BookBrowse Reviews Sea People by Christina Thompson

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Sea People

The Puzzle of Polynesia

by Christina Thompson

Sea People by Christina Thompson X
Sea People by Christina Thompson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 384 pages

    Mar 2020, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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About this Book



Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia is a deep-dive into the historical mystery of the Polynesian Islands and the origin of their first inhabitants.

Christina Thompson has a personal interest in uncovering the truth of the first people in Polynesia in Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. Her husband is a native New Zealander, and his ancestors were the ancient explorers who first settled the islands in the central and southern Pacific Ocean. There are more than 1,000 islands lying within the Polynesian Triangle, a region of the Pacific Ocean shaped like a triangle with Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui at its corners that covers more than 10 million square miles. When Europeans first began exploring the Pacific Ocean in the late 16th century, they came across these islands and their native inhabitants with their unique culture and their large canoes. But it didn't take long for explorers such as Captain James Cook, the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands, to realize that the population of the Polynesian Islands, with their similar languages, water crafts and mythologies were related peoples, and soon the search to determine their origins began.

Thompson discusses a number of different methods that have been used to try to solve the mysteries of the peoples of Polynesia. Linguists have studied the Oceanic languages, including Hawaiian, Maori and Tahitian, in an attempt to match the words most common between the islands to ancient languages of Asia and South America. Archaeological studies have examined human remains, as well as artifacts such as weapons, pottery and animal bones in order to determine when the earliest settlers may have arrived. Anthropological studies such as the Bayard Dominick expedition of 1920 have been performed to survey the current inhabitants of specific islands in hopes of identifying physical markers that would point to an ancient population from which the Polynesian peoples evolved. Studies of the island's plants and wildlife seem to indicate varied origins, with some early plants having Indo-European roots, and others, such as the sweet potato, originating in South America. Other research has focused on Polynesian mythology in hopes of using these tales to establish a timeline for voyages between the many islands of Polynesia that might give clues as to which were settled first.

More recent research, however, has focused on newer scientific methods such as DNA analysis. Although genetic analysis of ancient Polynesian remains would be able to provide invaluable information about the area's earliest ancestors, the climate of the Pacific Islands creates a poor environment for the preservation of bones and other biological material from which DNA may be extracted. Furthermore, although DNA can be collected from modern-day Polynesians, their genetics may not accurately reflect the true genetic history of Polynesia; many populations were impacted by a phenomenon known as genetic bottlenecking, where the gene pool was dramatically reduced due to either a natural occurrence, as was the case when populations were decimated due to disease brought by the Europeans, or deliberate choices, such as a small group of people voyaging to a new island with only a few individuals available to begin a new population. As a result, some genetic evidence may have been lost long ago, leading to seemingly contradictory results and leaving holes in the current DNA map that may never be filled.

Other recent research has focused not on the Polynesian people themselves, but on their ancestral form of travel; the ancient Polynesians are known to have traveled via canoes between the islands, and they most likely used the same type of craft when first arriving on the islands from lands much further away. A number of expeditions in the past forty years have been mounted in order to determine whether the ancient Polynesian sailors were truly the great navigators and explorers their mythologies make them out to be, or whether their presence on the many islands throughout Polynesia is due simply to the whims of the wind and the waves. Using replicas of traditional canoes and ancient navigation techniques, these voyages have proven that the ancient Polynesians were in fact keen navigators, using their natural surroundings and their exceptional sailing abilities to seek out and discover new islands on which to settle.

Unfortunately, even centuries of research aren't enough to come to a final conclusion regarding the origins of the first Polynesians. Thompson presents many of the pieces of this historical puzzle, but there are still essential parts missing. Nevertheless, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia presents a colorful and thorough picture of a Polynesian culture that is today returning to its roots by reviving ancient practices and traditions, such as wayfinding (See Beyond the Book).

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review first ran in the April 3, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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