cut it north-to-south (from stem to bottom). Looking at the slices from the peel side, you’d see they aren’t consistent. They meet at the stem, bulge out in the middle, and then meet at the bottom again. You made straight cuts to the orange, but because the orange is a sphere, they produce unevenly shaped pieces.
This is no different than splitting the planet into sections using straight lines that run from pole to pole; it creates orange-peel sections that aren’t evenly spaced. If you were to now sail across the peel east-to-west in your tiny boat of citrus exploration, the distance would change depending on how close to the stem you were.
And so this is the problem with longitude. It’s frightfully inconsistent. As they converge at the poles, there isn’t a set distance from one line of longitude to the other. It created–in 1400s sailing terms–a complete clusterfuck.
When you’re a European country stuck in a frantic game of “keeping up with the Garcias,” you’ll need to know how to sail east and west eventually. There’s gold out there! And weird spices! And people who don’t know about Jesus yet! See? There are so many serious problems that only you can help with. It was time for grand adventures.
Usually, these grand adventures ended in total disaster because OSHA guidelines were pretty relaxed on the ships. Also, the longitude thing… ships were sailing mostly blind, and whether they ran into land or not was something of a crapshoot (and when they did run into land, sometimes they ran into land and everybody died).
The solution to the longitude conundrum was intrinsically tied to time—specifically, the ability to measure it at sea accurately. If you think about how timezones work east to west, sailing across them without knowing the time becomes a problem (especially before the invention of timezones themselves). As you journey east or west, the sun’s position in the sky changes more (or less) dramatically than if you were sitting still, making it challenging to keep track of time when the sun is your primary reference. They had clocks, but the clocks of that era were delicate and ill-suited for the unpredictable conditions of maritime voyages, quickly losing accuracy over time. This posed a significant challenge because the key would ultimately be to know how long they were travelling east or west.
England’s grand challenge
The longitude problem would drag on for another couple hundred yearsuntil England became entirely sick of it. There was far too much spice and far too little Jesus out there, and they needed a more reliable way to fix both. Also, it was becoming difficult to ignore… ya know… the deaths.
When juxtaposing the horror of losing thousands of lives and goofy-sounding names, you’d be hard-pressed to beat The Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707. It’s been over 315 years, so I won’t tell anybody if you laugh. Consistently terrible weather for days made even latitude coordinates impossible to decipher, which ended in the loss of four warships, totalling upwards of 2000 deaths in what would become one of the most significant losses in British naval military history.
In response, England introduced the Longitudinal Act of 1714, offering rewards to anyone who could solve the longitude issue, with a payout that grew with accuracy (in today’s money, it would max out around $1.7 million). While this act was merely one of many over the years that improved upon the technology, this is widely regarded as the first significant step in finding a solution.
Over the next 25 years, John Harrison would tinker away at building a clock that would work in the harsh environment of a ship. Clocks run with pendulums required a stable surface to function, so the task was to build something that could keep a rhythm in a highly turbulent and unpredictable environment with a different rhythm. Throw in temperature, pressure, and humidity issues, and you might see why it took so long to solve. The brightest minds of the day were not exactly optimistic. Even Isaac Newton said, “But when longitude at sea is lost, it cannot be found again by any watch.”
But John did solve it. Mostly. The result was the marine chronometer, which got them most of the way, albeit with several improvements made over several decades. Once sailors had a reliable way to tell time at sea, they were set.
How to measure location with time
Let’s return to our orange slice example, with each cut being a line of longitude. Imagine you have a magical watch that shows the time wherever you are. When the Sun is directly above you, it’s noon, and your watch shows noon. But here’s the tricky part: the time on your watch changes when you travel east or west. If you go east, it gets later faster than usual, but if you go west, it gets earlier.
This is how time and longitude are connected. By looking at the time on your magical watch and comparing it to the time at your starting point, you can figure out how far east or west you’ve travelled. Each hour of time difference usually means you moved about 15 delicious slices of longitude (but of course, this changes depending on how far north or south you are of the equator because the slices vary in width).
