Book Review of Tom Koppel’s Mystery Islands

Hawaiian Sunrise by Liz Noffsinger
Hawaiian Sunrise by Liz Noffsinger

Over the last week I’ve been reading Tom Koppel’s book, Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific. Koppel is a writer based in Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, who seems to have traveled to just about every island chain and community in the Pacific, albeit as a tourist. His previous book, Kanaka: the Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest looked at why and how Hawaiians came to participate in the fur trade in North America. In this work, Koppel looks at the Pacific as a whole, over a millenia long time-span.

Mystery islands are those atolls and islands that archaeologists know were inhabited in the past, but which were abandoned at some point for an unknown reason. Despite the fact that this topic gives the book its title, Koppel only focuses on this issue in chapter ten; in this respect, the book’s title is somewhat misleading. Indeed, for me this was perhaps the least engaging part of the book, because in most cases there was little mystery as to why people would not permanently inhabit islands that were too small, too remote, too close to sea level in a typhoon, or had too little surface water. The real mystery is why some of these locations were ever inhabited at all, or indeed how they came to be found.

For me, the other sections of the work were more powerful, in particular his description of the navigation skills that permitted Ancient Pacific voyagers to travel through a vast expanse of ocean in what was sometimes a surprisingly short period of time. Koppel has read extensively in the archaeological literature, and is careful to describe the diversity of peoples throughout the region, who had to adapt to widely varying climates and geographies, including even the sub-Antarctic.  Anyone reading this work must be struck by the ingenuity of these peoples, who constructed the architectural wonder of Nan Madol, planked canoes that were sewn together for lengthy voyages, and sophisticated agricultural systems. In chapter fourteen Koppel discusses the intriguing evidence that Polynesians reached South America, which would explain why sweet potatoes (from the New World) were found throughout Oceania, while chickens (originally from South East Asia) left bones in South America before the arrival of the Spanish. Although the total population of this region is limited, its cultural legacy is rich, and the sheer fact that these diverse islands were discovered and inhabited at times seems almost miraculous.

Koppel also describes the brilliance of these cultures without romanticizing them. In chapter eleven, he discusses the social inequality, ethnic warfare and environmental destruction that accompanied peoples’ expansion into the Pacific. The latter topic is a powerful theme woven throughout the book, from the disappearance of the moa (flightness, giant birds that could reach 12 feet in height) in New Zealand, to the loss of bird species in Hawaii. This could have been a dangerous topic in less skillful hands, but in general Koppel does an excellent job displaying the reality of ancient and historical societies, while still celebrating their achievements and successes.

In the end, this book offers more than its title suggests, for Koppel does not stop his discussion with the ancient world, but covers in detail Oceania’s encounter with Europeans, the imposition of  colonialism, and the modern struggles that these peoples now face.  As Koppel states,  the increasing threat of rising seas must shape any conversation of the region’s current challenges:

“Archaeologist Marshall Weisler has long studied the effects of rising seas on the central Pacific Islands of Kirbati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, as well as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. He is alarmed at what he has found and warns that whole Pacific nations may need to abandon their homes within only a generation. He has seen coconut trees now standing twenty metres off shore on the Marshall Island that were once growing on dry land. In Kiribati, he says, some stilt homes that are on dry land in the morning have water lapping underneath them by the time of high tide in the afternoon; the sea is rising that fast.” (p. 302).

The most recent issue of National Geographic (September 2013, p. 44) has a two page photo of Maale, the capital of the Maldives. 100,000 people live on a city surrounded by a sea wall in the Indian Ocean, barely above sea level. There is no space for these people to move with sea level change. This single image brings home Koppel’s point, and this problem is repeated on huge numbers of islands throughout the Pacific.

Milford Sound, New Zealand by Vichaya Kiaying-Angsulee at
Milford Sound, New Zealand by Vichaya Kiaying-Angsulee at

In the end, however, Koppel’s work is not bleak but rather a celebration of Pacific culture, which is perhaps why he seems to take particular delight in describing rituals, food and  dance. Some topics are painful and difficult to discuss, such as the cultural loss of Polynesian peoples, but Koppel treats these peoples’ history and society with respect. The work reflects both his extensive travels and his openness to new experiences, from participating in a family luau, to kayaking through ancient ruins. I also sometimes thought as I read this book that I wished more academics could show Koppel’s skills as a writer.

If you want to read more about a mysterious island, please look at my earlier blog post on the Lost Island of Bermeja. Or if you are new to the blog, why not look at the ten most popular posts?

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University



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