My new episode of New Books in Anthropology is up — it’s an interview with Christina Thompson on her book The Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. It’s a history of European attempts to understand the prehistory of Polynesian and Austronesian migration. It’s a very well written and well-structured story that starts with the Spanish discovery of the Marquesas, goes through Kon Tiki and Hokule‘a, and ends with contemporary work. I was impressed by the amount of work that it covers, and how easily it goes down, and it was blurbed by Pat Kirch at Matt Matsuda so you know most of the details were right. I think this will be a go-to book for people who want to get started understanding the prehistory of the Pacific.
At the same time, I can imagine that some of my colleagues would take fault with the decision to write a book about white people studying the Pacific rather than just focusing on Pacific Islanders themselves. Christina has defended this choice — which I feel is a legitimate one — and notes that she covers people such as Nainoa Thompson and Te Rangi Hiroa. But I still felt this book read very much as a story of a Western project of knowing into which Pacific Islanders were eventually incorporated. I don’t know — maybe this reflects my own concern about how we conceptualise and tell anthropology’s history. Another shortcoming is the inevitable ‘what got left out’ question: While historical linguistics is mentioned, that story doesn’t get told in the detail it could. But of course it’s inevitable that a book tells some stories and not all others (at least, this is a problem all non-infinitely long books have).
My favourite aspect of this book is that it turned me on to the work of the wonderfully-named Willowdean Chatterson Handy. Christina’s section on her inspired me to read Handy’s Forever The Land Of Men, her memoir of doing fieldwork in the Marquesas in the 1920s alongside her husband and Ralph Linton. It is a hidden gem of a book and if you can find a copy I’d highly recommend it. I was particularly interested to see how thoughtful Handy was about the impact of colonialism in the Marquesas and her own positionally as a researcher. Inspired, I asked a friend of mine who studies the Marquesas what he thought of Willowdean.
“She was smarter than [her husband] Handy,” he said to me.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Everything the co-wrote is better than his solo publications!” He replied.
In sum, I recommend Christina’s book very warmly although I recognise it might not be framed in a way that will please everyone. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation!