Review: Sea People

twitter threads, book review, Pacific

I recently finished the book 《Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia》by @cathompsn and really loved it. It is the kind of book I’ve wanted to read for a long time and so I was not only happy to find it, but also discover that it was so well done.

(Link to Twitter thread.)

Of course, Polynesia is not a puzzle” to the people living there, and so this is very much an outsider’s perspective. Some have criticized that, but I think @cathompsn has done a fairly good job of addressing that in the book.

In fact, if overall story of the book is the history of outsiders trying to understand the story of the settlement of Polynesia, a big chuck of that is about how Polynesian perspectives were (or weren’t) incorporated into that process and why.

This is actually the most fascinating aspect of the book, which is very much a history of how Indigenous knowledge is incorporated into science and even the reverse as well.

We learn about the first efforts to write down Polynesian oral histories, the people who did that, and the problems with their methods. About efforts to reconstruct Polynesian navigation techniques and what we know about how they worked. Etc.

It was the stuff on Polynesian navigation that I especially loved (and was one of the main reasons I had picked up the book). I feel that this part of the story was told especially well, both as a history of knowledge and as a gripping narrative.

There are also sections on archaeology, genetics, and earlier forms of population science. That some of these earlier scientific approaches were tied up in racist projects is not exactly ignored (she does mention it), but I felt it could have been given greater emphasis.

Listening to an interview with Alex Golub, the author explains how her approach sought to place the struggles of European scholars and explorers in their historical context, but I sometimes feel that the problems was not enough context, not too little.

Perhaps there is a sense that this earlier racist science was so obviously wrong that it isn’t worth discussing in-depth, but unfortunately that is not the case. Far too many people still believe such supposedly disproven racist theories.

This is also why I wish the final section on the genetic data had been longer and more in-depth as well. This is complicated stuff and really deserves its own book length treatment. (Such a book should probably look more broadly at Austronesia.)

But for anyone who is interested in not just the story of the peopling of (and navigating!) Polynesia, but in how we know what we know about this story, this is a well researched and well written introduction to the topic.