Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

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...

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Title:Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia
Author:Christina Thompson
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Edition Language:English

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia Reviews

  • Clare O'Beara

    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

    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.

  • Donna Davis

    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 Eart

    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.

  • Kathy

    This is a library loan, so I must mark as "read" having read through the book once, but it is a book so full of interesting history, theories and expeditions in addition to the recounting of people who sacrificed a great deal to find truth that it could serve as reference book to repeatedly turn to and cite.

    There was so much new information for me I could not possibly summarize key points in this small space. Yes, I learned some of this information long ago, but Thompson expertly gathers and ta

    This is a library loan, so I must mark as "read" having read through the book once, but it is a book so full of interesting history, theories and expeditions in addition to the recounting of people who sacrificed a great deal to find truth that it could serve as reference book to repeatedly turn to and cite.

    There was so much new information for me I could not possibly summarize key points in this small space. Yes, I learned some of this information long ago, but Thompson expertly gathers and tames the key events and people in a beautifully readable narrative.

    To Read Again = Learning is a Wonderful Thing

    One small example of my ignorance: I knew nothing of Moa birds!

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Starts with the European encounter with the peoples of Polynesia as they made early forays and later more systematic exploration and conquest of an Ocean that takes up nearly half globe with islands dotting its huge expanse. As the Europeans encountered people who had braved the Pacific before them questions were raised at how the peoples of Polynesia pulled it off as pre-state, pre-literate peoples. The first guess was they randomly drifted onto the islands but once Europeans put aside their e

    Starts with the European encounter with the peoples of Polynesia as they made early forays and later more systematic exploration and conquest of an Ocean that takes up nearly half globe with islands dotting its huge expanse. As the Europeans encountered people who had braved the Pacific before them questions were raised at how the peoples of Polynesia pulled it off as pre-state, pre-literate peoples. The first guess was they randomly drifted onto the islands but once Europeans put aside their egos and explored their navigating abilities the picture on the Polynesian conquest of the Pacific it became clear that their seafaring is more remarkable than the European's feats in the age of exploration. As the picture evolved the methods and means of the conquest of the Pacific is explained by various oral stories, Star charts, and island wildlife sign the Polynesians spread and traded with each other across the Pacific.

  • Rex Fuller

    Picture a gigantic triangle from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island. That's Polynesia. Up until recently, the people of Polynesia were the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people on earth. Until Europeans came, Polynesians were the only people to have lived there.

    Now think about this: they didn't use metal tools or written language. How in God's name did they get there?

    Suffice to say that has been the question ever since Europeans showed up. This book guides us on the fasc

    Picture a gigantic triangle from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island. That's Polynesia. Up until recently, the people of Polynesia were the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people on earth. Until Europeans came, Polynesians were the only people to have lived there.

    Now think about this: they didn't use metal tools or written language. How in God's name did they get there?

    Suffice to say that has been the question ever since Europeans showed up. This book guides us on the fascinating trip through the many efforts to answer the question. We sail with Cook in Hawaii and across the south Pacific with Heyerdahl. We watch the painstaking effort of radiocarbon and DNA testers. We watch anthropologists, linguists, and sundry other experts and amateurs labor over the inquiry.

    And the answer, or rather answers are frankly hard to believe. If you've traveled in the area at all, you'll want to read this. If not, after you read it you'll want to travel there.

  • Jamie

    See my review below from the March issue of Baltimore Style.

    Humans have had wanderlust for as long as they’ve been in existence. Christina Thompson’s

    Sea People : the Puzzle of Polynesia uses a variety of sciences to determine the who, what,

    when, where and why the South Pacific became inhabited. Much of what we thought we knew

    was seen through the eyes and culture of 16th century European explorers and turned out to be

    flat-out wrong. Using linguistics, cartography, archaeology, anthropology and g

    See my review below from the March issue of Baltimore Style.

    Humans have had wanderlust for as long as they’ve been in existence. Christina Thompson’s

    Sea People : the Puzzle of Polynesia uses a variety of sciences to determine the who, what,

    when, where and why the South Pacific became inhabited. Much of what we thought we knew

    was seen through the eyes and culture of 16th century European explorers and turned out to be

    flat-out wrong. Using linguistics, cartography, archaeology, anthropology and genetics, this well-

    researched study debunks the early ideas and then builds a case that is closer to truthful. Don’t

    underestimate the importance of story here - the oral traditions of the Polynesians, written off as

    “folklore”, turned out to be closer to the truth than the observations of those explorers who came later.

  • Chrisl

    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:

    p48

    " ... because some portion of the population was always 'away,' hunting turtles or collecting birds' eggs or gathering coconuts or vis

    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:

    p48

    " ... 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 ..."

    ***

    p80

    "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."

    ***

    p89

    ..."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."

    ***

  • Katie/Doing Dewey

    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 ca

    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.

  • Clif Hostetler

    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 conside

    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

    . 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

    has constructed and sailed ocean going double hulled canoes utilizing

    without sextant, chronometer, or GPS, and have demonstrated the feasibility of inter-island sailing by such craft.

    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

    . 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?

  • Tony

    It's been a traveling year for me in books. I intentionally went first to

    and

    ,

    ,

    . Oddly, it was logical to go from there directly to

    . And I book a flight for

    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. Eventua

    It's been a traveling year for me in books. I intentionally went first to

    and

    ,

    ,

    . Oddly, it was logical to go from there directly to

    . And I book a flight for

    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 -

    land

    Yet most surprising, on this speck, we found

    .

    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.

    did these people come from?

    did they get there? And

    ?

    Some of these questions are even answered. And along the way some things we were taught as children get debunked. Like maybe

    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

    ;

    and that in seafaring,

    .

    Some of the things I

    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

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