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Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

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A blend of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Simon Winchester’s Pacific, a thrilling intellectual detective story that looks deep into the past to uncover who first settled the islands of the remote Pacific, where they came from, how they got there, and how we know.

For more than a millennium, Polynesians have occupied the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, a vast triangle stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. Until the arrival of European explorers they were the only people to have ever lived there. Both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world before the era of mass migration, Polynesians can trace their roots to a group of epic voyagers who ventured out into the unknown in one of the greatest adventures in human history.

How did the earliest Polynesians find and colonize these far-flung islands? How did a people without writing or metal tools conquer the largest ocean in the world? This conundrum, which came to be known as the Problem of Polynesian Origins, emerged in the eighteenth century as one of the great geographical mysteries of mankind.

For Christina Thompson, this mystery is personal: her Maori husband and their sons descend directly from these ancient navigators. In Sea People, Thompson explores the fascinating story of these ancestors, as well as those of the many sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, biologists, and geographers who have puzzled over this history for three hundred years. A masterful mix of history, geography, anthropology, and the science of navigation, Sea People combines the thrill of exploration with the drama of discovery in a vivid tour of one of the most captivating regions in the world.

Sea People includes an 8-page photo insert, illustrations throughout, and 2 endpaper maps.

365 pages, Hardcover

First published March 15, 2019

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About the author

Christina Thompson

40 books123 followers
Christina Thompson writes about the history of the Pacific. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was at once a history contact in Aotearoa/New Zealand and a memoir of her marriage to a Maori man. Her second book, Sea People, is a history of the settlement of remote Oceania by the ancestors of the Polynesian people. It won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award, and was a finalist for the Phi Beta Kappa Ralph Waldo Emerson Award (US), the Mountbatten Maritime Award (UK), the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, (US) and the Queensland Literary Award (AUS). A dual citizen of the US and Australia, she is the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing and editing at Harvard University Extension.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 655 reviews
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,737 reviews1,469 followers
October 30, 2020
The book is impressive. I rarely give non-biographical non-fiction books five stars; here I was tempted. Why?

The book is cleverly set up. The information is presented chronologically, starting with the discovery of the islands by Europeans in the late 1500s. Revealing bit by bit what has been discovered makes the reader intrigued to know more. You want to understand who the island inhabitants are, where they came from and how they came to be there. With this historical perspective, the reader views how ideas have changed over the centuries. As scientific knowledge has progressed so too has the focus shifted to include sophisticated radiocarbon dating and genetics. Linguistic and biological studies, as well as experimental test voyages have been conducted to evaluate different theories. The sum of information gathered is impressive. The search for answers is presented as a mystery to be solved.

The author captures the beauty of the sea, of the place, of Polynesia, of all the islands of Oceania. The writing shifts from capturing your interest one minute to enchanting you next through lyrical prose.

The author shows to us an alternate way of seeing the world. She shows how “sea people” view their world. Stationary in their canoe, the world flies by them--the clouds, the islands and the swell and waves of the sea. The stars above change position depending upon where the observer is situated and when the observer is looking. The observer sitting still in a boat has a different perspective than an individual on land. Each sees the other as moving. With the stars above and the water swirling below, one comes to understand why that person in a boat views the world as a whole, with he being just a teeny speck. The “sea people”’s existence and way of life is mirrored in their world view, traditions, beliefs and myths. This is an essential part of the book too.

And so, the writing is alternately interesting, beautiful and thought provoking. How many books of non-fiction give you that?! This is why I considered giving the book five stars, but I stuck with four.

There were a few points where the book dragged for me. It became clear that the detailed taxonomic investigations conducted in the 1920s (Louis R. Sullivan’s) were a dead end. Here I lost interest in the details. Thereafter the book picks up again.

I knew very little about the people of Oceania; all that I have learned has been fascinating. We learn not only where they migrated from but also when and how they migrated. Answers are not 100% definitive and we learn how views have altered over the years. One cannot help but ponder what discoveries will be made in the future.

Susan Lyons narrates the audiobook wonderfully. Her voice is a joy to listen to. Her tone is lovely. Words are clearly pronounced, and the text is read at a perfect pace. I have given the narration five stars. I did have to pull out some books for maps. The paper book includes maps and photos.

To get an idea of the paucity of land in the immensity of the 10 million square miles of the Polynesian Triangle, at its corners Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island, consider this--within its borders there is almost one thousand square miles of water to one square mile of land.
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
431 reviews269 followers
June 20, 2022
4 ☆
Polynesians were both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world.

Even with today's access to satellite imagery, about 20 percent of the earth's oceans remain unmapped. I would imagine that the Pacific Ocean would have an even greater percentage of unexplored waters because it's gargantuan. From Pacific, I had gotten an idea of its immensity. In Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, author Christina Thompson drove home the same point.
If you were to look at the Pacific Ocean from space, you might notice that you would not be able to see both sides of it at the same time. That is because at its widest, the Pacific is nearly 180 degrees across-- more than twelve thousand miles, or almost half the circumference of the earth. North to South, from the Aleutian Islands to the Antarctic, it stretches another ten thousand miles. ... [The Pacific] is not simply the largest body of water on the planet--it is the largest single feature.

[This is the factual explanation for my visceral aversion to taking a window seat for a flight over the Pacific. If the plane crashes, we'll be lost at sea possibly forever.] So in the face of this, how did the Polynesians come to inhabit those far-flung outposts in the Pacific?
This is what is meant by the Polynesian Triangle, an area of ten million square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand, and Easter Island.

All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a “portmanteau biota” of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. They had no knowledge of writing or metal tools—no maps or compasses—and yet they succeeded in colonizing the largest ocean on the planet, occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galápagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.

Thompson leads the reader on a methodical meta journey through history as Westerners attempted to explain this puzzle. The earliest outsider eye-witness accounts were from European explorers in 1521. But Sea People is not a dry, academic account as Thompson wrote engagingly. She has a personal stake as her husband is Māori and thus their sons are of Polynesian ancestry. Her explanation progressed from first-hand reports infused with all of their prejudices to Polynesians' oral traditions and eventually to more objective modern-day science. Along the way the reader meets seminal figures like Tupaia of Tahiti, who accompanied James Cook of the H.M.S. Endeavor in the 18th century, and Te Rangi Hiroa, a western-trained doctor turned anthropologist in the 20th century.

