Western science gradually catching up to Polynesian oral history
On Hawaii’s Napo’opo’o pier, Christina Thompson’s husband, Seven, walks over to one of the “big Hawaiian guys with tattooed calves” overseeing the kayak rentals. Seven asks, “how much for a kayak?” “Thirty dollars,” says the man, then, “twenty for you, brother.”
This nameless kayak-renter registers kinship—ancestral, familial ties—with Seven, who is of Maori heritage. Though New Zealand lies in the southwest corner of the great Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from these Hawaiian islands, the two men can both “trace their roots back to the islands of central Polynesia.” This shared heritage is nothing short of a miracle: “Seven can get on a plane in the country of his birth, fly for nine hours, and get off in a completely different country where he will be treated by the locals as one of their own.” He could repeat this exercise “in an entirely different direction”: “the Polynesian Triangle” bounded by “the three points of Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Easter Island” spans “ten million square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
Thompson’s new book, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia sets out to untangle the mystery of that miracle: How did Polynesians become “the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in world”? How did one “identifiable group of voyagers,” with a “single language and set of customs,” “a particular body of myths,” and a “‘portmanteau biota’ of plants and animals” spread themselves over this massive ocean? How did these ancient voyagers, without airplanes, steamships, or even “metal tools,” colonize “the largest single culture area in the world”?
Not to mention, this feat of human exploration happened without writing—“no maps or compasses”! ”We are talking about prehistory,” Thompson says; there are no written historical records of that Polynesian expansion. Thompson’s project therefore narrates “not so much a story about what happened as a story about how we know.” Specifically, her book charts how the last few centuries of thinkers reconstructed this ancient colonization. “The history of the Pacific is not just a tale of men and women (and dogs and pigs and chickens) in boats,” she writes. “It is also the story of all those who have wondered who Polynesians were, where they came from and how they managed to find all those islands like stars in the emptiness of space.”
Thompson’s intellectual history takes the perspective of Western thinkers. But as Thompson self-consciously acknowledges later in the book, “according to the Polynesian view, history is not an assortment of data points to be cherry-picked at will but something much closer to a kind of intellectual property.” She quotes Maori scholar Tipene O’Reagan: “To inquire into my history or that of my people, you must inquire into my whakapapa [genealogy]. … I am the primary proprietor of my past.” Respectful of that ownership, Thompson’s project traces the Western metahistory operating parallel to native stories: Rather than describing Polynesia’s history as told by Polynesians, she narrates how modern European, American, and Oceanian thinkers reconstructed this history.
Because Thompson surveys nearly 500 years of theories about the Polynesian diaspora, from 1519 to 2018, she never lingers too long on any one period or figure. Asides and footnotes imply Thompson’s knowledge stretches much deeper than she reveals explicitly; she chooses only the most meaningful and relevant events. For example, Thompson hones in on Cook’s Polynesian guide Tupaia and Tupaia’s enigmatic, and symbolically revelatory, map. She reimagines the “complex collaboration” between Cook, his on-board scientist Joseph Banks, and Tupaia, which resulted in this fascinating chart documenting the native man’s extensive knowledge of Polynesian islands.
Like the mystery of the Polynesian diaspora itself, this mesmerizing artifact remains in many respects indecipherable to present-day readers. Tupaia likely conceived of geography very differently than the longitudes and latitudes of his 18th-century European collaborators, and much was lost in translation. “Everyone who has ever thought about it has no doubt wished he or she could go back and shake Cook, Banks, and the others and demand that they try harder to extract what Tupaia knew,” Thompson writes, “so that we, in the future, could more fully understand what the world looked like from Tupaia’s point of view.”
