Review | Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia – Christina Thompson

About the Book 

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 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, emerged in the eighteenth century as one of the great geographical mysteries of mankind.

For Christina Thompson, this mystery is personal: her Maori husband and their sons descend directly from these ancient navigators. In Sea People, Thompson explores the fascinating story of these ancestors, as well as those of the many sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, biologists, and geographers who have puzzled over this history for three hundred years. A masterful mix of history, geography, anthropology, and the science of navigation, Sea People combines the thrill of exploration with the drama of discovery in a vivid tour of one of the most captivating regions in the world.

384 pages (hardcover)
Published on March 12, 2019
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This book was a library loan.

When I was an undergrad, my big project before I got my degree was grant writing, specifically for the local Polynesian community. It took a really long time, and while I learned a lot about the local Polynesian community, I also learned that grant writing is not a thing I want to do with my future. 

Shocking, I know. 

This, however, is the great summation of my knowledge of Polynesia. My husband, the other day, asked why I was reading about Polynesia, is it for book research? “No,” I said. “I’m just reading about it because I know absolutely nothing about this region of the world and I figure, why not change that?” 

So, reading this book was really something I dove into with very little previous knowledge or understanding. It was very much an impulse read and wow, did it really paint a brand new picture of all things Pacific. 

Sea People starts out with a bit of information about the earliest explorers. Now, this might be your favorite part of the book, but I quickly realized I was here more for the whole, “where did the first Polynesian people come from” question rather than the adventures and wonder of Captain Cook. That being said, while I was pretty set to grit my teeth and pull myself through this section of the book, I quickly found myself fascinated. 

The Pacific Ocean is absolutely huge (I didn’t realize just how big it was until I read this book, too) and due to that vast size, and its location and all that fun stuff, it was really the last unexplored part of the world. Most people who went into the Pacific, had no idea just what they were in store for. It’s vast size, with no real land other than tiny islands here or there, which would be really, really easy to miss if you’re in the wrong place, and those trade winds that make the whole place either impossible to navigate, or only navigable through certain areas. This all worked together to really this region of the world very difficult nut to crack.  

The early explorers, though, took a good swing at it, and Thompson takes readers through the most important discoveries at the start of this book, ending with Captain Cook, who was really the first person to cover all of Polynesia, and had the ability (along with some Polynesians who traveled with him) to map out all of the islands he saw, in concert with what the Polynesians knew from their own travels, and oral histories, which was really groundbreaking. 

From this point, the book moves on to early theories about Polynesia, what people assumed about where the Polynesian people come from as a whole, in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. This part was really interesting, to see where these theories came from, and how other things, like language, were worked into it all.

The language part was particularly interesting to me. Captain Cook, took a man from Tahiti to New Zealand. The Maori were about to attack Captain Cook and this man from Tahiti spoke to them in his native language (he’d never been that far south, or met anyone who was Maori before—it was a first contact) and, shock upon shock, the Maori understood what the Tahitian was saying, word for word. This stopped any potential attack, and this man acted as an intermediary with trade deals and the like, and kept things relatively peaceful. 

And that story, right there, was when I knew I was hooked. The subtitle of this book is “the Puzzle of Polynesia” and I really had no idea what a puzzle it really is until I read this book. How on earth is it possible for a Tahitian man to speak the same language as the Maori in New Zealand, when neither party had ever met before? Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really.

Thompson boils it down, and examines the roots of theories, and why they came into being in the first place. The evolution of thought in this particular area was not only interesting, but it helped give a lot of current information some background and backbone. A lot of early theories were given a very “European” spin, and some things, like language, weren’t really understood until more recently, when linguists started figuring out language families and the like. 

That being said, a lot of Polynesia remains a mystery. Some of the most popular theories, that the early Polynesian people came down from areas in southeastern Asia, island hopping, or they traveled across the land bridge, walked down to California or points of South America and set off from there, are still being picked at today. Though modern times allows for things like DNA testing and carbon dating, which has solved quite a few puzzles, like the range of time when the islands were likely first populated. 

Mixed in with all this is a brand new way of seeing the world. Immersed in Polynesia, with stories and cultural tidbits, Thompson does a great job at introducing her reader to a new way of seeing the world, and a new respect for the sea, and the islands that speckle it. There’s great beauty in these pages, and a lot of almost mystical wonder and respect, not only for the Polynesian people, but for the ocean itself, the sky so far above, and the islands and people as a whole. 

I didn’t know much about Polynesia before going into this book, but I have a very healthy curiosity about it now. One of the last places explored, one of the last places populated, it’s a part of the world that is so vibrant and misunderstood, or just not understood at all, and that’s part of its allure. It really is a puzzle, and I think there is a lot there that will never be known. I found this entire book to be one of the most fascinating, gripping sagas of human history that I’ve read in a while. It left me with as many questions as I had answers. 

4/5 stars


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