I especially enjoyed the section about experimental voyaging in which the questers left the comfort of their homes and took to the seas employing the traditional navigation methods of the Polynesians. Early efforts by white sailors culminated with the third trip of the Hōkūle`a, which was built as a replica of a traditional canoe. In 1980, the Hōkūle`a set off from Hawaii to Tahiti, but this time it was guided by inclusive principles to ameliorate the crew's earlier racial tensions. The leader of the Polynesian Voyaging Society encouraged those involved to regard the canoe as Hawaiian.
"You need to define your community ... and community is never about what separates you from each other-- your race or your culture-- its about what binds you together."

The third try was the charm. Without maps, charts, or other modern tools, Hawaiian Nainoa Thompson (no relation to the author), as taught by Micronesian Pius "Mau" Piailug, had navigated the canoe across more than 2,500 miles of open waters. The journey took 31 days. Although the successful trip didn't prove how the Polynesians settled in such remote locations, it validated traditional Polynesians and Micronesian bodies of knowledge.

Sea People was an ambitious undertaking to synthesize 300 years of inquiry into Polynesian origins. Thompson did a great job of surveying the various and multiple disciplines (from anthropologists to linguists to archeologists and more) and explaining the progress. And now I feel a need for a cruise around Tahiti and that part of the Pacific Ocean.
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,513 followers
April 15, 2019
It's been a traveling year for me in books. I intentionally went first to Trieste and stayed there, for a while, longer than I planned. Oddly, it was logical to go from there directly to Wales. And I book a flight for Nowa Ruda whenever Olga calls.

Still in a traveling mood, I boarded a ship, but a creaky one, with only hardtack, mealy biscuits and stale water for dinner. We followed the currents and trade winds, going east first before we turned west. The worst was when we were becalmed. Eventually we spotted certain birds that my more experienced mates knew meant land. The water changed, clearer, and seaweed with it. A large, large cloud. When we finally disembarked, we stood on a floating island - the ground beneath your feet is not really land the way that most people understand it. Yet most surprising, on this speck, we found people.

And so, I came to the Polynesian Triangle, like the Europeans before me: with luck, with wonder, and with my own notions.

This book raises the obvious questions. Where did these people come from? How did they get there? And why?

Some of these questions are even answered. And along the way some things we were taught as children get debunked. Like maybe Thor Heyerdahl was more brave than, you know, correct.

I also learned:

-- about the Ghyber-Herzberg lens, a layer of fresh water which floats on the top of seawater that infiltrates porous coral rock;

-- that in biology and anthropology, race has long been abandoned as a meaningful category;

-- and that in seafaring, the most sensitive balance was a man's testicles.

Some of the things I learned I already had a pretty good hunch about.

I'm thinking I might stay in Polynesia for a while. I think Vargas Llosa followed Gauguin to Tahiti. And I've never been to New Zealand, where I heard Katherine Mansfield had a Garden Party
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,076 reviews711 followers
June 30, 2019
When early European explorers — Captain Cook in particular — encountered the Polynesian peoples living on isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean separated by thousands of miles, the logical question that came to their minds was, “How did these people get here? And where did they come from?” The Europeans were quite confident of themselves as being the best navigator/sailors in the world. The fact the Polynesians had found the islands many generations before the Europeans would normally be considered unbelievable except for the proof of their presence and existence. One passing suggestion—not seriously believed—was that God must have created them there in place.

Thus began the largely Western anthropological study and analysis of the evidence to unlock the mystery of the human migration throughout the Polynesian Triangle. This book follows this quest in a chronological order of the uncovering of various bits of evidence and the resulting multiple theories that were developed. The development of radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis in recent years has finally provided a greater degree of certainty than ever before. Also the Polynesian Voyaging Society has constructed and sailed ocean going double hulled canoes utilizing navigational techniques without sextant, chronometer, or GPS, and have demonstrated the feasibility of inter-island sailing by such craft.

This illustration demonstrates the chronological dispersal of the ancestors of the Polynesian people. They apparently began developing their sailing technology in 2000 BC when they first started spreading south and east from Taiwan through what is today Indonesia and Philippines going as far east as Samoa and Tonga by 900/800 BC. Then surprisingly, they spread west and settled in Madagascar near Africa circa 500 AD. Their eastern progress stalled for about a thousand years until about 700 AD when they began moving east into the Cook Islands and Tahiti, reaching Hawaii in 900 AD, Easter Island in 1000 AD, and New Zealand in 1200 AD.

One interesting thing that DNA analysis has shown is that there is sufficient genetic diversity among the island inhabitants — and the animals they brought with them — to conclude that all the islands were initially settled by a fairly large contingent of settlers — probably numbering in the hundreds — with the probable exception of Easter Island. It's interesting to note that testing the DNA of rats — who traveled with the humans — was the most convenient source of DNA data because their remains were easily found in all the midden piles.

I wish the author would have elaborated more on Hawaii. Apparently their are signs of settlement in 900 AD, but there was an arrival of a large group 1219 to 1266 AD. According to island folklore — probably the experience of this later group — there were already people inhabiting the island when they arrived. Native Hawaiians referred to the earlier group as Menehune. I am under the impression that the existence of the Menehune is supported by archeological evidence. If so when did they arrive? Is that where the 900 AD date came from?
Profile Image for Judith E.
546 reviews191 followers
March 28, 2021
If I’m ever a Jeopardy contestant and there’s a Polynesia category, I will totally kick ass. Did you know the islanders of Marquesas SEWED their wood canoes together with coconut fibers? Or that Captain Cook was a math and astronomy geek? Or this basic navigational tidbit - the winds in the North Pacific run from north to east and winds in the South Pacific run from south to east?

This scholarly author expertly portrays the early European discoveries of the Polynesian islands and people, the similar linguistic characteristics in the Polynesian triangle, and the findings in later archeological excavations. Unfortunately, the very minutely detailed dissection of all the possible scenarios of Pacific Ocean travel by Polynesians throughout history kept this from being anything but a so-so 3.5 star read.

Profile Image for Barbara K..
397 reviews73 followers
October 28, 2020
This one shoots straight to my "Best of 2020" list without a second thought. What a great book!

It was already on my TBR when I read The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began, which includes a description of the seafaring techniques of Polynesians. I was so intrigued by that information that I immediately moved Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia into position as next-to-read.

And I was rewarded for doing so. Did I mention that this is a terrific book? Since there is no written history of the Polynesians until the Europeans arrived on the scene in the 16th century, there is something of a puzzle (at least to those Europeans and later the Americans) as to how they came to populate such a widely spread collection of islands.

