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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

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How the Polynesians Made Odysseus Look Like a Day-Tripper

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2019

Hōkūle’a (Photo: Unknown)

In the early 1990s, on an assignment for National Geographic, I made a trek on horseback around Easter Island, with a couple of islanders as guides. I still vividly recall wandering just before sunset through the quarry where the celebrated statues, called mo‘ai, were carved, and then sitting on a cliff staring out at the curvature of the Earth and the great emptiness of the Pacific. Reviewing this book brought some of those memories back.

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

As HMS Endeavour was preparing to leave Tahiti in July 1769, after a tropical sojourn of four months, a celebrated Polynesian priest and navigator named Tupaia announced that he wished to join the British in their travels. James Cook, commander of the expedition, demurred at first. But with a nudge from the expedition’s naturalist Joseph Banks, he relented, allowing that Tupaia “was the likeliest person to answer our purpose.”

This soon proved to be the case at sea, where the new passenger’s navigational guidance through the intricacies of the Society Islands proved extraordinarily precise. But Tupaia’s real value only became evident on land, three months later, as Cook struggled to make peaceful contact with the Māori. The Endeavour had by then traveled 3,500 miles from Tahiti, Christina Thompson writes in “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia,” and “there was nothing in the geography of New Zealand to suggest that the people who lived there might have anything in common with the people in the tropical islands they had left behind.”

The first encounter at Poverty Bay had gone badly, with bloodshed on the Māori side. “The following day, Cook tried again, this time taking two additional precautions,” Ms. Thompson continues. “First, he landed with a party of marines, and, second, he took Tupaia with him.” Again, the situation deteriorated, with about a hundred Māori brandishing their weapons and staging a haka, their ferocious war dance. The marines advanced in turn, with the Union Jack in front. “The stage was set for a confrontation—and then something unexpected occurred. Tupaia stepped forward and addressed the warriors in fluent Tahitian and, to the surprise of everyone present, he was immediately understood.”

The violence suddenly drained out of the scene, and the strangeness and immensity of the Polynesian accomplishment became apparent. “It is extraordinary,” Cook would later write, “that the same Nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this Vast Ocean . . . which is almost a fourth part of the circumference of the Globe.” What’s now called “the Polynesian Triangle” encompasses 10 million square miles of water, with the northern apex at Hawaii and the base stretching from New Zealand in the southwest to Easter Island in the southeast.

Let’s put that extraordinary expanse in terms that might make it a little more meaningful for landbound readers: New Zealand is of course southeast of Australia. But Easter Island is some 4,000 miles further east, on about the same longitude as Salt Lake City. For the north-south extent, think Mexico City down to southern Argentina. The -+ is not only unfathomably vast but also contains so little habitable land that, as Ms. Thompson puts it, the surprise is that “anyone ever found anything at all.”

And yet somehow, she writes, “all the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a ‘portmanteau biota’ of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. They had no knowledge of writing or metal tools—no maps or compasses—and yet they succeeded in colonizing the largest ocean on the planet, occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galapagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.” It remains one of the great achievements in all of human exploration.

Ms. Thompson’s previous book, “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All,” wove the history of New Zealand together with her own story of being a Boston academic married to a Māori laborer. In “Sea People,” she forgoes the personal, except to acknowledge being pleased “to think that my children share in this breathtaking genealogy.” Her purpose is to learn how the Polynesians did it, and how we know what they did.

These have never been simple questions. 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, and “the answers that Polynesians gave were confusing to Europeans: they were not framed with the right sort of knowledge, and did not address the right points or provide the sort of information that Europeans were after. It is easy to forget just how different people once were from one another.” Critical parts of the story fell out as the two sides “traded across the epistemological gap.”

Ms. Thompson is at her best in two scenes of this trafficking in separate systems of knowledge. The first is of Cook and Tupaia, “two brilliant navigators,” working together to comprehend each other’s methods. A copy of a chart on which they collaborated survives, “a translation of Tahitian geographical knowledge into European cartographic terms at the very first moment in history when such a thing might have been possible.” Ms. Thompson calls it a miracle. But it was also inevitably a muddle. The Polynesian’s physical world “was less like a set of discrete, objective phenomena” that Cook could readily grasp “and more like a web of connections” linking “gods, ancestors, humans, fish, birds, insects, rocks, clouds, winds, and stars.”

