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Book Review

The Last Navigator

Akkana Peck

I stumbled across an interesting book recently: The Last Navigator, by Stephen D. Thomas. Though it would probably be filed under "anthropology" (where I found it) or perhaps "navigation," it holds quite a bit for the amateur astronomer who has interest in the history of astronomy or in the star lore of other cultures.

Thomas is a sailor and navigator living in Boston. Through a National Geographic documentary, he learns of the navigator Piailug, a resident of the Micronesian island of Satawal, in the Caroline island chain, and the last man to have been initiated as a palu (navigator) in the ancient pwo ceremony. Without compass, sextant or charts, Piailug, like his ancestors six thousand years ago, has navigated his outrigger sailing canoes from Satawal to islands as distant as Maui and Tahiti. But Piailug is in his fifties, and no younger islanders have been initiated in the pwo ceremony. Thomas determines to travel to Satawal and learn and document the navigational lore of the palu before it disappeared.

The Last Navigator details Thomas' journey to the Caroline islands, his relationship with the navigator Piailug and the chiefs of the islands, and what he learns about the art of Micronesian navigation. Lacking a compass, the Satawalese navigate primarily by paafu, literally "numbering the stars". Cardinal directions are defined by the rising and setting points of sixteen primary stars. The navigator initiate must learn the relative directions of each of these points, along with their reciprocal directions (since any particular star may not be visible at a particular time of night or year). For instance, to journey from the island of Lamotrek to the neighboring island of West Fayu, one would wish to travel toward Tan Egulig, or rising Cassiopeia. If Cassiopeia is not visible, one would instead travel away from the reciprocal direction, Tubula Mesaru, or setting Shaula.

Over the course of two years, Thomas learns the star names and positions necessary for paafu, as well as the art of estimating wind and current to correct the canoe's course during a journey. He learns the various rules of Etak, systems of determining one's relationship to nearby islands according to wave patterns and the movement of birds and other marine animals. He learns Morellifu, the "fighting of stars," in which the stars "fighting" in the morning sky, combined with the phase of the moon, determine the season and predict the weather under which the islanders must make their living. He learns legends of how the ancient navigators originally discovered the navigational arts, and how the knowledge has changed over the years. Finally, he meets and talks with some of the younger islanders, discussing their interest in navigation and why the knowledge is disappearing among their generation, a matter of much frustration to Piailug and the other navigators.

The book is filled with tables and examples detailing the star lore of paafu, and the kapesani serak, the "talk of sailing." The appendices and glossary are very detailed, and cover nearly everything Thomas learns about Micronesian navigation. Although the book spends a great deal of time dwelling on Thomas' motivations for the project, and his sometimes tempestuous relationship with Piailug and the other navigators of Satawal, it is still a fascinating read for someone interested in celestial navigation or in the astronomy of ancient Micronesia.

Mail to: Akkana Peck
Copyright © 2001 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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