Thompson's approach to solving this puzzle works well. She considers in chronological order the speculations on the topic by different groups: the Westerners who encountered the Polynesians over the centuries, and the Polynesians, both those in residence at the time the tall ships first arrived, and their descendants who have helped find solutions today. By the end of the book we arrive back at those descriptions of seafaring skills, but the rest of the content was so fascinating that I was happy to wait for that climax.

One of the ongoing challenges to reaching a solution in a way that makes sense to Westerners is that the Polynesians they met across the Pacific perceived the world and their place in it very differently from Westerners. Even when each side had gained enough of each others' vocabulary to exchange ideas, words were not enough to bridge this conceptual gap.

This is a topic Thompson introduces and subsequently returns to as she side-tracks to discuss other efforts to unearth answers, sometimes literally, with a trowel in the hands of an archeologist. She explores the many efforts to find linguistic similarities between Polynesian languages and others from parts of Europe and Asia, in hopes that connection would help explain how the Polynesians came to be where they were. On the Polynesian side, she describes the ability of individuals living as recently as the 19th century to recite genealogies going back centuries, and how Westerners attempted to connect this information with their own sense of chronology.

A brilliant aspect of the book is Thompson's deft hand at highlighting how changing intellectual fashions in Europe and America influenced perceptions of how the Polynesians were likely to have ended up in locations as far flung as the Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. She integrates this with the increasing ability of science to throw light on the "when", and with the introduction of DNA testing, the "who".

But it is the resurrection of those seafaring skills that finally produces an answer to the "how". We may never know the "why", but there are plenty of tempting ideas to contemplate. And the puzzle of the sweet potato (not the yam) remains to be solved.

I listened instead of reading. On one hand this may have put me at a disadvantage since I imagine the print book includes maps correlating to the text. The funny thing is that although I sometimes turned to Google maps and atlases for additional clarification, Thompson's writing was so clear that once I had a general idea of points on the Polynesian triangle, I was able to keep it pretty much sorted in my head. (That said, I have requested a globe as a Christmas present. I haven't had one since I was a child, and it would be such a useful tool to support some of my favorite reading, whether history, adventure, or polar exploration.)

What I gained by listening was a marvelous narration by Sue Lyon. She has one of those lyrical British voices that draws you on as if in a spell. The whole experience - book plus narration - was akin to being told an fascinating tale. I almost wish it hadn't ended, which is saying a lot for a non-fiction book!
Profile Image for Donna Davis.
1,758 reviews235 followers
March 18, 2019
Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, which I read and loved. I was thrilled when I saw that she was about to publish another book, and even more so when I found a review copy; thanks go to Edelweiss and Harper Collins. This book is for sale now.

For centuries, Western scholars have tried to tease apart the many unknown aspects of Polynesian history. The islands are spread across an area of the Pacific Ocean (and beyond) so large that all of the Earth’s landmasses could fit into it, and there would still be room for an extra one the size of Australia. And yet there’s undeniable evidence that they navigated from one to another in canoes, without compasses or written maps of any kind. How the heck did they do it?

Thompson discusses the early European efforts, from the ‘discovery’ of various islands—and she points out that Europeans jealously guarded information, and so British explorers didn’t benefit from what the Spanish found, for example, and vice versa—to present day. She talks about the differing points of view, languages, and cultural divides that prevented the white folk from understanding what islanders were trying to tell them, and from believing that they knew as much as they did. As far as I can tell, Thompson is the first Caucasian writer to approach this subject with respect for the islander peoples about whom she is writing; her husband and sons are of Maori descent, and so for her, this connection merges the academic and the personal.

The thing that makes Thompson so readable is her wry take on the errors made by those that came before—mostly the Westerners that approached the area with paternalism tinged with more than a little racism in many cases. I’ll be reading along and thinking yes yes, this is interesting…and then I’ll come across a remark and reread it—did she just say what I think she just said? And then I am laughing out loud. Find me a geographer, an anthropologist, a sociologist that can do that. In particular, her unpacking of the whole Kon-Tiki debacle is unmissable.

If I could change anything, it would be to have been able to read this before I went into teaching instead of after retirement. I taught a lot of Islander kids, and the wisdom is that when we teach American history, we incorporate the history of each ethnic group represented in the classroom. I knew how to include my African-American students, and I knew what to tell kids of Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. I had material for my Latino kids. But with my Islander students, all I could do is say that I had truly tried to find information for them, but what little I found was so deadly dull and written at such a high literacy level that it wouldn’t work for them. And what would really kick ass is if this writer, at some lull between high-powered academic projects, could write something for children or young adults of Maori descent. Right now, English-speaking Pacific Island kids have one Disney movie. That’s it.

This book is highly recommended to every reader with post-high-school literacy ability and stamina. It’s a cultural treasure, and though I rarely do this with galleys, I will go back and read this again, because there’s no way to take it all in the first time, even when making notes.

What a wonderful find.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
651 reviews86 followers
February 5, 2020
This book sets out to answer the questions of where Polynesian came from and when. I, who was unclear of the difference between Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, emerged from the book having learned a few things about Polynesia. So, the current orthodox view of Polynesian migration is that the Polynesian ancestors did come from Taiwan and Philippines. There were two waves of migrations, the first at 1000 BC, the second from 1000 AD. DNA tests also suggest Polynesian and Melanesian share male ancestors. It is indeed possible to sail on canoes from one Polynesian island to another, navigating by stars, ocean swells and birds.

Fun fact: you could find food and fresh water on an atoll, if you know where to look - the Ghyben-herzberg lens is a layer of fresh water which floats on the top of seawater!

The remaining puzzle: how did the sweet potato plant, originated from South America, end up in Polynesian islands, since it has been proved that ancient inhabitants of South America could not sail across the Pacific Ocean directly off the coast?

An informative, easy-to-read history book.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,150 reviews1,119 followers
August 10, 2019
This is the first International Book of the Month picked by the members of the Non Fiction Book Club at Goodreads. I nominated it and could not be happier. What a wonderful book.

Just in case you have not noticed, I love everything about the deep blue sea. I am ceaselessly in awe of the force of the oceans and even more of the people who have conquered them, the true sailors and explorers. Coming from a country that is also the biggest archipelago in world, I am drawn to the Polynesians. The book kind of confirms the reason behind the attraction. Indonesians and Polynesians do share the same genetic roots, as the Polynesians ancestors took thousands of years when they first traveled from Formosa (now Taiwan) and gradually island-hopped their way via Indonesia before finally spread themselves into the current Triangle we know now (Hawai'í in the north, New Zealand/Aotearoa in the south, and Easter Island/Rapa Nui in the far east).

