The Pacific riddle: How did they get there?“ Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia”

by Christina Thompson;
HarperCollins, 2019; 324 pp., $12.80

Book review by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

Ask any third-grade class how humans arrived on the far-flung islands of Polynesia and you’ll probably get some of the same answers that grown-ups offered until fairly recently: God put them there; they walked there before the continents rearranged themselves; they were already there and the oceans rose around them. In other words, a host of disparate ideas.

The world didn’t know much about Polynesia – a huge triangle of sea sprinkled with thousands of islands, with the points of the triangle at Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand – until Captain James Cook set out for Tahiti from England in August, 1768. It’s not that others hadn’t gone before. But their discoveries were largely accidental.

Those early voyages were haphazard at best, and fraught with peril. Someone would find an island, but didn’t know exactly how he’d gotten there, and, besides, the natives weren’t nice, so nobody would go back for another 500 years. But things started to coalesce with the 1721 voyage of a Dutch navigator, Jacob Roggeveen, who stumbled upon what became Easter Island, totally deforested, with its great stone statues, or moai. What the heck? Who had done this and how?

Roggeveen sailed on, visiting more islands, but the reports of his findings, coupled with the reports of other European explorers, had lit a spark. What was this paradise?

But once free of the Seven Years’ War, the British Navy found itself with a surplus of warships and experienced seamen. Let’s go exploring!

So when George Robertson returned to England aboard the Dolphin and told Cook about the island of Tahiti, Cook, a masterful surveyor, set out on the Endeavor to try and make some sense of this faraway place. And so Polynesia began to take shape.

In “Sea People,” Christina Thompson takes us on a fascinating voyage of an often-misunderstood corner of earth, a huge piece of ocean scattered with thousands of far-flung islands, most tiny and unknown, others large and now famous. She posits theories about the settlement of the islands then plunges into a robust examination of the evidence.

Did settlers sail from the east, against the Trades, or from the west? If domesticated dogs or pigs were found on one island, but not another, what did that say about the inhabitants? When modern archaeological studies began to unearth pottery and tools, what did those tell us about the origins of that society? What keys did linguistics hold?

When physical evidence made it clear that these early, primitive settlers had moved between islands, often thousands of miles apart in dangerous seas, how was that accomplished without any navigational tools? Clearly, the people who settled these islands, and moved frequently about them in small canoes, were expert navigators. Even with the most modern navigational equipment, ships and boats still come to grief in these reef-strewn waters or overshoot their objectives. How did these early settlers know where they were going?

“Sea People” is no high school history text. Thompson is deeply curious about the mysteries she explores. And she is curious about her characters, particularly the explorers who risked so much and suffered so greatly in pursuit of knowledge. Her writing is lively, often funny and even sarcastic as she describes the various characters and their sometimes silly, preposterous theories.

For example, she clearly has little patience for the navigator Roggeveen.

When the navigator writes, “To make an end and conclusion of all the islands which we have discovered and found to be peopled, there remains merely the presenting of the following speculative question, which seems to me must be placed among those questions which exceed the understanding, and therefore are to be heard, but answered with silence.”

Thompson helps him out: “This question, which is almost completely obscured by Roggeveen’s tortured syntax – a sign perhaps of how difficult it was for him even to think – was, in essence: Who are all these people and how did they end up here?”

And that is the premise of this wonderful book.

Co-founder of Points East, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor.