Te Kāpehu Whētu- The Māori Star Compass

Hands-on activities help children understand how navigators used Te Kāpehu Whētu to steer their waka in the right direction. 

As part of Matariki activities, children explored early Polynesian navigation and Te Kāpehu Whetū – the Māori Star Compass. The waka (canoe) in the open ocean uses the horizon as a compass, the 360 degrees around it divided into quarters named after the four winds. The full horizon is divided into 32 different whare (houses). Their location depends on where the sun, moon and stars set and rise. Navigators followed stars such as Matariki to guide them across the Pacific.

Navigators knew the arcs of the sun and that stars cross the sky at different heights depending on the time of year. At night the rising and setting of the stars align the canoe in a direction of travel through the night, until the Earth’s own star, the sun, rises. The sun is used at dawn and dusk. Navigators also used the direction of large ocean swells to guide them. This abstract star compass helped navigators to memorise more than 200 stars.

Today sees a revival of traditional navigation skills. Crews have sailed double-hulled waka from as far as Rarotonga to Aotearoa New Zealand, guided only by traditional techniques.

Find out more about waka and navigation on our resource page: Waka Inquiry Unit

Visit the Science Learning Hub to read this article on Te Kāpehu Whētu

Image source

15/7/2020 IR