Ancient mariners from the Marshall Islands developed "stick charts" to understand the vast Pacific Ocean. However, the devices are not really sticks and they're not really charts!The charts aren't made of sticks. Most stick charts are made of coconut fiber and shells. Placement of the fibers and shells indicate the location of islands, waves, and currents.Stick charts were not used for navigation in the way we use maps or charts today. In fact, the Marshallese probably did not consult stick charts on their long journeys throughout Micronesia. Navigators memorized the chart before the journey was made.Charts were highly individualized. Sometimes, a stick chart could only be read by the person who made it! Still, there are some standard features used to interpret ocean features.Teaching StrategiesUse "Fast Facts" to help students better understand how Marshallese navigators represented the ocean.Read the "Questions" to see if students could navigate the Pacific using clues in the stick chart above.
Read the Fast Facts first! Assume this stick chart is being held in the traditional orientation: north at the top, east at the right.
How many islands are depicted on this stick chart?
In what direction is the greatest concentration of islands?
In what direction is the most isolated island?
Where is the area with the strongest swells, or wind waves?
Where is the largest stretch of open ocean, with few islands, currents, or swells?
- Stick charts use natural materials found on and around Pacific islands to represent specific phenomena, characteristics, or locations.
- Shells represent islands.
- Coconut fibers ("sticks") represent wave patterns. Straight lines represent currents—consistent, predictable waves.
- Bent or curved lines represent swells. Unlike currents, swells are created by the wind. Their strength and direction can change with the weather.
For Further Exploration
- National Geographic Education: MapMaker 1-Page Map: Australia & Oceania
- National Geographic Education: Australia & Oceania MapMaker Kit
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry ancient Adjective
type of map with information useful to ocean or air navigators.
Encyclopedic Entry: chart compass Noun
instrument used to tell direction.
Encyclopedic Entry: compass current Noun
steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.
Encyclopedic Entry: current fiber Noun
long, thin, threadlike material produced by plants that aids digestive motion when consumed.
body of land surrounded by water.
Encyclopedic Entry: island latitude Noun
distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.
Encyclopedic Entry: latitude longitude Noun
distance east or west of the prime meridian, measured in degrees.
Encyclopedic Entry: longitude map Noun
symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.
Encyclopedic Entry: map mariner Noun
having to do with the ocean.
art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.
Encyclopedic Entry: navigation navigator Noun
person who charts a course or path.
phenomena Plural Noun
(singular: phenomenon) any observable occurrence or feature.
hard outer covering of an animal.
stick chart Noun
map made with sticks and shells, used by South Pacific islanders to navigate ocean swells, islands, and reefs.
stable, crestless wind wave formed far out at sea.
long journey or trip.
vibrations (oscillations) around a fixed location, usually involving a transfer of energy from one point to another.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
Encyclopedic Entry: weather wind Noun
movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.