The other powerful scene begins in the 1960s, as a British sailor and explorer named David Lewis first comes to recognize that much of Polynesian navigational knowledge survives among seagoing old men in remote islands. These navigators still lacked even modern compasses, relying instead on the rising or setting points of a succession of stars, typically 10 in a night, to follow a “star path” from one island to the next. Bird lore, cloud lore and the lore of sea currents—the way the “long swell” from the southeast and the “sea swell” from the east-northeast passed “through each other like the interlocked fingers of two hands”—were also factors in reading the seascape.

Lewis helped locate an islander named Mau, who was schooled in these methods and would be the entire navigation system for a daring attempt to re-create long-distance Polynesian voyaging. On May 1, 1976, Hōkūle’a (“Star of Joy”), a replica of a traditional double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe, sailed from Hawaii to attempt the 2,600-mile run to Tahiti. Aboard were a largely Hawaiian crew, plus Lewis to record Mau’s navigational methods, plus an anthropologist named Ben Finney intent on refuting an academic idea then current that the Polynesians had merely drifted to their island homes, plus the customary “portmanteau biota” of dog, pig, chicken and so on. Five weeks later, Mau’s star path having proved true, the canoe sailed into the harbor at Papeete, Tahiti, where 17,000 islanders—and even a church choir singing a Tahitian hymn—had gathered to celebrate a moment of Polynesian “cultural triumph” and renewal.

Ms. Thompson writes well—for instance, when she describes “le mirage tahitien” as “that constellation of images of indolence and hedonism that still cluster about Polynesia today.” Or when she writes of the endless voyaging: “Mile upon mile of ocean slipped by; masses of cloud swept in and were torn away by the wind; the sea rose, whipped to a froth, and then fell to a smooth, flat calm.”

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. Maps indicating not just where different islands are located but also what prevailing winds might work either for or against a navigator’s chances of getting to them would have been helpful. Modern readers may find themselves agog at the idea of HMS Bounty being stymied for a month by headwinds at Cape Horn en route to Tahiti and finally turning around to get there by sailing an extra 10,000 miles in the opposite direction. But the odds faced and overcome by Polynesian sailors were often more daunting.

In the end, according to Ms. Thompson, the puzzle of where the Polynesians came from is being resolved largely by DNA and updated radiocarbon dating. The two technologies together suggest that the ancestors of the Polynesians, called Lapita, emerged from Indonesia and the Philippines in about 900 B.C., striking out into the western Pacific. But the DNA of modern Polynesians also indicates a separate ancestral source inside Melanesia, the area roughly from Papua New Guinea east to Tonga and Samoa. Contrary to their romantic image as restless explorers, the Polynesians seem largely to have remained in that region until about A.D. 1000.

“Having reached so far out into the Pacific,” Ms. Thompson asks, with something like consternation, “what kept them sitting there for nearly two thousand years?” And then, “as though they had been suddenly pricked into action, what made them set out and conquer the ten million square miles of the Polynesian Triangle?” This is the real shocker, which she addresses only at the end of the book and too briefly: “According to the new orthodoxy, none of the archipelagoes of central and eastern Polynesia (the Society Islands, Hawai’i, the Marquesas, Easter Island, the Cooks) is thought to have been settled before the end of the first millennium A.D., while the discovery and settlement of New Zealand was pushed as far forward as A.D. 1200.” That makes Tupaia’s ability to be understood by the Māori at Poverty Bay suddenly more natural: They were practically cousins. It also appears, says Ms. Thompson, “to corroborate the chronologies” that various scholars have inferred “from Polynesian oral traditions,” particularly tales of “bold expeditions, stirring adventures, and voyages undertaken to far-off lands” within relatively recent memory.

What it also means is that these seagoing people accomplished their astonishing migrations, occupying what Cook wonderingly called “almost a fourth part” of the globe, in a matter of just a few hundred years. Why did they do it? What suddenly changed? The puzzle of the Polynesians endures.


Richard Conniff is an award-winning science writer. His books include The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (W. W. Norton, 2011).


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