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The Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean was settled by the Micronesians more than three thousand years ago. These early settlers had to make frequent journeys between more than 1,100 islands spread out over 29 coral atolls. They lacked modern navigation equipment such as compasses and sextants, but possessed an incredibly detailed knowledge of the sea, the waves, the swells and the currents which they utilized to develop a simple yet sophisticated system of navigation made up of sticks and shells.

These so called “stick charts” consist of thin strips of coconut frond and midribs or pandanus root bound together in straight or curved lines using coconut fiber to create a frame like structure. At various places in the frame, small sea shells were tied together by creating junctions, using two or more sticks. The shells and junctions represent the location of islands, whereas the sticks represent currents and swells in the sea. In essence, stick charts are crude maps of the ocean.

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Photo credit: Walter Meayers Edwards/National Geographic

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