I know you won’t believe me that families of human beings arrived on tiny Easter Island before any such beings knew about enormous New Zealand – a continental-island.  In fact, many of us wouldn’t even think of New Zealand as part of Polynesia, though it certainly is.  We’re not talking about European sailors-explorers-conquerors of the 17th-19th centuries, but of far-traveling, blue-water people heading east and south from the Melanesian islands, to which they had arrived thousands of years earlier from the Philippines and Taiwan and south-east China –about the time Stonehenge was erected, 3,000 BCE.  There they stayed, until for reasons still unknown — weather, drought, famine, el niño conditions changing, prevailing winds reversing, technological leaps?– they began to pick up paddles and move on.

Tahiti beached its first long canoes sometime about 900 CE. Hawaii followed and then Easter Island (Rapa Nui).  Those we know as Maoris, speaking a Polynesian dialect still understandable by a Tahitian traveling with Captain Cook in 1768, arrived in New Zealand in about 1200.

These are only a few of the improbable and amazing things Christina Thompson brings to the reader in her 2019 The Sea People: The Mystery of Polynesia.  Though the rough outlines of the peopling of the Pacific Islands have been known for some time — Captain Cook, himself, guessed at their Asian origins — the fine details have had to wait for more research and the latest in carbon dating.  Thompson, not an anthropologist herself, spent seven years searching the literature, “going down rat holes” as she says, compiling conflicting accounts, reading indigenous myths and stories, and studies of them.  Most exciting in some ways, she tells how young Polynesians have reclaimed the ancient sea-going ways of their ancestors and have proven that –whether stories of early travels are mythological or not– it is possible to navigate using wind, current and paddle-powered crafts 2,500 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti — no sextant, no compass, no GPS used, or needed.  In fact, after several such stunning island-to-island proofs, such a craft with its small crew was sailed around the world.

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