The book is like an onion; the answer of the puzzle is in the innermost part. The author let us open each layer of the mystery and it does take patience to get there. On the origin (very lengthy) debate, all the earlier accounts were dominated by the Europeans, as they seemed to be the most obsessed theorists ever since Cook's voyage. But then gradually the Polynesians themselves took the reins in the discovery journey, especially to answer the mystery on how did their ancestors get across the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. How the journey became possible? What would it take? The book It gives insights on how the Polynesians perceive their own cultures and tradition, their legacies. And it was marvelous. I recognized many similar traits with the Bajau mariners in Sulawesi who can read the sea, the wind, the sky and the animals, and use those know how in navigating their way to the coast of Madagascar.

Alas, reading this book has been an illuminating experience. The sea is calling, after all.

Profile Image for Chrisl.
607 reviews87 followers
April 11, 2019
Was entertained while learning for about 100 pages. But after Captain Cook's explorations, when the whalers and missionaries arrived, I started losing interest. Did appreciate her words about the Lapita
Historically, perhaps my favorite contemporary topic for exploration, Sapiens earliest watercraft ...

Thompson writes:
" ... because some portion of the population was always 'away,' hunting turtles or collecting birds' eggs or gathering coconuts or visiting in some other corner of the archipelago. All of which raises an interesting question: Since there are almost no trees on an atoll, and certainly none of the larger species that in other parts of the Pacific provided wood for keels and planks and masts, what did the inhabitants of the low islands do for canoes? It being inconceivable that they could ever have lived in this watery world without them."

... " There is a picture in ... 'Canoes of Oceania' ... It shows a small canoe from the island of Nukutavake, in the southern Tuamotus, which was brought to England in the 1760s ... in the British Museum, it is described as 'by far the oldest complete hull of a Polynesian canoe in existence ... probably a small fishing boat ...

"The amazing thing about the Nukutavake canoe is the way it's constructed. It is composed of no fewer than forty-five irregularly shaped pieces of wood ingeniously stitched together with braided sennit, a kind of cordage made from the inner husk of a coconut. Close up, it looks like nothing so much as a crazy quilt whose seams have been decoratively overstitched with yarn. It is difficult to believe that such neat and painstaking rows of sewing could be made with something as rough as rope; or that what they are holding together could be something as stiff as wooden planks; or that anyone would think of making something as solid and important as a boat using such a method. Everything about it suggests cleverness and thrift and also, plainly, necessity. You can even see where the boards have been patched with little plugs or circles of timbers held in place with stitches radiating out like the rays of a sun, and at least one plank shows signs of having been repurposed from another vessel."
"It is in astonishingly good condition considering its long voyage to England lashed to the deck of the Dolphin. The hull is composed of forty-five wood sections bound together with ..."
"And here steps onto the stage one of the most intriguing figures in this story. Tupaia ... tall, impressive man of about forty, with the bearing and tattoos of a member of the chiefly class ... an expert in the arts of politics, oratory, and navigation. ...
"But Tupaia was not just a repository of information; he clearly had a deep and inquiring mind. The anthropologist Nicholas Thomas describes him as an 'indigenous intellectual with experimental inclinations'--a phrase that seems to capture something of both the man and the age in which he lived."
..."Interestingly, Cook seems not to have considered a sailing rate of 120 miles a day overly optimistic for a Tahitian 'pahi.' noting that these large canoes could sail much faster than a European ship."
1,587 reviews86 followers
March 27, 2022
This is a survey of how Westerners have tried to understand Polynesia. It begins with Cook and other European explorers who first landed on these islands and the impressions they brought back home. From there, it moves forward through Christian missionaries and their anthropological observations, linguists who identified cultural connections, archeologists who attempted to create timelines for human habitation of various islands, navigators and computer programmers who looked for plausible sea routs between islands. This was a fascinating study, well presented.
Profile Image for Claire.
651 reviews279 followers
June 13, 2021
Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me, perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality.

I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that "way of seeing" through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down. My curiosity in all honesty lay too in wondering if a woman's perspective and approach might be different.

I loved it. Like her own mixed family, the author straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.

Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonisation and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect.

For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, the waves, the swell, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, with nothing but what nature offered. And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who'd come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery or annals of research, a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.

A wonderful history and beautifully accessible read. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,121 reviews1,203 followers
February 2, 2022
A very engaging work of popular nonfiction, about the history of Polynesia: the most remote, furthest-flung islands in the world, all of which were nevertheless settled many centuries ago. Since the earliest inhabitants left no written records of their exploits, people—largely Europeans; the Polynesians themselves are far less confused about this—have long wondered who they were and how they got there, traveling thousands of miles over open ocean with (at least at first) no knowledge of what they might find, and all of it without maps, charts, compasses, sextants, or any of the other tools used by modern sailors.

This book chronicles the historical facts that are known about Polynesia, beginning with the first contact with Europeans, the islands’ history over the last several centuries, various theories (from the plausible to the crackpot) about the islanders’ ancestry and their arrival, what is known scientifically and what the islanders understand about themselves. Although the author is white and by virtue of focusing on recorded facts, it’s a largely Eurocentric perspective, she’s respectful of Polynesians’ perspectives and priorities. Perhaps helpfully for that, Thompson’s husband is Maori and this is part of their children’s heritage.

I really enjoyed reading this: though I had some prior knowledge of the topic, it’s more informative and in-depth than I’d read before. With the text little over 300 pages, and a huge area of the world to cover—from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island, and everything in between—there’s little sustained focus on any particular archipelago, but it’s a satisfying large-scale exploration. It’s told in a very engaging, readable style, in relatively short sections, and kept me interested throughout. Some of the material, especially around traditional forms of navigation (which in recent decades some Polynesians have successfully brought back!), the nature of oral vs. written cultures, and recent archaeological finds and DNA testing, I found particularly fascinating. And the book is thoughtful and provides worthwhile analysis, along with extensive research notes.

