Summary and book reviews of Sea People by Christina Thompson

Sea People

The Puzzle of Polynesia

by Christina Thompson

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

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Book Summary

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.

Excerpt
SEA PEOPLE: THE PUZZLE OF POLYNESIA

In the 1970s the Polynesian Voyaging Society built and launched a Polynesian voyaging canoe with the intention of sailing it from Hawai'i to Tahiti using only traditional techniques. The canoe, christened Hōkūle'a, was piloted by Mau Piailug, a navigator from the Caroline Islands. The goal of the project was to show that, although no such voyage had been made for hundreds of years, ancient Polynesian voyagers had been able to navigate distances of more than 2500 miles using nothing more than their knowledge of the wind, sea, and stars.


On May 1, 1976, the Hōkūle'a set sail from the island of Maui. Just before their departure, Mau addressed the crew, telling them how to behave while they were at sea. "Before we leave," he told them, "throw away all the things that are worrying you. Leave all your problems on land." On the ocean, he said, "everything we do is different." At all times, the crew would be under the captain's ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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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.   (Reviewed by Jordan Lynch).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Thompson vividly captures the wondrousness of this region of the world as well as the sense of adventure tied up in that history.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This fascinating work could prove to be the standard on the subject for some time to come.

Author Blurb Dava Sobel, bestselling author of Longitude and The Glass Universe
I loved this book. I found Sea People the most intelligent, empathic, engaging, wide-ranging, informative, and authoritative treatment of Polynesian mysteries that I have ever read. Christina Thompson's gorgeous writing arises from a deep well of research and succeeds in conjuring a lost world.

Author Blurb Richard Rhodes, author of Energy: A Human History and the Pulitzer Prize winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Who hasn't stayed up late reading South Sea tales? Christina Thompson's Sea People is a South Sea tale to top them all - the exploration and settlement of the vast Pacific Ocean by stone-age Polynesians - and every word is true. It's a compelling story, beautifully told, the best exploration narrative I've read in years.

Author Blurb Philip Hoare, author of RisingTideFallingStar
Christina Thompson's wonderfully researched and beautifully written narrative brings these two stories together, gloriously and excitingly. Filled with teeming grace and terrible power, her book is a vibrant and revealing new account of the watery part of our world.

Author Blurb Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life andElizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
I have rarely read so exciting and companionable a narrative as Christina Thompson's Sea People. In her capable hands this saga of Polynesia's scattered islands becomes a comprehensive and dramatic history of our planet and the ways its peoples, creatures, vegetation, land forms, and waters interacted over the centuries and eons since the world began.

Author Blurb Jack Weatherford, bestselling author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
The ten-million square miles known as Polynesia was the last area to be settled by humans and is still the least understood chapter in history. With a flair for making the past live again, Christina Thompson give us a comprehensive story of Polynesia and of those who have studied it. Sea People tells the story of a unique geographic, cultural, and intellectual voyage across water and through time. Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Polynesia, the Pacific, or the spread of humanity around the globe.

Author Blurb Paul Fisher, author of House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family
Sea People teems with compelling insights as it explores the age-old mysteries of Polynesian origins. We don't just visit the turreted cliffs of the Marquesas with Mendaña, the cloud-wrapped peaks of Hawaii with Cook, or the treacherous reefs of Raroia with Heyerdahl. We envision the whole panorama of European exploration and colonization against the even greater grandeur of Polynesian inventiveness, dignity, and self-determination. Thanks to Thompson's vision, we encounter an authentic global mystery that proves as vast and luminous as the Pacific itself.

Author Blurb Patrick V. Kirch, author of On the Road of the Winds
Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, Thompson's account shows how the science of human history, despite occasional wrong turns and dead ends, slowly but steadily advances. A must read for anyone fascinated by the Polynesians or interested in the history of science.

Author Blurb Matt K. Matsuda, author of Pacific Worlds
A luminous, beautifully rendered account of Polynesian navigation and exploration, and the lives and knowledge that built and populated an astonishing Oceanian civilization. Thompson captures the remarkable deep history of a world shaped between land and sea.

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Beyond the Book

Nainoa Thompson and Modern Day Wayfinding

Nainoa Thompson navigating on a boatAlthough Sea People is largely written as a history focusing on Polynesia and its earliest inhabitants, it also introduces readers to the islands as a whole: the culture of the Polynesian people, the botany and wildlife of the many islands and the adventurous spirit of a people who loved exploration. This adventurous spirit, however, was lost during the Long Pause, a period of almost two millennia during which voyaging out and settling new Polynesian islands was halted for reasons still unknown. It wasn't until the 1960s that a group of Hawaiians began to dream of returning to their ancestral legacy of voyaging, and the Polynesian history of exploration was revived. One of the men who was integral to rebuilding this legacy was Nainoa ...

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