Prosperity of a civilization is usually estimated according to its possession and wide application of advanced technologies. Human history is seen as a linear progression where the future always brings something new and better. But modernities are actually multiple and many ancient civilizations used technologies as sophisticated as that of today.
Long before the invention of impeccable satellite GPS navigation, the ancient Polynesian tribes had developed an advanced system of positioning. Taking into account that the Pacific is rather ‘a sea of islands’ than a conglomerate of individual islands in the sea, it was not such an easy task to position each and every piece of landmass. First official evidence about the advanced knowledge of maritime navigation comes from the famous explorer, James Cook, and his diary while aboard the ship Endeavour. Exploring the Pacific, and on his quest for Terra Australis, Cook stopped at Tahiti in 1769. There he met a high priest under the name of Tupaia who was asked to join the crew and help them with the navigation. What Cook and his ship crew did not know was that Tupaia would be a lot more useful than a simple native speaker translator. Tupaia would name, position and draw on a map almost 130 islands in the Pacific, and even leave side commentaries on some of the islands.
James Cook’s European way of nautical positioning was laborious work. Latitude was calculated with the use of backstaff and sextant. Backstaff relied on the position of the sun and moon, while sextant was used to measure specific angles. It was an even more demanding task to specify longitude. This was done with complicated instruments of log-line and traverse board. Needless to say, it was painstakingly difficult to reach exact calculations. On the other hand, Tupaia and his ancestors relied on memory, the night sky, the direction of bird migration and the patterns of wind and sea-swells. Moreover, the larger islands were used as ‘island compasses’ around which the smaller ones were positioned. Ancient Polynesians drew highly intricate polycentric maps with nothing but the use of stick charts.