So if you have the starting time of your departure, as well as the time at Greenwich, England (often stated as GMT, anointed as the reference time for the world and located at 0 degrees longitude), you can compare the two to get a direct indication of how far east or west you travelled. This calculation is our magic watch. Of course, magic watches weren’t real, but marine chronometers suddenly were.
At long last, it was time to explore, and one of the first things they found was hilarious. Somebody had already solved the problem, and they’d beaten the Europeans by about 1,500 years.
The curious case of the Polynesians
Hundreds of years before the problem of longitude had been solved, there were chance encounters with curious groups of people who lived on the Pacific islands of Polynesia.
The first impression of these strange new people was not unlike every new civilization Europeans encountered: most saw them as barbaric sub-humans awaiting an opportunity to be awoken by the might of Europe. Admittedly though, something seemed off about this particular group.
As told in his book “The Wayfinders,” Wade Davis notes they had achieved a curious level of control over the land. They domesticated entire mountainsides and valleys and constructed grand ceremonial areas for thousands of gatherers. Many European explorers couldn’t believe the Polynesians were capable of such development and assumed a more remarkable civilization existed that transported people to the islands. The search for this mysterious civilization would span long enough that some explorers died having never found it. This is entertaining because, in actuality, they found the advanced civilization on day 1; they merely failed to recognize it as “advanced.”
The next problem was the expanse of the islands, which was unimaginably huge. On his first voyage to Tahiti in 1769, Captain James Cook met a navigator who gave him the precise locations (from memory) of 120 islands spread over 4000 km–a distance equal to that of North America. Travelling to these islands posed an even odder issue: everything was more or less the same. The customs, stories, heritage, languages, and food were curiously similar from island to island. It was as if they were all one people.
From the mind of a European, however, this shouldn’t technically be possible. They were only beginning to harness the navigational power of longitude, yet here were groups of lesser people that appeared to have settled 120 islands over an unimaginable scale… and it seemed they may have done it on purpose.
The debate over whether this was even true raged on for centuries. Europeans tied themselves in knots to justify how such a thing could have happened. The most popular theory was that hapless fishermen were getting blown off course by the mighty Pacific. Once marooned on the islands, they set up permanent settlements.
Of course, for this theory to unfold, we have to imagine fishermen venturing out to the open ocean with livestock, almost every item they own, and their own families. I don’t even take my family to restaurants. Can you imagine being stuck with your family… at sea?
Perhaps we can forgive the clueless whites on this one. It was the 1700s, and they were blinded by ignorance and hubris. Of course, it’s challenging to maintain the position of devil’s advocate when you learn that this idiotic theory was disproven in the 70s–as in, the 1970s. With a computer. It took an actual computer running a virtual simulation to show that if we simulated 16,000 voyages from eastern Polynesia, not one would ever accidentally drift into Hawaii by chance alone, which is precisely what happened in the year 300.
What was happening for hundreds of years was beyond simple ignorance and hubris. It was racism aimed to deny one of humanity’s most impressive achievements: that nearly 1500 years before Christopher Columbus made one of the most celebrated voyages in history, Polynesians managed to settle 25 million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface in only 80 generations without so much as a compass.
How they did it
At the ripe age of 1, Mau Piailug’s path was chosen by his people. Like his father and grandfather before him, he would be what’s known as a wayfinder. His task would be to bond to the heartbeat of the ocean, not unlike what a baby does to its mother in the womb. As a child, he would float in the tide pools; as a teenager, he would float in the open ocean with a canoe tied precariously to his testicles. If the sea has a language, you can learn it mighty quick when not learning it means it rips your penis off.
The wayfinders played a critical role in Polynesian culture. In tandem with a boat’s captain, the wayfinders would help guide a vessel across unheard-of lengths of open ocean.
While the Europeans honed their understanding of technology, the Polynesians honed their understanding of nature. The only tool they truly required was attention; they just needed to hone it to the wind, clouds, waves, stars, sun, moon, animals, and water.
