Author: Christina Thompson
Source: from publisher for review
Summary: A mostly entertaining look at how our theories about unrecorded history evolve, with a few slow bits.
“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,” (source) and how people have tried to answer it, is the focus of this book.
I started this book shortly after reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, which had a downright colonial perspective. I was worried this would be the same, but was hoping for a focus on Polynesian perspectives. I think it delivered to the extent possible on this topic. It seems that most surviving records from the earliest time periods the author covers are from Europeans. Unlike Winchester though, the author doesn’t treat this as the only perspective that matters. She shares European accounts of Polynesian origin stories. She also discusses the limitations of the European records, due to their perspective or lack of knowledge. Where possible, she gives some informed speculation about the ways the perspectives of the Polynesians might differ.
The content of the book was fascinating, a great blend of history, culture, and natural history. It’s amazing that the Polynesian islands were colonized as early as they were. I enjoyed learning about the many different theories of how that came to be. It was interesting to learn about methods we can use to learn about historical events that weren’t recorded or when records are spotty or unreliable. For the most part, I thought the author included a great collection of fun facts. Her enthusiasm was infectious. At the end though, the book started to drag. One of the last sections focuses on the details of many, poorly supported theories that Europeans came with up for the order in which the islands were colonized. The theories didn’t build on each other. There was no forward momentum. It was more like reading a list, a very detailed list with items it was hard to keep track of. Things did pick back up, with a look at modern recreation of voyages and some modern science, but the book had lost it’s drive for me. I’d still recommend it if the topic particularly interests you, but it’s definitely not my favorite history.