... magnificent ... Sea People does a marvelous job of covering every line of inquiry into [the phenomenon of how a single culture spread across a 10-million-square-mile area]. It’s a grand, symphonic, beautifully written book, drawing on findings in anthropology, archaeology, oceanography, linguistics, DNA research, radiocarbon dating, and Polynesian myth and folklore as it examines a reality that, when first apprehended by Westerners, seemed to defy explanation.
Christina Thompson weaves together history, science, folklore and the islands’ ancient oral traditions, archeology and genealogy, creating a mesmerizing, page-turning account of Polynesia. Thompson includes an intriguing cast of characters ... Thompson’s personal interest in the subject was piqued by her Maori husband and sons, who are direct descendants of Polynesians. This deep curiosity shines through in the meticulous background and details she provides ... Thompson’s book sheds light on a fascinating region. Sea People is a revelatory summation of this vast area steeped in culture and tradition.
Thompson is certainly an engaging writer, deftly weaving her fascinating narrative of European travels and the newcomers' attempts to understand and 'crack' the Polynesian puzzle... But issues of European colonization are often glossed over ... Such eliding is perhaps a matter of length and focus, as well as a decision to move chronologically from the European perspective, but it's a shame that it isn't until the third part of the book (titled somewhat glibly 'Why Not Just Ask Them?') that Thompson begins to deeply explore the various Polynesian oral traditions that relate (often in tandem) genealogies, histories, myths, navigational lessons and practical skills and which have, in most recent scientific discovers, proved to be quite accurate in terms of timeline and historical voyaging.
One of the frustrations for Ms. Thompson, and inevitably for her readers, is that 'until the nineteenth century, everything Polynesians knew—or, indeed, had ever known—had to be transmitted by word of mouth.' There were no written Polynesian accounts to quote ... Ms. Thompson is at her best in two scenes of this trafficking in separate systems of knowledge ... Ms. Thompson writes well ... Her story lags occasionally during the academic infighting about different theories of Polynesian origin, though Ms. Thompson works hard to explain the contending ideas fairly, even the ones she may disagree with. At times, I also found myself adrift in descriptions of potential routes among some of the more obscure Pacific islands.
Where did they come from, when did they get there, and how? ... in Sea People, her fascinating and satisfying addition to an already considerable body of Polynesian literature, she succeeds admirably ... Thompson keep[s] up the gripping pace of this particularly exciting part of the story.
Thompson’s intellectual history takes the perspective of Western thinkers ... Respectful of that ownership, Thompson’s project traces the Western metahistory operating parallel to native stories: Rather than describing Polynesia’s history as told by Polynesians, she narrates how modern European, American, and Oceanian thinkers reconstructed this history ... she never lingers too long on any one period or figure ... Is it possible to accurately backdate original landings via remembered genealogical lineages? Thompson takes account of disciplinary advances like philology’s reconstruction of ancient languages and nuclear science’s breakthroughs in carbon dating, while noting the often racist undertones to some of these scientists’ assumptions ... Reading Thompson’s style, though learned and lyrical, can at times feel like being rushed through a museum by a charismatic docent who is also constantly checking their watch ... Along the way, Thompson never fails to note the relevant evidentiary claims and the still unanswered or unaccounted for pieces, pulling this reader, ever-curiously, forward.
An inspired history ... a beautifully woven narrative ... As Thompson smoothly traces the history of the Polynesians and their language and culture through discoveries in anthropology and archaeology, especially radiocarbon dating, she emphasizes the importance of the migrations of the Lapita people from Asia ... Thompson vividly captures the wondrousness of this region of the world as well as the sense of adventure tied up in that history.
...artfully written ... Thompson does not hesitate to point out erroneous thinking ... Along the way, she writes with infectious awe and appreciation about Polynesian culture and with sharp intelligence about the blind spots of those investigating it at different times. This fascinating work could prove to be the standard on the subject for some time to come.