A solid recommendation for anyone interested in the Pacific; I think I finally have Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia straight (only to learn that the distinctions among them are far more permeable than once believed)!
Profile Image for Robert Sheard.
Author 4 books300 followers
April 17, 2020
This is a terrific account, not just of what we have come to know about the origins of the Polynesian people, but also of how we've come to know what we know. Thorough in its research, but completely readable for a layman like me, this is a great general nonfiction work and I can see why it's getting good reviews and notices online. When and if we're ever able to travel again, Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island just went to the top of my list.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,079 reviews108 followers
April 14, 2022
This is a great non-fic that not only tries to answer from where Polynesians came from and how they spread to become the most widely spread people on our Earth (so widely that limits cannot be seen simultaneously from the orbit!) but also the journey to find these answers, with quite a few false starts. I read it as a part of buddy reads for March 2022 at Non Fiction Book Club group.

The book starts with the notion that the author’s husband Steve from New Zeeland Seven can get on a plane in the country of his birth, fly for nine hours, and get off in a completely different country where he will be treated by the locals as one of their own. Then, if he wants, he can get on another plane, fly for nine hours in an entirely different direction, get off, and still be treated like a local. And then, if he wants to go back to where he started, it’s still another nine hours by plane. and the European ‘discovery’ of Hawaii by Cook in 1778.

The earliest theories that turned false show how we humans may err. First was a search for Terra Australis Incognita, or “the Unknown Southland,” existence of which was based on a bit of Ptolemaic logic that there must be an equal weight of continental matter in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, or else the world would topple over and, as the great mapmaker Gerardus Mercator envisioned it, “fall to destruction among the stars.” The second was the earliest assumption about Polynesians that had not in fact come from anywhere but had been created in situ by God. This actually opens the whole new can of worms (if created there then they aren’t of Adam seed), which hasn’t been dug deeper in the book.

The 19th century brought modern ideas of linguistics (e.g. Indo-European proto-language) and Romantism (which both favored seeking one’s roots and adoring ‘primitive’). Some similarities between Greek and Polynesian myths led to seeking origins among a lost tribe of Jews, Egyptians, or ancient Greeks, and finally the main theory that they were Aryans. The latter was supported hypothetical ancestral language, known as Proto-Indo-European, which (erroneously) was linked to Polynesian. According to this theory, Polynesians were the “remnants of a race once extensively dominating in Asia,” who had colonized the Pacific in “very very remote antiquity.” Actually their languages are from Austronesian language family, a truly stupendous grouping of more than a thousand languages, which includes, in addition to all the Oceanic languages, those of the Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Timor, the Moluccas, and Madagascar.

The book follows the ideas and different ways of research, from Thor Heyerdahl voyage of Kon-Tiki (and later, historically more correct voyages of canoes), computer simulations, DNA analysis, anthropology, etc. This is an excellent example of what a non-fic book should be like, a lot of topics from different sciences are dumbed down to ordinary readers. Recommended.

Profile Image for Paul.
2,133 reviews
February 22, 2022
The Pacific is a vast ocean and I mean vast. When seen from space as the Earth rotates it takes us one complete half of the globe. It is 12,000 by 10,00 miles and all the landmasses on the earth can fit inside this area with still room for a second set of the American Continents. From space, it looks empty, just endless waves and swell and the ocean ebbs and flows with the tides.

But f you were to zoom in then suddenly specks of land appear in the blue. There are around 10,000 islands in this ocean. When the European explorers arrived several hundred years ago they often missed them. You can see why, because at sea level you would be hard pushed to see them unless you knew where to look. Or more importantly, knew how to find them in the endless water. Even in the modern age, these three regions of islands, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia can be troublesome to navigate.

There have been people here living on these tiny dots of sand for a thousand years. They can trace their roots back to a group of voyagers who set out into the unknown ocean. This book is their story.

Thompson is well placed to write this, she is married to a Maori and him and his sons can trace their lineage directly back to these people. As they spread over the islands they developed their own societies, culture and folklore as well as learning how to read the waves and the swell and use the night sky to move between the island showed them where the next land was. It was something that the Europeans could not do, they would either miss them or come across them by accident.

The vessels that they used to get between the islands were specially designed for the sea journeys and were easy to make with the scarce resources that they had. She goes back through their history tracing their expansion across the ocean and they are chapters on how people tried to work out how they could be such successful navigators. They didn’t have metals and it was only relatively recently there it was discovered that they did have pottery when sites were excavated.

I thought that this was a fascinating book about a place that I knew almost nothing of before reading it. Her prose is sensitively written and well researched and the facts and details she reveals are fascinating. The people that populated the Pacific have a fairly unique set of skills when it comes to navigation across this vast ocean and Thompson teases out the details of the way that they manage it. If you want to learn more about how humanity is capable of adapting to the challenges that the planet throughs at it then I would suggest reading this book.
Profile Image for Calzean.
2,597 reviews1 follower
February 3, 2020
The structure of this book worked really well in telling the story of how the world tried to determine where the people of Polynesia came from. It contains all the various efforts from the time the Western world slithered across these beautiful peaceful islands and how difficult the process has been and continues to be. There are an interesting section on how Europeans tried to understand what the Polynesians were saying and many times the linguistic complexities were never truly known.

The book shows great respect for the mastery of the Polynesian in navigation, oral traditions, their ability to utilise of whatever wood, shell or natural product was available, the mythology and the accuracy of their knowledge of history and geography. It seems all the time the Polynesians knew more than all of the scientists combined.

Its hard for a nonfiction book to have the right balance of entertainment and fact. This one does in spades. It's like a good mystery slowly unravelling the onion layers only to find another onion.
Profile Image for Moonkiszt.
2,043 reviews212 followers
April 18, 2020
This was an interesting read, but it did get a little sleepy from time to time. The search for the one bright origin story quickly melted in to a soup from a variety of independently launched origins, all interesting enough on their own.

Best of all was the process the author used as she looked carefully at all her resources. . . .she didn't seem to be biased one way or the other and was open to more than one theory or truth.

My most surprising takeaway from this book was my personal grief for the Moa, that Big Bird we never met. . . mankind once again stepping on its d**k, killing all before its even realized what it has done. And so it goes.

3.5 stars, rounded up and placed carefully on a paradisical island for safe keeping.
Profile Image for Cynda .
1,271 reviews146 followers
April 2, 2022
While traveling with her Polynesian husband, Christina Thompson became interested in knowing more about the early interactions between English voyagers and Polynesian islanders--particularly how English voyagers learned from Polynesians how the Polynesians came to settle a group of islands covering an area larger than Asia.

