The Art of Science: Sticks and Swells

Marshall Islands Stick Chart, mid-19th century, Cambridge University Library
Marshall Islands Stick Chart, mid-19th century, Cambridge University Library

When I came across a photo of a Marshall Islands stick chart on Tumblr, I had no idea that it was anything other than an elegant piece of modern art. I was very surprised to discover that the stick chart was an important piece of navigational equipment that was in active use for thousands of years.

The Marshall Islands are a group of over a thousand small islands in the northern Pacific, which were settled in the second millennium BC. Stick charts were an ingenious way to navigate among the islands by canoe. The charts, made from coconut fronds tied together in an open framework, depicted major ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupted those patterns. Shells were sometimes tied to the framework to represent the position of islands. Reading and interpreting the charts was a crucial skill handed down through generations.

The Marshallese continued to use canoes and stick charts for navigation until the mid-20th century, when they gradually switched to motorboats and electronic navigation systems. The charts survive not only as history, but as an art form deeply imbued with the values of an ancient, ocean-centric culture.