Ancient Hawaiian Astronomers and Navigation by the Stars


Navigation utilizing the position of the stars is one of the oldest forms of travel utilized before the proliferation of modern day maps and the use of the magnetic compass. While each culture had a different interpretation regarding the origins of the stars and the night sky the ancient Polynesians conceived of the notion that the sky itself was akin to an inverted bowl which was resting upon the rim of a hemispherical Earth.

Other interpretations of the sky came in the form of likening to the split of half of a calabash (a type of melon or gourd) wherein the seeds acted as the sun, moon and stars. Regardless of the mythological origins created by early cultures the fact remains that they considered the stars as having fixed positions and as such could be used as a means of navigation from one point at sea to another by examining the position of the stars in relation to where one was present at the time (Lewis, 133 – 136).

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The “na ho’okele kahiko”, more commonly known as ancient navigators, actually had a traditional route between Hawaii and Tahiti where the launching site was the western point of Kaho’olawe which was commonly known as the pathway to Tahiti (Merrill, 235). They were able to reach their destination through a combination of knowing the location of the setting and rising of the sun, the direction of the winds and currents as well position of the stars at night.

Their term for the fixed alignment of stars was “na hoku pa’a” which all navigators used as a guide in order to help correct the path of the ship at night (Pringle, 66). It must be noted that the ancient tradition of navigation utilized by the ancient Hawaiian settlers was originally an oral tradition wherein master navigators usually taught their apprentices through a series of trips and oral communication (Couch, 587 – 602).

As such it cannot be said that the craft itself was overly accurate due to the nature of oral tradition however surprisingly it was able to last for several thousand years even until the age when the Hawaiians encountered western explorers such as James Cook (Couch, 587 – 602). It is due to this that it must be asked how did such a system of navigation survive for so long and how did it work?

Integration into Culture

Unlike the ancient European cultural view that looked at the sea as a vast and menacing world, the people of the Pacific took an approach wherein they approached the concept of the sea with a form of reverence. It was due to this that they integrated aspects of the ocean into their culture resulting in the continuance of the oral tradition of navigation through continued lessons regarding swells, the position of the sun as well as interpreting the behavior of the clouds, waves and animals that were part of the sea (Downes, 7).

It was this cultural integration that resulted in the accurate inheritance of knowledge regarding the processes involved in proper ocean navigation (Mindy, 11). In fact navigators became an integral part of various Hawaiian societies since once a particular island was starting to suffer from overpopulation navigators were often sent out to find new islands to which the excess population could go and settle.

It is largely believed that it was due to the inherited cultural integration of the sea and navigation that the Polynesian cultural was able to spread as far as it did throughout the various Pacific islands. In fact the Hawaiian Islands themselves were populated through the process of overpopulation, sending a navigator to find a new island and accomplishing the entire process all over again.

Navigating Through the Use of Fixed Points and Natural Constants

While the idea of navigating by the stars may seem preposterous today it was actually a viable means of navigation during ancient times due to their fixed points of navigation (Walker, 44). For the Hawaiians these divisions were divided into Kepelino, Kanalu, Kamohoula, Laukahikupua and Kupahu (Makemson, 589).

The method of navigation utilized back then was to point the canoe towards the rising or setting point of the stars and determine through a series of rungs (sometimes marks) throughout the boat or canoe the exact position where a person was by using the direction of the ebb and flow of the waves as well as various constellations in the sky (DI PIAZZA, 377 – 380).

As such this acted as a rudimentary compass wherein direction and destination could be determined in a rather precise manner. The navigating stars themselves were named “na hoku kiai aina”, roughly translated is equivalent to “those stars which are suspended over certain lands” (Makenson, 590).

It was through the use of these particular stars that ancient navigators were able to successfully traverse routes in between Hawaii, Tahiti and various other islands within the Pacific. Various scholars believe that the various islands in South East Asia such as the Philippines were originally settled by Polynesians several thousand years ago utilizing similar methods of navigation used to settle the Hawaiian Islands (Palmer 314 – 320).

While there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory the fact that speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages appeared to have settled in the area by 4000 BCE seems to indicate that at some point Polynesians did arrive on the Philippine islands (Palmer, 314 – 320). Whether some native Hawaiian navigators traversed the Pacific Ocean and arrived in the Philippines is unknown however it cannot be ruled out due to the skill of Hawaiian navigators at the time.


Based on what has been presented in this paper it can be seen that the reason why the tradition of navigating by using the stars lasted for so long was due to the fact that aspects in relation to the ocean and navigation were integrated into the ancient Hawaiian culture, that it was brought about through necessity due to overpopulation and the fact that it continuously proved itself to be a viable method of navigation over long distances.

While the practice did eventually died down when modern methods of navigation were introduced to the Hawaiian culture it still remains a fascinating aspect of ancient Hawaiian culture, one that is regrettably almost lost due to the passage of time and modern culture.

Works Cited

DOWNES, LAWRENCE. “Star Man.” New York Times 18 July 2010: 7. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

DI PIAZZA, ANNE. “A RECONSTRUCTION OF A TAHITIAN STAR COMPASS BASED ON TUPAIA’S “CHART FOR THE SOCIETY ISLANDS WITH OTAHEITE IN THE CENTER..” Journal of the Polynesian Society 119.4 (2010): 377-392. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

Couch, Carl J. “ORAL TECHNOLOGIES: A Cornerstone of Ancient Civilizations?.” Sociological Quarterly 30.4 (1989): 587-602. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

Lewis, Daniel. Voyaging stars: aspects of Polynesian and Micronesian astronomy. The Royal Society. Vol. 276. (1974): 133 – 148.

Makemson, Maud. Hawaiian Astronomical concepts. American Anthropologist. 40. (1938): 370 – 383.

Merrill, Christopher. “A Little Justice in Hawai’i.” Nation 259.7 (1994): 235-236. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

MINDY, PENNYBACKER. “At Sea The Hawaiian Way.” New York Times 26 May 1996: 11. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

Palmer, Colin. “Windward Sailing Capabilities of Ancient Vessels.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 38.2 (2009): 314-330. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

Pringle, Heather, and Peter Bennett. “Puzzles in paradise.” Equinox 90 (1996): 66. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.

Walker, Susannah. “The course of navigation.” Geographical (Campion Interactive Publishing) 67.1 (1995): 44. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 May 2011.


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