Book Club: ‘Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia’ by Christina Thompson

A book all about ancient Pacific navigation

Who first settled the islands of the remote Pacific? Where did they come from? How did they get there, and how do we know? The answers to these and more questions are all explored in this mesmerizing novel by Pacific historian Christina Thompson. 

For over a millennium, Polynesians have occupied the most secluded islands in the Pacific Ocean encompassing a triangle stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. Before the arrival of European explorers, these were the only people to occupy this land. Polynesian roots stretch back to groups of epic voyagers who ventured into these lands in what is known today as one of the greatest adventures in human history. But how did these people who lacked writing skills and metal tools conquer and manage this land and the world’s largest ocean? This enigma termed the Puzzle of Polynesian Origins came about in the 18th century as one of humankind’s greatest geographical mysteries. As Thompson states in the prologue: “The story of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific is less so a story of what happened than it is about how we know. Sea People traces the epistemology of the West, the way we have collected knowledge and made sense of it, how we relate to the natural world, and the racism which has often coloured research and thought surrounding Polynesia.

Moai, meaning “statue” in Rapa Nui, are monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island

Following a chronological order of events, the book begins with the voyage of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan marking the first European success of travelling around the Polynesian Triangle. It moves onto the subsequent contact of Álvaro de Mendaña with a group of islands called the Marquesas. Throughout describing these events, Christina Thompson draws attention to the problematic nature of claiming that European explorers discovered anything in the Pacific. Despite this, issues relating to European colonisation are often omitted. It is only when we reach the third chapter that various Polynesian oral traditions are afforded full attention. These often relate to genealogies, histories, legends, navigation, and practical craftsmanship skills. While it is true that much of this oral history may have been lost without European scholars, it also stands that there would be no worry of losing it if European settlers didn’t introduce diseases and illnesses that local peoples were not immunized to, and instilled an unjust sense of authority which led them to claim the land they apparently discovered. 

At times, Sea People becomes incredibly humbling. One such moment comes with the description of Hōkūleʻa, a vessel that set sail from Maui to Tahiti in 1976 in an attempt to prove the possibility of navigating to and from these two locations without the use of Western navigation. This venture came as a response to increasing scepticism among Western experts that the first Polynesians travelled anywhere purposefully. Due to a lack of modern-day Hawaiians who possess this ancient navigational knowledge, Caroline Island Navigator Pius Piailug, known as Mau, who had learned traditional navigation techniques, was hired. Mau not only proved the possibility of navigating using stars and swells, but he also showed that these techniques are teachable so that this knowledge (barely understood by the Western world) may live on. Some of the traditional techniques employed in the art of navigation, such as wayfinding, are only now experiencing a revival. 

Nowadays, Polynesia makes for a popular tourist destination and dive site

Further from this, Thompson explores the story of Polynesian ancestors, sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, biologists, and geographers who have concerned themselves with Polynesian history for hundreds of years. Weaving history, geography, anthropology, and navigation, Sea People takes the reader on a voyage through the world’s most captivating regions and introduces him to the techniques used to discover and explore them. 

For all the readers curious about the origins of Polynesia and the mystery of its primal navigation, this is the book for you.

This review is the nineteenth in our new Marine Madness Book Club! At the beginning of every month we will be releasing a new review of an ocean inspired book and encouraging you to let us know what you think in the comments and via social media. To find out more visit the Book Club page here.


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