How Ancient People used the Stars to Travel

History of Navigation and

How the ancient people used the stars to travel

Dad pointing at the moon holding a little child

While all of us today carry around sophisticated navigation tools in our pockets, things weren’t so easy for our ancestors. In ancient times, finding one’s relative position on the earth required creative use of instruments and techniques passed down through generations. Primarily, people had to rely on what they could see around and above them in order to find their place in the world. Ancient people used the stars to travel as well as landmarks and land masses.


The earliest recorded navigation techniques date back to 3000 BCE. During this time, the Minoans, a civilization that controlled modern-day Crete, embarked on seafaring expeditions across the Mediterranean. These voyages would have lasted into the night, requiring them to use the stars of the night sky to find their way to Santorini and Egypt.


Over the next 4,000 years, other ancient civilizations from Asia to the Middle East used similar rudimentary methods to expand their empires and explore foreign lands. Whether it was studying wind patterns or the sound that ocean waves make when close to land, they used the tools available to them to successfully establish new footing abroad.


Things changed dramatically around 1100, when the magnetic compass was invented in what is now China. This invention made it possible to continue navigating even when the stars and physical surroundings become obscured by clouds or fog. Sailors could now look down instead of up during their journey to find their destination.


Once compass usage become prominent around the world, so did the modern navigational tools we rely upon today — charts, maps, and cardinal directions.

Ancient Navigation Methods

When man first set foot on water, the primary tool to chart a correct course was the land around them. Staying within sight of land meant they could easily track their direction and know how far they had progressed. Once voyages progressed outside of view of land into open water, more “sophisticated” techniques had to be developed.


For some expeditions, natives of the Indo-Pacific region relied on observations of birds and ocean swells to find land. Knowing how far from land certain species of birds travel would give them a good indication of how far they had drifted. Ocean waves also shift and change movement and size as land approaches. Explorers also used songs and fables to help instill important details about certain navigational routes. By remembering the words of a song, sailors would easily remember directions to reach a certain destination.


As one sails farther from land, the ocean waters get deeper and deeper. The Phoenicians understood this and figured out a way they could measure ocean depth to understand how far they were into open ocean. They would use what’s known as sounding lines, which are long ropes tied to a heavy weight made of stone or lead.


When lowered into the water, the rope would loosen until the sailor determined the weight had hit ground. At that point, they could measure the depth using the length of the rope. Expert sailors could even figure out where they were located by examining rock and sediment that the weight picked up when it hit ground under water.

Navigation Using Stars and Celestial Bodies

While some primitive navigational methods such as bird watching and sand examination may have helped some ancient explorers locate themselves, the most popular method to understand relative position and chart a course was by means of celestial navigation. This is how ancient people used the stars to travel. Dating back to ancient times, the stars and celestial bodies up in the sky helped sailors plan expeditions and find their way out of a pickle when lost at sea.


Ancient explorers from regions in the Mediterranean relied heavily on constellations to help orient themselves and their ships. Greek poets and authors such as Homer even wove such constellations into tales about men sailing out to sea. The constellation Ursa Major was an especially important one to the Greeks. It also plays a prominent role in Greek mythology.


In early times as ancient people used the stars to travel, the constellations proved enough for relative direction. Sailors may have been told to follow a certain constellation head on, or, for example, “keep Ursa Major on your left and Pleiades on your right.” Other civilizations followed the sun and its movement given the season. The Vikings cleverly used a Sunstone, a type of mineral rock, to observe the position of the sun in a completely overcast sky. When held up, it could transmit light from wherever the sun was shining.


Understanding one’s place on earth was important as well. Ancient explorers had to be familiar with the constellations and how their positions changed over the course of the year. Some constellations are only visible in certain hemispheres. The Ursa Major, for example, is not even visible in the Southern Hemisphere.


Over time, star navigation methods evolved. This allowed explorers to more accurately pinpoint locations and draw maps to help plan future sea explorations. In the eighteenth century, English astronomers and mathematicians invented a tool known as the sextant. This device served as a way to measure the angular distance between stars or other observational features in the sky. This distance could then be referenced against a physical map to calculate a specific longitude/latitude direction.


Beyond measuring distances between stars and constellations, later explorers also began examining the horizon and measurements of the sun and moon. With a clock nearby, movements of the sun could be calculated in units of time and measured against its movement across the horizon.


Even with the advent of radio navigation in the 1920s and the feature-rich GPS systems we employ today, these ancient navigation methods are still commonly used in our modern era. NASA continues to use celestial navigation in order to plan space explorations to other planets and satellites. Navy sailors are taught to use sextants as part of their navigation training on open water. And even airline pilots are taught that when systems fail, they can still rely on navigating by observing what’s around them just as the ancient people used the stars to travel did thousands of years ago.


Ancient people used the stars to travel but nowadays we still occasionally do too.


We may not need the stars for navigation as much as ancient people anymore but we still enjoy looking at those twinkling lights high above us.

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