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HomeArchaeologyThe Enigmatic Te Lapa lights, Utilized by Polynesians for Ocean Navigation

The Enigmatic Te Lapa lights, Utilized by Polynesians for Ocean Navigation

The Polynesian peoples have lengthy been referred to as extremely expert sailors, and have navigated the huge and seemingly empty expanse of ocean – in the hunt for new islands to settle. This they did with wonderful success: Polynesians now inhabit quite a few islands, massive and small, which can be scattered across the Pacific Ocean. Some of those islands are tons of and hundreds of kilometers distant from each other, and this creates a sure puzzle – how did the traditional Polynesians cross such nice distances with solely the rudimentary abilities? An enduring enigma handed down the generations is likely to be the reply – the guiding Te Lapa lights.

Te Lapa – a Phenomenon That’s Hard to Explain

Older Polynesians have lengthy been speaking of the “Te Lapa”, a mysterious phenomenon that allegedly helped them discover new and distant islands. The time period denotes a light-weight, normally mirrored upon the floor of the ocean, which was utilized by historical sailors as a helpful navigation support. Following the lights would result in new islands. Modern science, nevertheless, is having troubles explaining the precise nature behind “Te Lapa”.   

While the phenomenon was lengthy recognized amongst venerable Polynesians, it was solely realised by Western researchers in 1972, when David Lewis described it in his guide, “We, the Navigators” . It rapidly posed a conundrum in scientific circles, merely by being arduous to ascribe to a naturally occurring phenomenon. Up to that time, science might clarify all conventional strategies of oceanic navigation – all besides Te Lapa. So that’s exactly why Dr. Marianne “Mimi” George launched into a quest to unravel the riddle of this Polynesian misplaced ability.

The island of Taumako part of the Santa Cruz Islands where Dr. Marianne George attempted to study this ancient form of navigation.  (Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The island of Taumako a part of the Santa Cruz Islands the place Dr. Marianne George tried to check this historical type of navigation.  (Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Dr. George, a seasoned sailor and navigator, traveled to the Polynesian island of Taumako within the Santa Cruz Islands, the place she met with Te Aliki Kaveia in 1993, in an try to check the native navigation practices. Kaveia was the island Chief, and a veteran navigator who has seen Te Lapa many occasions. Together with Dr. George, he set sail as soon as extra – the previous approach – proving as soon as and for all that the sunshine phenomena did actually exist.

Sailing the Ocean in an Outrigger Canoe

Dr. George finally noticed the Te Lapa lights and was rapidly fascinated by them. It was a real navigational support in each sense – however nonetheless arduous to elucidate. Some proposed that it was bioluminescence, or some electromagnetic pure gentle. Other comparable pure phenomena have been rapidly dismissed.

Polynesian ancient navigators.  Ancient stories tell of a guiding light aiding them in their travels. (Public domain)

Polynesian historical navigators.  Ancient tales inform of a guiding gentle aiding them of their travels. ( Public area )

Te Lapa was described as a linear gentle showing on the horizon, greatest seen at evening, and originating from islands. The Polynesian sailors would then observe these lights to their supply, thus safely crusing in direction of such distant targets. The lights have been described as “streaking”, “flashing”, and “darting” – and true to that, the Polynesian identify “Te Lapa” interprets to “something that flashes”, or “flashing light”. This enigmatic gentle, Dr. George famous, is used for navigation not more than 120 miles (193 km) from shore, and as little as 2 miles (3 km). Te Aliki Kaveia confirmed this, including that the space of 100 miles (160 km) is right for following Te Lapa. Either approach, it was discovered that the higher the space, the slower Te Lapa sparkles, making it simpler to observe as a tenet.

But none of this defined the supply of the sunshine. One attention-grabbing speculation was introduced up by George and Kaveia, and it was centered on oceanic swells. These highly effective massive swells unfold out the 4 diagonal corners of a compass, and journey the ocean pushed by seasonal storms. They then bounce off islands, assembly one another in predictable interference patterns. These patterns may be utilized by seasoned sailors as a sign of land shut by. And the raised curve of the intersecting waves might be appearing as an enormous lens that displays the Te Lapa lights. While the idea is sort of believable, there’s nonetheless no rationalization for the supply of the mirrored gentle. Dr. George suspected electromagnetic emissions from tectonic actions might be the supply.

When Even Science is Stumped

Many main scientists have been fast to dismiss any risk of Te Lapa as an unexplained phenomenon. They thought-about it just too obscure, poorly documented and researched so as to research intimately and totally affirm. But oral traditions are nonetheless there, proving the existence of those odd oceanic lights. In numerous islands settled by Polynesians, there are completely different phrases all denoting the identical prevalence. On the distant island of Nikunau it is called “Te Mata”, or “The Glory of the Seas”, whereas on Tonga it is called “Te Tapa”, that means “To Burst Forth with Light”.

Whatever the true scientific rationalization of Te Lapa is, the phenomenon nonetheless proves to us that science will not be almighty. There have been navigators and maritime explorers for centuries earlier than the earliest European voyagers. The Polynesians stand out as essentially the most expert, having conquered the huge Pacific Ocean on nothing however crudely constructed outrigger canoes. What their secrets and techniques have been, we might by no means know…

Top picture: Ancient Polynesian tales inform a couple of mysterious gentle guiding navigators throughout the Pacific Ocean. Source: aleksandar nakovski /AdobeStock

By Aleksa Vučković

Lewis, G. 2019. Te Lapa: Mysterious island lights that assist Polynesians navigate. Available at:

Martins, Ok. 2020. Polynesian Navigation & Settlement of the Pacific. Available at:–settlement-of-the-pacific/

Unknown. 2009. Navigation and Piloting Using Te Lapa. Available at:


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