Some Eurocentrism was unavoidable because the Polynesians were in the process of changing from pre-literate to literate. With language barriers and worldviews were difficult to merge, to be known to the other.

Some Eurocentrism was avoidable. Although Cook and his voyagers had a working relationship with a few Polynesian leaders, Cook and other English voyagers did not press for more information about Polynesians, their history, their culture.

Analyzing information gathered was a strong suit of the English voyagers, something to be expected in the late 18th century. Yet asking questions and listening to others for answers seems to not have been 18th-century voyagers' strong suit. So much information English boaters were on hand to gather, record, assess died with the 18th century.

Yet there is hope. Polynesians are remembering bits of lore their elders shared so that together some memories are coalescing. Christian Thompson wrote this book with that hope. Someone in the nonfiction group I read with has discovered that she has Polynesian ancestry and now pursues information. The work continues.
Profile Image for Missy J.
563 reviews83 followers
April 3, 2022
3.5* rounded up to 4 because I like the subject matter.

When I saw the title of this book, I knew that I had to immediately read this book. On the surface, one thinks it's about the history of Polynesian people and how they came to populate the many islands of the vast Pacific Ocean. However, having read this book, it's actually about the journey of HOW humans (mostly explorers and academics) questioned, researched and studied where the Polynesian people came from, when and how they sailed through the Pacific Ocean to populate the "Polynesian Triangle" and the different theories that sprang up since Cook sailed across the Pacific.

"...the story of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific is not so much a story about what happened as a story about how we know."

The book started off very strong. The author is motivated by her love and marriage to a Maori man and her mixed-race children to study the origins of the Polynesian people. I enjoyed reading about the Hawaiian hot spot and how the Hawaiian Islands were formed, the northwesterly movement of the Pacific plate and about the winds (northeast and southeast trade winds). The author also wrote about the first European explorers in the Pacific (Cook in Hawaii, Tasman in New Zealand, Mendana in Marquesas, Roggeveen in Easter Islands, Wallis in Tahiti) and how they experienced different first encounters (the story of Cook is very interesting). Most of all, I enjoyed reading about Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator who communicated with Cook and taught him what he knew about the Pacific islands. Cook took him along to New Zealand and to his surprise, Tupaia managed to communicate with the Maoris. An incredible moment in history without a doubt.

The first Europeans who explored the Pacific region were doing so during the time of Romanticism and had thus very romantic ideas about the Polynesian people. Some claimed they shared common Aryan ancestry. Others claimed the Polynesians set sail from the South American coast to settle over the Pacific islands (Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki expedition). However, this is where things get sort of overwhelming for me as a reader. It felt like one story was piled over the other, just to get it over with. I managed to read through it, but it was less enjoyable. We meet so many different characters, it was a bit difficult to follow and grasp the overall concept of what was going on. The chapters on Te Kore and Te Po concepts and the explanation of how radiocarbon helped to date the arrival of the first humans on different islands felt quite rushed. Although I enjoyed learning about people, I had no idea existed, such as Abraham Fornander (sad story of his wife and children), especially Mau Piailug (a Micronesian navigator, who still had the ancient old knowledge of how Polynesians navigated through the Pacific Ocean) and his protogee Nainoa Thompson. The book ends with how science helped to verify some theories and discard others.

"On many islands in Polynesia, one does not travel east or west or north or south, but along axes determined by the local topography. In Hawai'i, for example, you go mauka, toward the mountain, or makai, toward the sea - directions that can point north, south, east, or west, depending upon where you are standing." - This quote reminds me so much of how Balinese people refer to Gunung Agung when talking about direction; "kaja" means towards Mt. Agung and "kelod" means away from the mountain. It makes me think of how people perceived the world differently, thought in completely different ways and made sense of life and the world differently from us. How thinking has changed so much with the rise of nation states, technology and what not. Not knowing we lost so much ancient knowledge along the way.
Profile Image for Katie/Doing Dewey.
1,066 reviews206 followers
March 28, 2019
Summary: A mostly entertaining look at how our theories about unrecorded history evolve, with a few slow bits.

"For more than a millennium, Polynesians have occupied the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, a vast triangle stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. Until the arrival of European explorers they were the only people to have ever lived there. Both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world before the era of mass migration, Polynesians can trace their roots to a group of epic voyagers who ventured out into the unknown in one of the greatest adventures in human history. How did the earliest Polynesians find and colonize these far-flung islands? How did a people without writing or metal tools conquer the largest ocean in the world? This conundrum, which came to be known as the Problem of Polynesian Origins," (source) and how people have tried to answer it, is the focus of this book.

I started this book shortly after reading Simon Winchester's Krakatoa, which had a downright colonial perspective. I was worried this would be the same, but was hoping for a focus on Polynesian perspectives. I think it delivered to the extent possible on this topic. It seems that most surviving records from the earliest time periods the author covers are from Europeans. Unlike Winchester though, the author doesn't treat this as the only perspective that matters. She shares European accounts of Polynesian origin stories. She also discusses the limitations of the European records, due to their perspective or lack of knowledge. Where possible, she gives some informed speculation about the ways the perspectives of the Polynesians might differ.

The content of the book was fascinating, a great blend of history, culture, and natural history. It's amazing that the Polynesian islands were colonized as early as they were. I enjoyed learning about the many different theories of how that came to be. It was interesting to learn about methods we can use to learn about historical events that weren't recorded or when records are spotty or unreliable. For the most part, I thought the author included a great collection of fun facts. Her enthusiasm was infectious. At the end though, the book started to drag. One of the last sections focuses on the details of many, poorly supported theories that Europeans came with up for the order in which the islands were colonized. The theories didn't build on each other. There was no forward momentum. It was more like reading a list, a very detailed list with items it was hard to keep track of. Things did pick back up, with a look at modern recreation of voyages and some modern science, but the book had lost it's drive for me. I'd still recommend it if the topic particularly interests you, but it's definitely not my favorite history.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey
Profile Image for Elizabeth A.G..
164 reviews
August 28, 2019
This is a well researched and engagingly written narrative of the origins of the Pacific Ocean island peoples of Polynesia, their exploratory navigations and settlement of the islands, the European "discoverers" of the islands in the 16th century and later, and the attempts to learn from where the original settlers came, why they ventured into the vast seas, and how they did so. Thompson describes the attempts of sailors, geographers, linguists, archeologists, and anthropologists to unravel the mystery of how these isolated island inhabitants of prehistory with their mythologies, oral tradition, and lack of written maps and modern navigational instruments were able to find and settle in the islands.

