Sea People- a book review

Lord Howe Island, which was one of the very islands in the Pacific ocean that the Polynesians may not have discovered. Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
One of the greatest mysteries in the history of human migrations is how the peoples of Polynesia managed to populate the greatest expanse of any culture in history, from the small islands of Micronesia to Easter Island.  The question has long fascinated people, as have the question of islands that appear to have been populated for a time, but were later abandoned.  Christina Thompson’s recent book examines how outsiders have sought to understand the mystery of Polynesian’s origins from the earliest European explorers, to the experimental archaeologists of the last few decades.

Christina Thompson has a gift for nature writing, and she describes Polynesia’s physical environment evocatively. But the core of the book is a chronological discussion of the different people who encountered Polynesians, and how they sought to understand them. Throughout, this effort is marred by the cultural chasm  between different peoples. When the great English explorer Captain Cook met a Polynesian navigator, Tupaia, he was amazed by the man’s practical skills; his counterpart even created a detailed map of a wide array of islands. But once Cook saw the map, he failed to understand it clearly enough to ask the proper questions that would allow us to interpret it.

By the mid-twentieth century, one key author argued that the Polynesians were not great navigators, but rather had drifted from one island to the next largely by accident during storms or after accidents. Indeed, it was only during the era of experimental archaeology in the 1970s (and with the founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Association, when a master navigator led a long distance expedition from Hawaii) that it became finally clear not only how rich the Polynesian’s understanding of navigation truly was, but also how completely different it was from a European approach.

While respectful, Thompson explains the blind spots and legacies that led to mistakes by people such as Thor Heyerdahl, while at the same time she provides a clear picture of how knowledge slowly accumulated. And what is perhaps most amazing that one people created this widespread culture, after likely leaving from an origin point in Taiwan. How was it possible that the same people settled both Madagascar and New Zealand? And there is one more point, which is too recent for Thompson to have included it in her book.  A recent study of Polynesian genetics strongly suggests that there was at least a single genetic introduction of Native American genes (likely from the area of modern day Colombia) into the ancient Polynesian gene pool. While not a shock -as Thompson discusses, the American sweet potato was later found throughout much of Polynesia, including in New Zealand– this presumed contact now has a firmer scientific basis. And the Polynesians’ ancient voyages and navigational skills are as awe-inspiring as ever. I highly recommend Thompson’s well-written, thoughtful and insightful work.

For more information on this geographic area, please read my blog post on a fascinating species on Lord Howe Island, and my review of Tom Koppel’s book Mystery Islands.

Thompson, C. (2019). Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. HarperCollins.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

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