mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

Astronomy to the Early Hawaiians

Maintained by CGWW

Interest in the heavens goes back far into the ancient fabric of Polynesian culture. Many of the early Polynesian gods and demi-gods derived from or dwelt in the heavens, and many of the legendary exploits took place among the heavenly bodies. The demi-god Maui, especially, was known for such astronomical deeds as snaring the Sun to slow its passage across the sky (1), or of fashioning a magical fishhook (recognized in Western astronomy as the stinger in Scorpio) to fish up the Hawaiian Islands out of the deep ocean.


In a more practical vein, the early Polynesians were highly skilled sailors and navigators who sailed thousands of miles over open ocean between the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Easter Island in the east, the Hawaiian Islands in the north, and New Zealand in the southwest. Navigation was accomplished primarily, we believe, by a thorough knowledge of the stars, their rising and setting points along the horizon and their meridian passage as a function of latitude. Of course, there were other indicators in nature that helped guide them: the winds, the waves, the ocean swells, cloud formations, and birds and fish (23).

No instruments or charts of any kind were used to assist these early navigators. But with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, and subsequent arrivals of foreign ships, the Hawaiians were introduced to spyglasses, sextants, compasses, clocks, and charts, and easily adapted to Western technology. The foreign ideas and techniques soon crowded out the ancient and extensive knowledge of the sky and, sadly, most of this ancient lore has been lost and forgotten. To a large extent our current lack of knowledge of Hawaiian astronomy can be attributed to the early immigrants, mostly missionaries, who transcribed the unwritten language of the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians had names for hundreds of stars and other astronomical objects and concepts. Many of the words were recorded, but not their English equivalents, which were unknown to the transcribers (4).

Since the 1970s there has been a rebirth of interest in Polynesian navigation and the astronomy that supports it. One of the leaders of this movement has been Nainoa Thompson, a native Hawaiian who set out to learn the ancient art. His early studies brought him to the Bishop Museum Planetarium where he spent many hours under the guidance and mentoring of planetarium lecturer and author, Will Kyselka, learning the appearance of the skies over Polynesia. Nainoa was a leader in the reconstruction of the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Hokule`a, and its ultimate non-instrumental navigation retracing the voyages of the ancients (18).