Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson

Reviewed by David Starkey

Anyone who has looked out an airplane window while flying between the Americas and Asia has no doubt marveled at the vast expanse of water and the relatively few specks of land that dot the ocean, particularly in its northern and eastern regions. Christina’s Thompson’s Sea People successfully answers the questions: “How did anyone ever traverse and survive, much less thrive, in such a potentially hostile environment? And where did these people come from?”

For the majority of its existence, the culture of Polynesia was oral, so Thompson begins her book with written records of the earliest European explorers of the Pacific, appropriately focusing on the three long voyages of Captain James Cook. Yet Thompson—the editor of The Harvard Review—is never content to leave her account of the peopling of Polynesia in the hands of Europeans, and one of her most vivid chapters describes the aid provided to Cook by the Tahitian priest and navigator Tupaia. Other chapters discuss Polynesia Oral Traditions, the Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hīroa, and the misguided, publicity-loving Thor Heyerdahl.

I don’t think I’m giving away too many of the book’s revelations if I say that Polynesians come from Asia rather America, they have not been living on the islands as long as was once thought, and while it clearly takes great skill and daring to cross the world’s largest ocean in search of unknown islands, it turns out that, if you have a general idea of where you want to go and how to go about looking for land, discovering new islands isn’t quite as miraculous as one might think. As its subtitle suggests, Thompson presents her story as something of a puzzle, which she puts together in largely chronological fashion. It’s a testament to her skill as a narrator that we don’t simply turn to the final section, “What We Know Now,” and call it quits, but instead follow her across the centuries’ long zig-zagging course of insight and error to the present. It’s a remarkable achievement, and I enjoyed every page.