A common (and incorrect) understanding by the Europeans was the direction of the wind wouldn’t allow the Polynesians to travel in certain directions. As Captain Cook was told over 250 years ago by the navigator he met, there are times of the year when the winds change direction. Unfortunately, few beyond Cook paid much attention because it didn’t fit the narrative of the randomly marooned Polynesians.
Clouds and moon
Clouds can communicate an incredible amount of information to somebody at sea. Their colour can denote wind speeds, their height in the sky can suggest how much moisture they contain, and their movement changes depending on their proximity to land.
How a cloud interacted with the moon was also a valuable weather forecasting tool. Mariners could predict storms depending on the halo that would glow around the moon, as the halo was created by the moon’s light passing through clouds of frozen moisture.
Understanding sea creatures’ behaviours turned out to be an excellent way to narrow down the position of land. Once you know how far animals travel from it or how they use it to seek shelter when the weather begins to turn, you can make accurate predictions of how far away it is and in what direction it’s positioned.
Some birds (like the albatross) screw about, while others (such as the Frigatebird or Booby) travel in lines as straight as arrows. These birds might as well be a 60km string leading directly to their nest, which unless the birds are currently house boating for the weekend, is on shore.
It wasn’t just birds; every animal had a lesson to offer. Once the sun went down, the lessons remained in the form of glowing phosphorescent creatures that similarly behaved in their own consistent ways.
An experienced crew member could name approximately 220 stars in the night sky. While this alone is impressive, what’s more, is that each star rises over the horizon each night 4 minutes off from the night before it. By committing to memory the rising point, rising time, and setting point of all stars across all constellations, the Wayfinder can create a 360-degree mental compass without the need for needles or magnets (which can be impacted by the pull of the poles).
This is partly why when Europeans first began looking at the Polynesian canoes, the only “tool” they could identify was markings etched into the wood. These markings were meant to frame the constellations as they rose and fell on the horizon.
The tidal pools that young Mau was placed in as a baby and the canoe tied to his body were lessons in understanding that the ocean is not just singular waves but an entire network of interconnected forces. Currents that sweep around land differ from currents that travel without obstruction. At any given time, there could be multiple currents not only impacting the boat on the surface but detectable underneath it as well.
In the same way a person without sight can train the hypersensitivity already within their fingertips to detect extremely subtle differences in braille bumps, The Wayfinder could feel the rhythms of the sea beneath them.
You’re gonna make this about meditation, aren’t you?
Bet your ass I am. If we wanted we could pull any number of threads from this story. We could explore racism, colonialism, or the dangers of discounting of oral tradition.
To me this story is about attention, both in the extreme ways that the Polynesians tapped into it, and how the Europeans abandoned it to make themselves feel better. The answer to the great problem was hiding in plain sight the entire time. Centuries of technological advancement and thousands of lives lost, meanwhile there was essentially a flow of GPS running 360 degrees around every single ship the entire time.
The chronometer was an outrageous accomplishment. The implications of it rippled across the planet (and ultimately even beyond it) in transformative ways, so it’s not as though we didn’t need it eventually. It’s fascinating however that for the specific problem of longitude, Polynesians found a solution so much earlier that required no technology at all. Maybe you had to tie a canoe to your balls to find it, but c’mon… it was there. If you don’t want to tie your genitals to the solution, I have to question how badly you even want it.
Can the same be said for our own problems? The way we tend to be in our own minds can easily lead us down similar paths as the Europeans. Most notably, we tend to believe we know more than we do, we easily lose touch with the forces around us, and we spend priceless attention on the wrong things.
Your experience is unbelievably narrow
It’s easy to feel like we’ve got it mostly figured out. Despite being consistently befuddled by our own strange ways, if we make things way more complicated by zooming out and looking at the entirety of society, people can get pretty confident. Many of us have solid ideas about how a government should behave, what healthcare should look like, the role of religion, and how to manage the environment. I’m unsure why I choose pizza and a stomach ache over happiness and feeling good every singleFriday, but healthcare? I’m pretty sure I could solve healthcare any given weekend.
