Sea People


Christina Thompson




Date Reviewed:

October 1, 2022

he subtitle of Sea People is The Puzzle of Polynesia. It puzzled the early European explorers that so many remote Pacific islands, isolated from each other by thousands of miles of open ocean, could all be settled by people from the islands of East Asia. Where did the Polynesians come from, and how did they get to these distant islands? This book covers the quest to answer those questions.

The first part of the book is interesting. It describes the early European explorers who crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean, and their amazement at finding the widely scattered Polynesians. The winds and the currents made it seem unlikely that the Polynesians could have come from east Asia - so did they sail from South America instead? But the Polynesians all had pigs, dogs, and chickens, and none of those animals are indigenous to South America. One early theory was that the Polynesians had inhabited a huge land mass that had sunk into the Pacific, leaving only a few scattered island above the waves!

The middle part of the book is duller. It describes how the Europeans, who were obsessed with race, tried to classify the Polynesians. Some scientists considered them Aryans! They measured skulls, skin color and every other metric they could find, but could conclude nothing from the data.

Surprisingly, New Zealand was the last of the islands settled by the Polynesians - it wasn't until about 1280 that the first colonizers reached New Zealand and became the Maori. Unfortunately, this led quickly to extinction of some of New Zealand's unique bird species, including the huge moa birds and the gigantic Haast's eagles that preyed on the moas. (The Haast eagle is the largest eagle known to have existed, it weighed thirty-three pounds, as was large enough to have attacked and killed humans).

The discovery of radiocarbon dating is concisely explained, and why it was such a boon to anthropologists - now they could get good estimates how old objects were. I did not know that fluctuations in Earth's van Allen belts result in the variants in how much carbon-14 is created by cosmic rays, and these fluctuations must be calibrated out.

Eventually, digging deeply, scientists discovered pottery fragments. This was an astonishing find, because the extant Polynesians did not have pottery. This meant the islands were settled by a culture who did know how to make pottery. These original people were called the Lapita.

One chapter describes Thor Heyerdahl and his theory that a race of white men from South America built rafts of balsa wood, and drifted on these rafts to populate Polynesia. Heyerdahl constructed one of these rafts, which he dubbed Kon-Tiki and set out to prove that Tahiti could be reached from South America. (What usually goes unmentioned is that the Kon-Tiki had to be towed 50 miles out to sea to reach the Humbolt current - if the Kon-Tiki had departed from the coast, the currents would have deposited Heyerdahl further north on the South American coast line.) Unable to steer the craft, Heyerdahl and his crew drifted past several islands before eventually cracking up on a reef after a journey of thousands of miles. Heyerdahl did prove it was possible to survive at sea by capturing fish and drinking rain water, and he was celebrated for his achievement, even though his theories were completely wrong. The only bit of evidence that Polynesians had any contact with South America is their possession of sweet potatoes, which are native there. At some point Polynesians must have reached South America, but did not establish any permanent colonies.

Chapter 23 tells the story of an anthropologist named Ben Finney who decide to build a traditional double-hulled Polynesian catamaran and sail it using only traditional navigational techniques. His first attempt at building one, the Nahelia, was improperly built and it failed to reach Tahiti from Hawaii. Finney's second attempt was christened the Hōkūle'a, which is Hawaiian for Star of Joy (the Hawaiian name for Arcturus). Finney found a man named Pius Piailug (nicknamed Mau) who knew traditional navigation techniques on the Caroline Island - Mau would serve as navigator. The rest of Finney's crew was a mix of haoles (white people) and native Hawaiians. The Hōkūle'a attracted huge crowds as it sailed around the Hawaiian islands. The beach would be thronged with people, in the 1970s there was a revival of interest in original Hawaiian culture, and the Hōkūle'a was a stunning symbol of that culture. Some people argued that the Hōkūle'a should only be crewed by native Hawaiians. On May 1, 1976, the Hōkūle'a set sail from Maui, guided only by Mau and his traditional techniques. It reached the capital of Tahiti on June 4, demonstrating that directed sailing over the vast Pacific was indeed possible (some scholars had argued that the Polynesians had reached the distant islands because they were blown out sea during storms and happened to drift to the new islands). It was a stunning achievement.

The final chapters summarize our current state of thinking about the puzzle of Polynesia. Using modern tools of DNA sequencing and calibrated radio-carbon dating, it is now believed that the Polynesian migrations occurred only a few hundred years before their encounters with the European explorers. Circa 1000 A.D. is when the far flung islands were estimated to be colonized. The Polynesians did navigate (rather than drift) their canoes over the vast stretches of the Pacific, perhaps sailing back and forth between the various colonies. We will never know how many canoes were lost in these Polynesian explorations, nor what drove them to make these perilous voyages. But sail they did, and their feats can be appreciated today.