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The Origins of the Carolinian Sidereal Compass

Michael Halpern
Thesis: May 1985
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program


The sidereal compass of the Caroline Islanders is a conceptual tool that organizes navigation knowledge and permits long-distance voyaging and accurate landfalls without the use of instrumentation. Remnants and hints of similar systems are reported all across the Pacific while descriptions and representations of a similar compass are extant in old Arab nautical texts. These resemblances have alternately been ascribed to independent invention and diffusion.

Tropical sidereal navigation in general is examined and the current state of knowledge of the various compasses described. A theoretical framework for the evaluation of diffusionist versus inventionist arguments is developed and a set of criteria is presented. The Carolinian and Arab compasses are analyzed from a temporo-astronomical standpoint in an attempt to reveal any past conjunctions. We will give these data a cultural context by tracing the broad movements of peoples in the Indo-Pacific region and comparing cultural similarities, differences, and possibilities of contact. It is concluded that Arab navigation was probably influenced by that of Austronesian seafarers in the Indian Ocean, though not directly by Carolinians, after the former had begun to elaborate an incipient sidereal compass. The underlying unity of Oceanic navigational traditions is also affirmed.


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