The problem is most people grossly overestimate their understanding of the world because we have a laughable small amount of experience to draw from. What we know is mainly comprised of our unique experiences, the lessons of our parents (outdated), grandparents (outdated and pretty racist), friends (weirdos, mostly), and content we’ve consumed (by this point, mostly Marvel movies). That may feel like a lot, but in a world of seemingly infinite lessons and experiences, we’ve experienced a raindrop in the ocean.
Further, not all lessons are weighted the same. Nothing changes us like fear and uncertainty, and many of us are powerfully driven by a small number of highly significant, unpleasant experiences. Don’t try to tell someone who lost a parent to an autoimmune disease that Covid-19 isn’t a big deal. Don’t try to tell a person who escaped an oppressive regime that government overreach isn’t a big deal. The profound experiences shape us, and sometimes they leave us unable to relate to those who haven’t had them.
Morgan Housel, an author who writes mainly about the overlap between psychology and money (and wrote an excellent book on the subject), makes the argument that no two people who hit the age of 30 in different decades will ever be able to think about money in the same way. If you were 30 in the 1980s when interest rates were sky-high, your approach to debt could be completely different than somebody who turned 30 in the 1990s when the stock market took off like a rocket. Most will claim their approach to money was shaped by education or “just how it is,” when the reality is more likely due to early wins and losses.
Now consider that this happens with every issue across our entire existence. We feel like we behave a certain way because it’s correct, but we’re mostly reacting to unique life events.
What the hell is water
In his 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College, Author David Foster Wallace told the following joke:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?””
This might as well be the main argument from the Polynesians: As we pay less attention to the things around us, the things around us cease to exist.
This experience needn’t even be entirely external. Our ability to feel what’s happening within our bodies degrades just as easily. As we move through life more and more automatically, critical signals fall by the wayside. Some people are unable to parse multiple ocean currents below their boat. Some people are unable to recognize stress within their own bodies. There’s no difference; it’s merely two things we stopped paying attention to.
So what are you paying attention to?
It has been said that experience in life is simply a reflection of what you pay attention to. Your experience in this world is a reflection of how you listen to it. Not everything that gets your attention is within your control (a terminal diagnosis, for example, will likely get all your attention), but some things are, such as what you do in your free time. If you spend an hour each night bathing in the black glow of social media, you’re providing yourself with a constant reminder of how the world is according to an algorithm designed to terrify and infuriate you. How couldn’t the world seem to be anything other than an unfair, decaying husk of what it needs to be when viewed through a machine designed to make you feel uneasy?
This isn’t to say the cure for all life’s ills is a Mr. Rogers episode and a warm cup of tea. Life is hard, and it’s harder for some than others. You don’t have complete control over how your hand was dealt, but that’s not to say you have zero say in where your attention goes. The very fact you’re reading this sentence means you chose this over something else.
The Polynesian wayfinders sat motionless and undisturbed on the canoes for upwards of 20 hours per day. What they were doing, and what they had trained to do all their lives, was tap into what nature was trying to tell them. They were meditating on the environment and feeling everything that was being communicated.
This is the same meditation available to you; perhaps instead of reading the sea, you can use it to read your personal experience. Rather than currents that flow beneath your boat or birds that fly in patterns above your head, you’re tasked with feeling a pit in your stomach, a lightness in your chest, or a tightness in your neck. Just like the ocean, your body is constantly communicating.
Yet, sometimes, you set off to build yourself a chronometer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe you need one. Chronometers are helpful, as are cold plunges, cupping, activated charcoal, essential oils, raw water, and vaginal steaming. We do all these things for our body (admittedly some of us struggle with the vaginal steaming), but have we taken the first step yet? Have we listened to it? Is it possible that what you genuinely need is accessible to you already, but you’re stuck believing the answer can only come from somewhere else?