what i'm reading: sea people: the puzzle of polynesia

If the Hōkūle'a hadn't come to Port Hardy, this book might have languished indefinitely on my Books Universe List*. The List is very long. Often Books Universe is the place interesting-to-me titles go to die. Fortunately for me, a friend who is also excited about the Hōkūle'a asked if I had read Sea People. It sounded familiar, and yep, there it was in Books Universe.

Chances are you've never thought about how the islands in a vast portion of the South Pacific came to be populated. Don't let that deter you from reading this book. If you enjoyed Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Alfred Lansing's Endurance, Peter Moore's Endeavour, or books by Erik Larson or Simon Winchester, you'll enjoy Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson. (Winchester reviewed the book for The New York Times: it's worth reading.)

Sea People is packed with fascinating history, anthropology, and cultural exploration, told in a lively, very readable style. 

The word Polynesia refers to the Polynesian Triangle, bounded by Hawai'i to the north, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east, and New Zealand to the west -- an area of ten million square miles

From the prologue:
All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and a 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 Galapagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.
Thompson originally thought she would tell the story of these peoples, until it became clear that she could not -- because no one can. 
I imagined I would be recounting the tale of the voyagers themselves, those daring men and women who crossed such stupendous tracts of sea and whose exploits constitute one of the greatest adventures in human history. But, almost immediately, it dawned on me that one could tell such a story only by pretending to know more than can actually be known. This realization quickly led me to another: that 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.
Thompson walks the reader through the different theories, over the centuries, of how the remote Pacific islands came to be populated. The reader sees Polynesia (and the world) through the lenses of different eras, from 18th century European explorers to 1950s academics to 21st century field scientists, through modern Hawai'ians resurrecting their cultural heritage. Through those lenses we see the limits of knowledge, and the fantasies, prejudices, and blind spots -- usually the results of colonialism -- of those exploring Polynesia, whether by ship or from their armchairs thousands of miles away.

Many of these past theories -- believed and advanced by the leading scientific minds of their eras -- are downright wacky and based on nothing but bigotry. The 1920s was particularly rich in this dangerous nonsense, as researchers of that era were obsessed with bogus racial theories.
Scientists in the early 1920s were working with an essentialist model of race as something immutable, definitive, and grounded in biological reality. . . . [I]nstead [of Polynesian history], what we see is a jumble of results reflecting not some truth about the data but a set of underlying assumptions about the people themselves.
Alongside and within these cultural explorations the reader meets some fascinating people. 

There is James Cook, the first European to make contact with people in the South Pacific. Although Cook represented a European empire -- and his arrival clearly represents the most cataclysmic event of Polynesian history -- Cook was not a genocidal conquistador like Pizarro or Cortes. He was an explorer and adventurer, and apparently truly hungry for knowledge. Thompson is not an apologist for imperialists; she offers a view of Cook that may not be widely known.

More fascinating than Cook is Tuipai, the Tahitian man who left his island home, voluntarily joining Cook as navigator and guide. Evidence shows that Cook had tremendous respect for Tuipai, and the men collaborated and exchanged knowledge across a cultural divide that can scarcely be imagined today. 

We meet Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Peter Buck, whose mother was Māori and father was Anglo-Irish. A brilliant man raised with Māori and western education, Te Rangi Hiroa became an anthropologist, a physician, and an ethnologist. His life literally embodied both Māori and western ways of knowing; his contributions to the study of Polynesian peoples is incalculable.

We also meet Pius Pialug, known as Mau, the man thought to be the last surviving South Pacific Islander who could navigate in the traditional way, and Nainoa Thompson, whose passion, determination, and expertise revived those skills. Thompson set so many others on a path that would resurrect this essential piece of Polynesian culture -- and of humankind's heritage. 

These are just a few of the scientists, researchers, and adventurers that populate Sea People

Sea People ends with a meditation on "ways of knowing," a concept I first encountered fairly recently, in my personal journey of Reconciliation -- which folds into my lifelong fascination with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. 
To the extent that this history has been disentangled, however, it has been thanks to input of radically different kinds. At one end of the spectrum are the mathematical models: the computer simulations, chemical analyses, statistical inferences -- science with all its promise of objectivity and its periodic lapses into error. At the other, the stories and songs passed from memory to memory: the layered, subtle, difficult oral traditions, endlessly open to interpretation but unique in their capacity to speak to us, more or less directly, out of a pre-contact Polynesian past.  
These two angles of inquiry are in many ways opposed, and for much of the past two centuries the debate has oscillated between them, as first one and then the other was held up as the avenue to truth. In fact, both have been crucial to the unfolding of a credible history of the Polynesian migrations.

. . . . 

When I look at history, what I see is not so much the steady march of knowledge toward some final point of truth, but the complicated process of trying to figure things out -- a twisting, braided rope of intersecting narratives, a set of conversations between different people with different bodies of knowledge, different ways of thinking, and different reasons for wanting to know.  

* Formerly known as the Master List, this is my list of titles I've heard of or read about that are interesting to me. It is not a to-read list, as I'd have to live at least ten lifetimes to read them all.


Lucky P said...

Nice work, again. And there's this from 2013...https://www.nauticalmind.com/81628/beyond-the-blue-horizon-how-the-earliest-mariners-unlocked-secrets-of-the-ocean-2/

laura k said...

Thank you!