Wayfinding with the Night Sky

The Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association is grateful to have become a designated Dark Sky Community. We are passionate about preserving the night sky for the generations that come after us. This is especially important for a community like ours that is adjacent to a large metropolitan city.

There are many reasons why we should do what we can to protect our view of the stars:

  • Light pollution disrupts wildlife and ecosystems.
  • Light pollution harms human health.
  • Light pollution increases energy consumption.
  • Light pollution inhibits stargazing.
  • Light pollution hinders the preservation of cultural wayfinding.

We want to focus on cultural wayfinding in this article.

The ancient Polynesians were able to sail across the vast Pacific Ocean, the largest thing on our planet, and be able to find their way between Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands. What a remarkable feat 2,000 years ago before the invention of navigational instruments!

How did they do it? It began with exposing their children to the patterns of stars in the night sky from the earliest years of their lives. By observing the locations of specific stars and constellations, they were able to keep their course so they could stay within a one-degree arc from Point A to Point B for a 2,400-mile journey. They carved complex star charts in their boats to help them find their way without a compass or a sextant.

They also learned how to read signs in nature: the location of seaweed, the direction of the waves, the wind, even the behavior of certain birds. Being in tune with nature made the difference of life and death for these ancient explorers.

Today, descendants of those ancient mariners work diligently to preserve the ancient knowledge. Nainoa Thompson has built a replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe and used these techniques to sail between Hawaii and Tahiti. He also has plans to sail around the globe.

We want to recommend a fascinating podcast episode of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson where he interviews Nainoa Thompson and other experts on using the stars for navigation. It will inspire you to contribute to efforts to curb light pollution and to consider the problem of plastic waste that clogs our oceans and harms the sea life.

Listen to “The Stars That Guide Us, with Nainoa Thompson