Many early origin theories were debunked over time and modern reenactments of ancient voyages and through the scientific advancements of computers, radiocarbon dating, and DNA studies, the history and puzzle start to become untangled.

As Thompson states: "the appeal of this history is that it combines the romance of a great human adventure with a cool, cerebral awareness that it is only by sifting through volumes of evidence that we will ever get close to knowing what happened in the dim, unreachable, mesmerizing, endlessly entrancing past."
267 reviews16 followers
February 17, 2020
Some thirteen or fourteen years ago, I had the opportunity to take a vacation in Hawai'i with my family. We obviously hit up the usual tourist spots, and I really found Hawai'i to be really enjoyable. The beach, obviously, was good. The food as well, because there were lots of Asian food options on the island. But, one really memorable moment was when we went to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, where we got to see traditional hula dance, ate many good foods at a luau, and visited the various interesting things on display on the Polynesian and Hawaiian cultures. That was when I first learned of who the Polynesians are/were, and I remember that I was surprised to find out that the Polynesians are spread out from New Zealand, to Hawaii, to the Easter Island with the famous moai human-shaped, humongous stone statues. That is quite a spread of the Pacific Ocean that they conquered. After that, I began to see the similarities in the cultures between Hawaii and New Zealand and the other Polynesian islands more clearly. One obvious example is the haka dance that their rugby teams usually perform before each game.

Last year, I visited Taiwan with my family again. On our itinerary one day, we visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, ostensibly to see the Jaddeite Cabbage, which is a sculpture made of jade shaped to look like a cabbage. The museum also had a section on pre-historic Taiwan. In that section, I learned something about the Out of Taiwan theory that basically argues that the peoples of Southeast Asia and eventually Austonesia came from Taiwan. These people then went on to populate the Polynesian islands.

So, in a way, even before I read this book, I already knew the answer to the main question that this book seeks to answer. However, this book is more than just about the answer. This book is a fascinating story of how we got to the answer, where we get to meet many fascinating characters.

Told in a chronological order with amazing clarity, the book, of course, begins with the initial contact between European explorers with the inhabitants of the Polynesian islands, where tensions were pretty high due to the inability of both sides to communicate. After some fortuitous circumstances that led to Captain James Cook completing the first detailed mapping of the Polynesian Islands with the help of native Tahitians (the most prominent was Tupaia, a traditional Tahitian navigator and priest), the Europeans began to earnestly visit, trade and settle in to the islands. Soon, the Europeans begin to ponder who, from where and how the Polynesians came to be. And initially, it was mostly Europeans who led the effort to discover the answer. Not surprisingly, some of the efforts and theories had some unfortunate racial biases and racists elements. The native Polynesians themselves did not have to wonder "where they came from", because they already knew from their folklores.

One of the most fascinating section is when the author tells the stories of what people were willing to do to prove their theories on the origins of the Polynesian peoples. One fascinating story revolves a Scandinavian explorer who made a raft and sailed it, with a team of people, from Peru. He named his raft Kon-Tiki (a term which I've heard before, but did not know what it refers to). Despite running his raft into a reef at the Tuamotu Islands, he continued to believe that he was justifiably correct in formulating his theory. Another fascinating story is the story of the Hokulea, counter-movement to prove that the original settlers really were superb sea navigators and explorers. This project was supported by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which at the time was led by an American professor. They were able to sail from Hawaii to Tahiti using only traditional Polynesian navigation system. On their first project, however, they had to seek help from a Micronesian navigator named Mau, because there wasn't anybody who knew the traditional Polynesian navigation system. Eventually, a native Hawaiian named Nainoa Thompson managed to lead and navigate the traditional craft using traditional navigation system after being taught by Mau.

Eventually, the book concludes with the scientific developments that helped solve the mystery. The DNA testing is the final solution that allowed the experts to confidently paint the general picture of where did the initial Polynesians came from.

Ultimately, it is a fascinating read on an unfamiliar subject, despite knowing the answer to the main question asked by the book.

Profile Image for AnnaG.
440 reviews26 followers
June 10, 2019
I hoped this book would be an insight into the lives of Polynesia, their culture and history. I have read Guns, Germs and Steel and was keen to find out more. I have come away a little disappointed - if I'd paid a bit more careful attention to the subtitle - this book is really about the "search" for these people.

For example, it has a chapter on the sequencing of rat DNA and how that helps us to understand how different islands were populated and also rather than recounting the creation myths from the different island people, the author is more interested in how those stories have been transmitted and whether they truly represent the original myths, not what the myths actually say.

There is plenty of reverence for the cultures of the Pacific and interesting information about them, but it is surrounded by explanations of how science has determined the information, not just the history itself. If you want to know why Maori do the haka - the answer isn't in here, if you want a recounting of the first time a European saw them do it and how that didn't turn into a war - Christina has you covered.

