cover image Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

Christina Thompson. Harper, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-206087-7

In this artfully written book, Thompson (Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All) ably elucidates changing understandings of the ancient Polynesian migrations. This story, she tells readers, “is not so much [about] what happened as a story about how we know.” Since “we” here refers to Westerners, the narrative begins not with the prehistoric Polynesians but with Europeans’ first journeys into the Pacific, most notably those of Capt. James Cook, the first European to recognize that the distantly dispersed islands he visited were all populated by related peoples. Thompson looks at the contributions to knowledge of the migrations of Polynesian oral tradition (first shared with Cook by Tahitian “man of knowledge” Tupaia, a master of various fields including navigation, medicine, and genealogy), ethnographers (including Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa), linguists, archaeologists, mathematicians, and latter-day experimental voyagers who recreated Polynesian sea journeys (including Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society; no relation to the author). Thompson does not hesitate to point out erroneous thinking, such as Thor Heyerdahl’s unfounded claims that Polynesians migrated westward from South America. Along the way, she writes with infectious awe and appreciation about Polynesian culture and with sharp intelligence about the blind spots of those investigating it at different times. This fascinating work could prove to be the standard on the subject for some time to come. (Mar.)