The Puzzle of Polynesia
It’s rare for a book of non-fiction to catch the interest of the reading public in the United States, much less a book on the history of science in the Pacific. But Christina Thompson‘s Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (Harper, 2019) has managed to do just that. When Europeans first discovered the Pacific they were amazed that people living as far away as Tahiti and Aotearoa/New Zealand spoke the same language, shared the same culture, and sailed between islands with an ease that confounded the European imagination. Thompson’s carefully-researched and clearly-written book tells the story of historians, archaeologists, folklorists, anthropologists, and others who developed current theories of Pacific prehistory. Drawing on memoirs of both scientists and indigenous activists who are reviving traditional voyaging today, Thompson’s book will likely become a standard text for anyone interested in dipping their toes in Pacific history. In this episode of the podcast, she talks with Alex Golub about how she chose to frame the book, her personal entanglements with the Pacific, her focus on little-known pioneers such as Willowdean Handy, and the politics of writing a book some might criticize as too focused on Western forms of knowledge rather than the Pacific ones.
A dual citizen of Australia and the United States, Christina Thompson received her Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne. She has served as the editor of the Australian literary journal Meanjin and is currently the editor of Harvard Review. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All was shortlisted for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He is the author of the article “Welcoming the New Amateurs: A future (and past) for non-academic anthropologists” as well as other books and articles.