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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.

Divided into five thematic sections, Thompson does an almost impossible job of telling what she has learned,  and how she learned it.  In a prodigious feat of organization we get brief accounts of European explorers and mini lessons on the geography of the several thousand islands and the super-sets they belong to (Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia. ) We read of the winds and currents of the great Pacific, the construction of canoes from reeds and fiber-thread, the archeology of fish-hooks, of navigation by observation of birds, seaweed, clouds, currents, and stars,  of long-told stories of ancestors and gods which also embeded necessary “how-to” knowledge.  She uses linguistic analysis, DNA studies of men and rats, and latter-day practical verifications of older, almost lost,  techniques,  Along with all this is a course in epistemology — how knowledge is acquired and structured and a breif history and explanation of radio-carbon dating: something for virtually every reader.  Even if your only goal is a week on a beach in Tahiti there is much to learn.

 Not only has she excavated documents and reports from early colonial explorers, Captain Cook (three voyages between 1768-1779,) Abel Tasman, one of many Dutch explorers, (on the shores of Tasmania in 1642) and Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (on the Mendaña voyage of 1595-98) among them but has searched the findings and reports of the earliest anthropologists.  Acknowledging the racial bias of some –though not all– of the researchers, she goes deeper to describe how almost all were biased in favor of fact-based empirical findings over stories and legends of origins and arrivals.  Even for those with little feeling of racial superiority there was little truth-value to be found in primitive stories. In fact, as we now know, there is much to be learned from them.

As early as Captain Cook — who was in Tahiti on a scientific mission, to observe the transit of Venus– the impressive knowledge of some of the islanders was acknowledged, and admired.  In Tahiti for four months, Cook made the acquaintance of a priestly figure named Tupaia.  A man whose expertise included, 

 “… cosmology, politics, history, medicine, geography, astronomy, meteorology and navigation…”

Over the course of their visits, he identified some seventy-five islands, whether they were “high” islands (volcanic) or “low” island (atolls,) how many days paddle they were, whether they had harbors or bays.  Of these, he had only personally visited twelve, his father a few more. The rest had been handed down by the lore of the ancestors.   This mutual work

— would transform Cook’s knowledge and understanding of the Pacific, and hasten his “discovery” of other Pacific islands, which of course included Australia and New Zealand.

  A copy of one of the charts they created still exists.

…a translation of Tahitian geographical knowledge into European cartographic terms at the very first moment in history when such a thing might have been possible.

And what a translation!  The maps of Tupaia’s mind were connections linking “gods, ancestors, humans, fish, birds, insects, rocks, clouds, winds, and stars.” Cook, trained in modern cartography, wanted to see discreet, objective phenomena. A fascinating chapter.

So curious was Tupaia about western ways that he announced he wanted to sail with Cook when the observation period was over, and he did– a biography yet to be written.

Aware of how European thought since the Enlightenment has dismissed other cultural paradigms, Thompson does a fine job of integrating and finding common ground between western and Polynesian ways of seeing, strengthened not only from years as a graduate and post-graduate researcher in New Zealand but from her marriage to a Maori, and as mother of three Maori sons.  She finds a way to value all sides, not necessarily arriving at one grand synthesis, but as a Naino Thompson, young Hawaiian adventurer she introduces us to, says of himself, “able to exist in both states at the same time.”

A chapter on Polynesian tales is fascinating, not only the tales themselves, and importance to those cultures, but how they were puzzled over with the new fields of  philology and comparative world mythologies.  A standard western group-like-with-like test is used to show how culture shapes perception.  Of a hatchet, hammer, saw and tree, westerners overwhelmingly group the tools as being alike, the tree as unlike.  A Polynesian saw it differently: he grouped the hatchet, saw and tree together as having to do with preparation for construction.

The later sections of the book enter the matters of practical seamanship, from Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki expedition to the vital work of David Lewis, a 1960s, modern-day explorer and sailor.  On investigatory travels around Polynesia he found several old men on remote islands who retained actual, practical, knowledge of the old ways of navigating.  Through conversations and later, meetings, he ensured the transfer of knowledge between old and young – to the point of successful, long sea voyages, including eventually an around-the-world voyage.

In a fine anecdote an early lesson is described.  The young newly instructed men are piloting a large canoe on a long voyage, towards a distant, unseen island.   One of the elders is along as an observer.   One morning, a gull is observed flying overhead and the young, alert, navigator says, “Look! Since it is morning it must be flying away from land, the same direction we are going.  We have to reverse course!”  The old man speaks up.  “Did you see what was in its beak?  A fish.  It is carrying the fish back to its young, on land.  We are going the right direction.”  Thus does specialized, time-won close observation ensure survival.


For all the wide range of what she offers one area that begs investigation is how living plants and animals were transported and kept alive during weeks of sea-travel.  Just carrying enough water for pigs, chickens and food plants would have been a major challenge. Presumably, those who went were confident of their ability to make tools, build shelter and find some food upon arrival and so could have traveled lightly in this regard; fish on the way might have been a major source of nutrition, even for the animals.  But water? The effect of sea travel on the health of the animals?

She does use the finding of bones of extinct animals on the islands to show not only human tool-making but that human presence on native flora and fauna was significant, bringing about the extinction of many species, particularly of flightless birds such as rails and moa.  It would have been interesting to see a page or two consolidating the evidence for which species are known to have been driven to extinction, on which islands and approximate dates, perhaps thereby indicating population loads and times of arrival and habitation prior to extinction events.

She does remind us that the arrival of Europeans in the nineteenth century, as on the North American continent earlier, with their small pox, scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, whooping-cough and much more, all but exterminated the native populations on many of the islands: from 250,000 to 40,000 in Hawaii; two-thirds Maori population in New Zealand, gone; from 50,000 to 2,225 in the Marquesses.

Another small quibble is that “The Sea People” has long been a tag for an entirely different set of ocean wanderers, those sea-raiding Mediterraneans of Biblical times,  some of whom became the Philistines.  Nowhere is this mentioned, if only as a point of clarification to the busy reader….

The Sea People can be read both at leisure and deeply.  Each chapter, while referring to what has come before, is a small interesting chew on its own.  The summer is not yet over; adventure awaits.