Very interesting story about the Yap stone money. Long before the Europeans sailed around the world, the Polynesians populated the islands of the pacific. Other than oral stories, it was thought that the fine art of navigation had been lost in time. The micronesian navigators are the ones that preserved ancient star navigation for the world, via the Hawaii connection. I spent many years in Hawaii when the native hawaiians went in search of their roots and oral traditions of long-distance ocean navigation across the pacific. They found the ancient navigation skills on the micronesian island of Satawal, far to the east of Yap, and one of the most isolated atolls of the south pacific, in the person of Pius “Mau” Piailug.
The late “Papa Mau” as he is known now, was brought to Hawaii to teach the Hawaiian navigators of the Polynesian Voyaging Society the ancient art, which the Hawaiians adopted to their own oral traditions and star names, and found them nearly identical. The Hawaiians built a traditional double-hull canoe (catamaran style) with ancient crab-claw sails and natural materials, and in 1976 Mau navigated the canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti while training the new Hawaiian navigators. To this day the Polynesian Voyaging Society of Hawaii maintains the ‘Hokulea’ canoe, and it is presently embarked on a round-the-world voyage, having navigated the major polynesian islands of Tahiti and Samoa, it was last visiting New Zealand a few weeks ago.
Papa Mau didn’t particularly like the big-city civilization of Honolulu, and returned to Satawal to live out his life, where he died in 2010, but not before training another generation of Satawal navigators and holding a master navigator’s ceremony of ‘graduation’ that had not been seen on Satawal in over 50 years. So the traditions are preserved in Micronesia and Hawaii, and the Hawaiians demonstrate their world-class skills regularly… navigating by the stars with no compass, finding tiny specks of islands in the largest empty ocean on the planet.
I worked with a television producer who travelled to Satawal to do a TV special about Mau Piailug and his home island. They flew to Hong Kong, then a smaller plane to Yap island, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia. The Yap government runs a ‘government boat’ on a monthly tour of the islands, bringing supplies. This is the only contact with the outside world that many of the islands have. My producer friend says they spent two weeks at sea on this tramp freighter before disembarking on Satawal with all their equipment and food for a month’s stay. The government boat brings mail, and cases of ramen noodles for food support. Other than that, the islanders grow some vegetables and do a lot of fishing for food.
My friend had many stories to tell of his month on Satawal, including going out fishing in a small canoe with Mau and the local island boys. He brought some modern ocean fishing poles and lures from hawaii which the local tuna fish attacked. The locals were overjoyed and impressed with the catch, and they ate well. Most of the gear was left behind as gifts for the islanders to use. My friend described being freaked out in a small canoe so far out they could not see the island and did not know their directions any more. Papa Mau simply told him “Do not worry. I will get you back.” His navigation senses were finely tuned by a lifetime of doing this.