The Busy Reader

 

Pages in Motion. Passion for Stories.

Sea People

January 2, 2020

Video Length 2:20

Who Should Read It

Anyone with an interest in the 1000+ islands that lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

 

Why Should We Read It

The Polynesian Triangle is overlooked in most history books, and yet is the location of humanity’s most spectacular global migration event.

 

What Will We Learn

We will learn not only how the Polynesians discovered the islands in the Polynesian Triangle, but also how we came to discover this history.

 

Book Reflections

  "This book explores the origins of the Polynesian people..." 

 

I married a Taiwanese woman, and it is now my fate to visit her Motherland every year. It's very fun, and I look forward to the annual pilgrimage to see her family. I actually commemorated my very first trip to Taiwan with a blog post on Taiwan's comprehensive history. A second blog post reviewed a book that I bought in Taiwan itself! I wanted to continue the tradition with this year's trip, and I thought I could do it with Christina Thompson's Sea People. This book explores the origins of the Polynesian people, and I assumed Ms. Thompson would discuss the "out of Taiwan" theory. It is a prominent theory that suggests that the linguistic and genetic origin of modern-day Pacific Islanders might ultimately come from eastern Taiwan. Alas, Ms. Thompson barely mentions Taiwan at all! Instead, Sea People focuses specifically on historiography- the history of how we understood the history of Polynesia.

 

" 'Polynesia' consists of the 1000+ islands and atolls within the 'Polynesian Triangle', demarcated by New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island..."

 

The major reason why the "out of Taiwan" theory is not discussed is due to scope- she limits herself to Polynesia, not the entirety of Oceania. This was my first lesson: "Polynesia" actually denotes a very specific geographical area, and is not interchangeable with "Micronesia", "Melanesia", and "French Polynesia" (all of which refer to completely different geographic regions). For Ms. Thompson's purposes, "Polynesia" consists of the 1000+ islands and atolls within (yet another term) the "Polynesian Triangle"- the ten million square mile area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean demarcated by New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. Within this expansive region is, remarkably, a single cultural heritage based on seafaring. Taiwan is over seven thousand kilometers from the nearest island in the Polynesian Triangle (Tuvalu), with another set of 1000+ islands and atolls between the two. No wonder there is no room to discuss Taiwan!

 

"Exactly how [the ancient Polynesians] accomplished this feat [of discovering all of Polynesia's islands] was unknown."

 

How did the ancient Polynesians get to all these tiny islands in such a vast ocean? European explorers in the 1580's assumed they were a remnant population from the mythical, partially sunken continent of "Terra Australis". Sir James Cook's fieldwork subsequently revised them to be expert ocean navigators who needed neither map nor compass to locate every sandbar and coral reef within the Polynesian Triangle. Exactly how they accomplished this feat was unknown; Western sailors could not conceptualize the Polynesians' seafaring techniques, nor understand how their outrigger boats could withstand the Pacific winds. Some scholars even wondered if the Polynesians were, in fact, drifting survivors inadvertently blown out to sea. This was dramatically refuted in 1976 with a modern-day, proof-of-concept voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti using only traditional Polynesian navigation techniques.

 

"'Genetic studies suggest that the story is more complicated than a simple linear and steady progression from Taiwan to Easter Island."

 

Who were these ancient Polynesians, and when did they enter the Polynesian Triangle? Genetic studies do lend credence to the "out of Taiwan" theory; these same genetic studies also suggest that the story is more complicated than a simple linear and steady progression from Taiwan to Easter Island. The most current hypothesis- drawing from linguistic analyses, archaeological digs, and even deep dives into oral traditions- proposes that the Polynesians reached Samoa and Tonga by 900 BCE, and then mysteriously stopped sailing for 2000 years. Then, just as mysteriously, they propelled themselves into the open seas again, rapidly inhabiting every island in the Polynesian Triangle. This expansion was so recent and so quick that perhaps only 400 years elapsed from the time of first landfall in New Zealand to time of first contact with Europeans!

 

"It becomes nearly unfathomable for me to reflect what 10 million square miles of open ocean must feel like."

 

My wife and my itinerary for this year’s Taiwan trip took us from Taipei to the Sun Moon Lake area, and then to the Yilan County hot springs. It is a respectable itinerary, and yet only a sliver of what 13,800 square miles of Taiwan has to offer. It becomes nearly unfathomable for me to reflect what 10 million square miles of open ocean must feel like. To the ancient Polynesians, this space was simply home. Major kudos to Christina Thompson for bringing the story of the ancient Polynesians closer my home, both in California and in Taiwan!

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