After Cook, Thompson paddles swiftly through the centuries: stopping in the 19th century to discuss the efforts of linguist Edward Tregear and lore-collector Abraham Formander, and then in the early 20th century to explain the work of anthropologists like Herbert E. Gregory, Te Rangi Hiroa, and Edward W. Gifford. In each historical moment, Thompson retraces that moment’s key inquiries, e.g., for the 19th century: What can oral stories reveal about when and how islands were colonized? Is it possible to accurately backdate original landings via remembered genealogical lineages? Thompson takes account of disciplinary advances like philology’s reconstruction of ancient languages and nuclear science’s breakthroughs in carbon dating, while noting the often racist undertones to some of these scientists’ assumptions.
Reading Thompson’s style, though learned and lyrical, can at times feel like being rushed through a museum by a charismatic docent who is also constantly checking their watch: Chapters rush past with hurried snippets of biography, like the tragic death of Formander’s native Hawaiian wife and four of his five children. Turn a page and we’ve moved from biography to mythology, then just as quickly to biology. It is to Thompson’s credit that this narrative spans such a wide historical and intellectual range while keeping its focus so well-trained on that essential question: From where, when, how, and why did Polynesians conquer the Pacific? (No spoilers, you’ll have to piece it together on your own.) Along the way, Thompson never fails to note the relevant evidentiary claims and the still unanswered or unaccounted for pieces, pulling this reader, ever-curiously, forward.
The false turns, too, kept this reader on his toes. At one point, a miraculous archaeological dig suggests that, contrary to Maori oral tradition recorded by 19th-century Europeans, maybe New Zealand was settled by “a founding group of just ten or twenty young people.” But then hundreds of pages, and decades, later DNA evidence contradicts the archaeology; the DNA suggests a “much more genetically diverse” colonizing party ”than anyone had imagined,” except maybe the Maori storytellers, who said so in the first place. At another point, Thompson narrates Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 balsa-raft voyage from Peru that sets out to prove that Polynesians could have drifted from the western coast of South America. (The theory carried the sour taste of aiming to undermine “Polynesian navigational ability.”) But later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hokule’a, a canoe built and navigated by means of traditional Polynesian technologies, proves Polynesians didn’t drift, they navigated. In both cases, the Polynesian mythology was more accurate than post facto guesses after all.
Thompson’s message about the multiplicity of knowledge systems does not reaffirm the primacy of modern science, and that in itself is refreshing. (Her final chapter begins: “should we be surprised that the latest science brings us closer to the oral history of the Polynesians?”) Just as the overarching question of Polynesian origins marries the “romance of a great human adventure with a cool, cerebral awareness,” the book also reaches toward the merging of different ways of thinking; here Thompson offers not a binary (science vs myth) but a proliferation of knowledge frameworks: linguistics, oral history, computer science, anthropology, navigation, archaeology, etc. Thompson affirms a stance of intellectual appreciation, humility, and wonder. Each system has something to teach.
One of the best anecdotes in the book is, fittingly, one of learning. Mau, the Micronesian sage of navigation, who by means of the sea and sky alone guided the Hokule’a from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976, is convinced to return, four years later, to mentor an aspiring Hawaiian navigator. The young Nainoa had not grown up with the ancient traditions, but he wanted to learn: “he was weaving together the strands of two very different traditions, combining everything he had learned from school and books and the planetarium with everything he had learned from Mau about looking at the horizon, feeling the wind and waves.”
In the end, Nainoa was successful: “the first from Hawai’i in hundreds of years” to pilot thousands of miles of ocean without modern technology. “Only once during the voyage did Mau step in,” Thompson points out. Hours from their destination, Nainoa thought a bird was flying away from an unseen island; Mau, channeling decades of native navigational experience, reminded Nainoa to look at the food in the bird’s beak. The bird was flying toward the island. Thompson, like Mau, offers not only a body of knowledge, but a methodological lesson: Different systems of knowledge, be they evolutionary biology or Polynesian mythology, offer value in how they focus our attention on what we’re viewing—not just the bird itself, but also what it’s carrying. “Vision,” Thompson quotes Nainoa as saying, “Is not so much about just looking, but knowing what to look for.”
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.