Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

by Christina Thompson

Paperback, 2019



Call number



William Collins (2019), 384 pages


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. Sea People includes an 8-page photo insert, illustrations throughout, and 2 endpaper maps.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
The Pacific is very big, as everyone who has had anything to do with it will tell you, and the islands in it are for the most part very small and a long way apart. Yet when the first European sailors reached Polynesia in the 16th century, they found people living on just about all of those tiny
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specks of land. What's more, those people all seemed to speak closely-related languages and share many of the same domestic animals, food-plants and cultural traditions, and in many cases they had obviously been settled where they were for a long time.

Thus, Western science was confronted with the famous "puzzle of Polynesia" — how did "primitive" people, without access to metal tools, nails, compasses, sextants and Admiralty charts, manage to migrate effectively across such vast areas of ocean? And where did they start?

Thompson's approach in this book is not so much to resolve that puzzle but rather to tease out the history of the interaction between Polynesian peoples and western scientists, looking at it as far as possible from both sides, and focussing as much on the long tradition of false preconceptions and intercultural misunderstandings as on the occasional isolated outbreaks of serious research and willingness to listen to each other that eventually made it possible for the two cultures to gain some kind of mutual understanding. I was particularly struck by her observation that a major stumbling-block for western scientists was the blind assumption that Polynesian cultures, being "primitive", were necessarily static: in many cases a famous "mystery" stopped being mysterious as soon as you allowed for the possibility that the way of life of a community had changed over the centuries to adapt to changes in its environment.

Obviously, it's not really possible to present a completely balanced view when one of the two parties in the discussion has all the written records, but Thompson does what she can with the handful of Polynesian thinkers who did leave some trace, like the Tahitian navigator Tupaia who sailed with Cook and Banks, and the early 20th century Maori ethnologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H Buck).

The book is pitched at general readers, and whilst making us look critically at some of the things we remember from our schoolbooks (and all of the things we remember from Thor Heyerdahl) it also seems to give a useful broad overview of the main topics involved and how they fit together in time and space, without going into very much detail about any particular place or particular technical or cultural aspect of Polynesian life.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
The author, having met, married, and had a family with a Maori man she met while conducting academic research in New Zealand, continues and expands her own exploration of Polynesian origins and culture in her second book. There's no geographical entity on the planet larger than the Pacific Ocean,
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nor any firm origin stories as to the background of its people and how they managed to navigate to and to populate so many distant, tiny islands even before European explorers appeared. Her writing style is simultaneously compelling and comfortable, a rare combination in a book of history and adventure - and still unsolved mysteries. She details modern attempts to recreate ancient voyages using techniques passed down via oral legends. If Thor Hyerdahl's Kon-Tiki was dry stuff, this is the fascinatingly juicy version.
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LibraryThing member untraveller
Pretty close to excellent. My only wish would have been for a summarizing chart or graph of some kind to make future reference easier. The basics I was familiar with, but much of the specifics I was not. Well written as well.
LibraryThing member Anamie
I have a fascination with how isolated cultures like Polynesians have thrived. Christina Thompson places her fascination in a collection of accounts dating back to early European explorers to modern DNA revelations. It becomes clear that nobody has the exact answers but there is respect to be found
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in Polynesian oral traditions that contributed to their navigational and survival abilities. Sea People highlights the evolving narrative of Polynesian history. Thompson is concise but includes enough detail to appreciate each segment of discovery.
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LibraryThing member jacoombs
Truly excellent. Not a history of Polynesia, but an narrative of the way the prehistory of the Polynesians has been thought about from the West's first interactions in the eighteenth century through to the present.

Starting with endpapers that are the relevant maps for easy consultation - to quirky
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and informative title headings, the book is an absolute delight.

The interaction between Tupaia, a Tahitian navigator and Captain Cook could serve as a paradigm for the entire book: the intertwining of traditional knowledge (legend, language and navigational techniques) have interacted with scientific knowledge (from linguistics, somatology to DNA and radio-carbon dating) is developed in a clear and accessible way for the lay reader.
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LibraryThing member soraxtm
Pretty good, seemed,you know fairly pedestrian as these things go. No "David Graeber" world changer but a good start in fleshing out the process of the Polynesian island hopping expansion deal.It is just so fastinating learning about the humans com
ing over that way towards south America
LibraryThing member zot79
This non-scholarly, yet deeply researched, book about the people of Polynesia (everything in the triangle formed by Hawai‘i, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and New Zealand (Aotearoa) should satisfy anyone curious about the region, its history and its people. It's structured around the chronology of
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European discovery, anthropology and archeology of the islands, beginning with Cook and continuing to the present, each century and decade peeling away another layer of the mystery. Not all of the questions have been answered. But a clearer overall understanding as begun to emerge from the mists of time.
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LibraryThing member yarmando
Traces the edges of what we can and can't know about the history of how the Polynesian Triangle was settled, following threads of myth, ethnocentrism, and error as well as different ways of knowing. Mind-blowing.
LibraryThing member therebelprince
Heartily recommended. A constantly eye-opening read, sensitively tracking the attempts to understand Polynesian origins and culture, from the arrival of the first Western explorers to the growing Polynesian self-discovery and self-determination of the last 50 years. A treat to see the world from
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such a different perspective.
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Ralph Waldo Emerson Award (Shortlist — 2020)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Nonfiction — 2020)
Queensland Literary Awards (Finalist — Non-Fiction — 2019)
Victorian Premier's Literary Award (Winner — Nettie Palmer Prize for Australian Nonfiction — 2020)
Prime Minister's Literary Award (Winner — Nonfiction — 2020)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

384 p.; 6.06 inches


0008339023 / 9780008339029
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