Micronesian stick charts show wave patterns and currents. The shells represent atolls and islands. Using stick charts (also called rebbelibs, medos, and mattangs) ancient mariners successfully navigated thousands of miles of the South Pacific Ocean without compasses, astrolabes, or other mechanical devices.

Photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards

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  • 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 the Marshall Islands and 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 Strategies
    Use "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.
    1. 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?

      There are 29 islands on this stick chart, represented by shells.

    2. In what direction is the greatest concentration of islands?

      Most islands are scattered in the north, particularly in the far northwest and northeast.

    3. In what direction is the most isolated island?

      The island in the southwest corner of the stick chart is most removed from other islands.

    4. Where is the area with the strongest swells, or wind waves?

      The northeast is marked with many long, curved sticks representing swells and other wind waves.

    5. Where is the largest stretch of open ocean, with few islands, currents, or swells?

      The central west or southeast are nearly empty of any representation.

    • 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.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    chart Noun

    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.

    island Noun

    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


    maritime Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    navigation Noun

    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.

    shell Noun

    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.

    swell Noun

    stable, crestless wind wave formed far out at sea.

    voyage Noun

    long journey or trip.

    wave Noun

    vibrations (oscillations) around a fixed location, usually involving a transfer of energy from one point to another.

    weather Noun

    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.