I'm glad I didn't give up on the book, but it was a bit of a struggle at points.
Profile Image for Vivek Kulanthaivelpandian.
176 reviews25 followers
March 21, 2023
Right now, most of the habitable land is clustered only in one half of the globe. Much ink has been spilled about the history of these land, people, and the oceans. But we seldom hear about the other half of the globe which is mostly covered by a huge waterbody called “The Pacific” peppered here and there with obscure island groups, islets, and atolls (approximately 25,000 of them they say!!).
This fantastic book tries to solve the puzzle of peopling of the Oceania with scientific data from sailors, linguists, archaeologists, historians, ethnographers, folklorists, biologists, geographers, and anthropologists.
Magellan is the one who christened her with that name. If only Magellan knew the true temperament of the huge waterbody he encountered after turbulent waters of the Tierra del Fuego, he would have never named her “The Pacific” , the calm Ocean. It is a misnomer for the most part as she is huge, choppy and unpredictable, fueled by Humboldt current and, North/South Pacific Gyres.
The sheer size of Pacific Ocean and the remoteness of most of the islands helped her keep the arcana for millennia from the rest of the world. That all changed when European explorers started arriving unexpectedly to the islands in their quest for the “Terra Australis Incognita”.
Oceania consists of Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Australasia in the Pacific. The rediscovery of most of the islands in this vast area took several centuries. When the Europeans arrived, most of the islands were inhabited by people. To their surprise, most of the islands separated by thousands of miles had common culture, language and foods. Europeans were baffled by this puzzle of when and how these remote islands were colonized by humans post last ice age.
Author starts this interesting story with early eyewitness, reportage and observations of explorers such as Mendana, Megallan, Quiro, Cook, and Bouganville. The story continues with the encounters of two completely different yet advanced in their own ways cultures. They learn from each other many things, esply how to navigate this watery desert. Several theories and hypotheses on how people arrived here gets discussed and some makes sense, and some gets scrapped as they cannot be substantiated by science. But, with the advent of scientific method such as radiocarbon dating, computer simulation and DNA, helps come up with a theory which can be substantiated scientifically. Surprisingly, what science came up with is not very different from the verbally handed down folklore. After all the early Polynesians are not drifters by explorers who travelled back and forth from distant islands with the ability to read stars, clouds, birds and swells. Some of these Polynesian myth theories get proven in the field by enacting long distance voyages in traditional boats using only the old navigation methods.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED comprehensive book on the history of Oceania and Polynesian Diaspora.
Profile Image for Grumpus.
498 reviews245 followers
September 30, 2019
The grumpus23 (23-word commentary)
Where did these people come from? What does history tell us? What does science and DNA tell us? Mystery solved? No spoilers here.
Profile Image for Boy Blue.
444 reviews66 followers
April 28, 2023
It almost feels like there's two different books here. The first 100 pages is a rough overview of Polynesian culture and some ripping yarns about the first contact between Polynesians and Europeans. Then the text takes a turn into a more academic pursuit of the origins of Polynesian culture. But rather than just going to the latest research and telling us the current prevailing theories. Stead decides to take us on a voyage through the entire history of the field. We explore every nook and cranny of anthropological theory and traipse down every dead end.

This isn't the first time I've become frustrated with a book for both a change of pace and what feels to be a historiography lesson masquerading as something more direct. There will be some who find the erroneous beliefs of mid 1900's anthropologists interesting but I can't really count myself as one of them. Although Heyerdahl's exploits have a romanticism to them, and Gaugin and Stevenson's retreat to Tahitian paradise are interesting, I want more juicy, truth-based, anthropological meat. I do appreciate Stead's structure where she essentially steps us through the history of Polynesia chapter by chapter showing; what Polynesian myth says of their origins, then first contact Europeans, then later European explorers, then early anthropologists, Mid 20th Century, The Polynesian Voyaging Society, and lastly the most modern science. I just wish that structure was made more clear from the outset.

As it stands, the book is a kind of chimera. The first 100 pages will appeal to almost everyone, then most people will find themselves bogged down in some dusty academic musings that are completely out of date for the next 120 pages. I think that's where Stead loses a lot of readers. If you battle through that stuff you come back out the other side and it gets really interesting again. The Lapita people are always good reading, as are Heyerdahl's antics and the Voyaging Society's quests.

So what are the origins of the Polynesian people? Well it seems there was a two step process. A migration from Taiwan and/or the Philippines by what we now know as the Lapita people. They stopped in the Solomons, New Caledonia, Tonga, and even Samoa, for some reason they stayed there for a few hundred years while mingling with the local Melanesian cultures. Then about 400 years later there was another massive voyaging boom, its cause is unknown, could be a disaster, war, desire to explore, it remains unclear but these people reached every last island of the Pacific including Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and NZ, and they are the Polynesians we know today. The navigation skills of the Polynesians are truly magnificent and it's a travesty that so much of that knowledge is now gone.

If I could go back in time and chat to anyone from this era, it would be Tuapaia. He stands as a titan amongst his people, easily the equal of Captain Cook, It fills me with sadness to think of the things he knew that we no longer know.
Profile Image for Clare O'Beara.
Author 21 books335 followers
March 7, 2019
This exploration of explorations of an exploring people is full of fascinations, friendships and frightening distances. Also birds - as guides, as food, as giants made extinct.

The author tells us she is married to a Polynesian gentleman who is one of a people who inhabit remote islands across the Pacific, which today are in a nine hours' flight on a side, triangle.

To explore a people who didn't have a written history, and lost much oral history when diseases struck, is to give an account of how other nations came across them, reacted to them, befriended them and learned about them. From Spaniards and Dutch, to Captain Cook's many voyages, to Thor Heyerdahl, spans centuries of puzzlement. For how did the Polynesians get where they were, where did they come from, and were they all related?

Linguistics proved a relationship, the animals carried, pigs, dogs, chickens and rats, added firmly to the links. In the modern times, after radiocarbon dating, fishhooks and pottery were added, the animals came in useful again; their bones could safely be DNA tested from modern and buried sites, rather than disturbing too many human graves.

I enjoyed the account and the photos. Some of the passages were new to me and others more familiar but the whole is well assembled and tries to show what people on both sides believed at the time.
Notes P319 - 354 in my e-ARC. I counted 11 names which I could be sure were female.
I downloaded a ARC from Net Galley. This is an unbiased review.

Anyone interested in reading fictional accounts of seafaring Polynesian-like communities may enjoy 'The Roof of Voyaging' by Garry Kilworth, 'Misfits And Heroes - Past The Last Island' by Kathleen Rollins, 'Daughter of the Reef' by Clare Coleman and 'Where the Waters Turn Black' by Patrick Benedict.
Profile Image for Diana.
342 reviews82 followers
May 16, 2023
Sea People [2019] - ★★★★

"It is extraordinary...that the same Nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this Vast Ocean...which is almost a fourth part of the circumference of the Globe" [Captain James Cook quoted by Thompson, 2019: 103].

This interesting book traces the origin of first Polynesian settlers and discusses many theories as who these people were and how they could have colonised some of the most inaccessible islands on the planet without using metal tools or compasses. The area in question is the Polynesian Triangle that stretches from Hawai'i to New Zealand, and then to Easter Island. It has long been inhabited by people with a single language and customs who have always presented an enigma to Europeans. From Magellan to Thor Heyerdahl, and from first impressions of Captain Cook to modern anthropologists' attempts to recreate the voyage of ancient people, Thompson tries to explore the many theories by discussing linguistic intricacies and oral traditions of these curious people who have always had "a different relationship to the ocean". Their original techniques of navigation have always puzzled many, and the author concludes by showing how advances in radiocarbon dating and modern excavation techniques shed light on the first Polynesian settlers and their origin. The final impression is that although the topic is absolutely fascinating, and Thompson summaries well/is a good, she also hardly says anything new on the topic and neither does she presents/analyses it from a fresh stance.
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