The habitable earth was once an island.
Around 250 million years ago, the only land above sea level was a single mass called Pangaea. Over eons, the great continent fractures and the movement of earth’s plates produced the geography we know today. But the movement never stopped. Right now, Africa is on a collision course with Europe… Australia is drifting north, taking aim at Eurasia, poised to scoop up the islands of Southeast Asia. A huge underwater ridge that divides the Atlantic Ocean is growing, at about the same rate as your fingernails, increasing the ocean’s size and exerting pressure on the Americas. By the time the waters recede, these lands will also be swimming toward Eurasia.
We are living at the midway point of this geo-diaspora. In another 250 million years all the world’s land will once again merge into what geologists are calling Pangaea Ultima.[i]
This is the enticing way Greg Milner begins his first chapter of Pinpoint, a new book about GPS and the way this navigational technology has reshaped our world and is reshaping our minds.
There was a cooler time some 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene ice age when the planet looked much different that it does today. Much more of the world’s water was trapped in glaciers, and in some places sea levels were as much as 300 feet lower than they are currently. In Southeast Asia a peninsula called Sunda connected Indonesia with Asia and a contiguous land mass called the Sahul shelf, which stitched together New Guinea, Australia, and Tasmania.[i]
The expanse between Sunda and Sahul was small enough—some 60 miles perhaps—that some intrepid sailors fashioned together some simple boats and began to explore. They settled as far away as the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea.
Fast forward now some 45,000 years when a new oceangoing migration originated from what is now the Fujian province in China. Over the next 1500 years these Austronesians sailed to Taiwan, Indonesia and New Guinea. Eventually, according to Greg Milner’s book, some of them did something really remarkable, they ventured into the vast Pacific Ocean—a void that covers a third of the surface of the globe, an area that equals all of the land in the world currently above sea level.[ii]
Over the next centuries they navigated their double canoes which were perhaps 60 feet long, and joined together catamaran style, 20 feet wide with sails made of woven leaves over a vast expanse of the Pacific. They sailed beyond the seismic hotspots of the Pacific Rim known as the Ring of Fire locating, settling, and navigating the islands of Remote Oceania, settling Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, and farther, extending their reach to the Cook Islands, to the islands of Polynesia and points as far as Easter Island to the east, New Zealand to the west and Hawaii to the north, one of the most isolated archipelagos on the planet.
Milner offers us this image to help us understand the significance of this Austronesian exploration:
In seafaring and navigational terms, while the Europeans were discovering fire, the Polynesians had already split the atom…. The wind came primarily from the east, meaning migrants sailed directly into headwinds, like moving through an atmospheric wall of tar. And yet, with no compass, sextant, or any other modern navigational aid, explorers in canoes found tiny oases scattered across one-third of the planet… For at least a century after this migration was completed, European navigators were still wary of sailing their ships beyond the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean.”[iii]
The question of how these ancient explorers managed to accomplish this, and with such remarkable precision, has pre-occupied sailors and amateur scholars scattered around the Pacific Rim since at least 1769. That’s when Captain James Cook set foot on Tahiti and discerned a link between the local language and what he had heard spoken in Aotearoa, an island near New Zealand some 2000 miles away.
Many theories have emerged since then, oftentimes dismissing the idea of eastward migration. The Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl is an example of the unbelievers. In 1947 he made headlines around the world when he successfully maneuvered his balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki from Peru to the Tuamotu Archipelago and later argued Polynesians had originated from South America. But the scientific consensus supports this idea of Eastward migration and with it, the mystery of Polynesian long-navigation.
Milner summarizes what we know. The primary navigational tool of these ancient explorers was the sidereal compass. This was no compass held in the hand, though. This was all in the head—a cache of “memorized knowledge, learned over many years of training, of the positions of stars and how they relate to islands in the navigator’s region.”[iv]
This knowledge, which was passed through generations, was augmented by observations related to the sun, knowledge of often overlapping ocean swells customary to particular locations, knowledge of how the canoe reacted to wind, how currents varied by region, season, and the topography of the ocean floor, all while the wind was rarely directly at the back of the explorer. These sailors also searched for cloud formations, certain bird species, bio-luminescent flashes deep below the surface and a thousand other things that would enable them to find themselves among the islands beyond their view in the vast ocean.
And yet, even all this wasn’t enough. There was something more that enabled these ancient Polynesian explorers to visualize where they were and how much they had progressed on their journey. Milner describes it more as a world-view than a form of navigation, a method of dead reckoning or way pointing called etak that provided a primal, contingent form of knowledge and enabled them to know where they were when all they could see was ocean. It was a process by which they would keep in their minds the island from which they had come, the island to which they were sailing, and a third island that they knew of, but would never see on this particular journey, that they would situate under one star until they had made it to another known point at which it would move in their reference to another star, and then another. It was a conceptual, or more precisely, a perceptual exercise, akin to the experience you have perhaps driving in a car or on a train where the buildings or sites nearby move in relation to the mountains off in the distance.[v]
I mention all this because we are in another time of wandering. We are between an age that was and an age we do not yet understand. And we are trying to find ourselves and our well-being beneath these stars when the old answers are no longer working for us. And depending on where you look, the news doesn’t seem great and the future certainly seems tricky. The going is uncertain, and we need all the help and all the tools we can muster.
And I suspect for many of us it even seems difficult to know how to speak about this God we seek to follow and even worship. We try to navigate between a God whom the prophet Jeremiah finds in judgment and ecological disaster and one in Luke who searches and searches until we are found and then wants nothing more than to throw a party. And one of the most challenging things for us may be to forgive God’s bad judgment—not in punishing what deserves punishment, but in God’s tendency to forgive and to seek out what is lost.
Like these ancient Polynesian navigational wonders, we are working to waypoint ourselves in a vast ocean of love and justice and regret and denial and disagreement with very uncertain instruments. Of course, we’d prefer that it were different. We would rather it were easier, but by God’s grace there is a way. It is made known to us in this story of a God who searches and searches by way of correction, and especially by way of love, until we are found and until we find each other. We know this God as we listen to that spirit in us and as we meet it in our neighbor. And in this love that guides our life and our way, in this love that surpasses all understanding we are found. This is our conceptual ground zero. This is our compass and our way and our world-view. May we be guided by it in all things.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Greg Milner. Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and our Minds. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 3.
[i] See the Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahul_Shelf), for example, for images.
[ii] Greg Milner. Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and our Minds. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 4.
[iii] Ibid., 5.
[iv] Ibid., 14.
[v] Ibid., 18.