Seeking Polynesian navigation/exploration book recommendations
July 11, 2020 1:32 PM   Subscribe

The comments in this post made me realise that I know very little about the extent of the oceanic explorations made by Polynesians across the pacific. I'm looking for book recommendations (preferably non-fiction, but fiction is also ok). Academic accounts are also fine but must be readable to a non specialist. The only one I've read is The Last Navigator by Steve Thomas
posted by dhruva to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
We, The Navigators focuses on the techniques and history of Pacific canoe navigation with test voyages accompanying modern practicing sailors.
posted by migurski at 1:44 PM on July 11 [1 favorite]

I’ve had my eye on Sea People by Christina Thompson for a while.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:21 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]

Seconding Vaka Moana. It's a big book and not cheap, so check your library too. It is excellent though.

We, The Navigators is the classic book on the topic.
posted by Nelson at 3:25 PM on July 11

Kon Tiki
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 6:25 PM on July 11

Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki are the opposite of what the requestor is asking for. I imagine you mean well, but the recommendation is borderline offensive.
posted by Nelson at 7:33 PM on July 11 [3 favorites]

From an archaeological perspective, the best book on "how the Pacific was peopled" is probably still Geoffrey Irwin's "Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific" (1994). I looked around and ebay has a number of copies for a reasonable price (e.g.). While it's an academic book, it reads well, and while there have been some advances in knowledge (well quite a few) Irwin really brilliantly lays out a strategy for Pacific peopling which explains basic anomalies like, why was Rapa Nui discovered before New Zealand? And why do Polynesians never seem to have discovered Australia, but they did discover the Americas. Irwin is also the author of the excellent entry in Te Ara (The online NZ Encyclopedia) .

I'm not aware of a comparable archaeology book just on this topic. Patrich Kirch's "On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact" is a good book on the archaeology of the Pacific more generally. Vaka Moana as mentioned above does come to mind but my experience is it is more piecemeal and might be less accessible, but others reccommend it here so that seems like worthwhile advice! There are two main phases in the Polynesian expansion: the "Lapita" archaeological expansion around 3000 years ago into "near Polynesia", and the subsequent expansion throughout Polynesia as a whole a thousand years or more later. I can easily bundle up a bunch of archaeology papers on this topic for you if you are interested. But you may not be interested in the stones and bones aspect, though there are some really interesting sidebars archaeology can visit, such as the failed settlement on Henderson Island of the Pitcairn group. If not, then there are some great books on the topic of Polynesian navigation and seamanship.

"We the Navigators" mentioned by migurski above is a classic.

Ben Finney: "Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors" and "Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey through Polynesia" are both good books, though they cover similar ground. The former is more recent and might be preferable for that reason alone. These cover the story of the Hōkūleʻa, a replica Polynesian canoe which has been instrumental in reviving the navigational arts as well as a role in cultural revitilization, including a number of subsequent replica canoes.

Along similar lines, "An Ocean in Mind" by Will Kyselka is also very good.

"Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance" is a good book, scholarly and readable. I haven't read Christina Thompson's "Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia" but she appears to have something of an academic background and is probably in touch with the empirical world (there is so much pseudoarchaeology these days that it's hard to really reccommend things sight unseen).

Nainoa Thompson is a crucial figure in the transmission of navigational skills through the 20th century, but much of what he knew was taught by Mau Pilaug. I haven't read this book either but it might be useful: The Last Navigator: A Young Man, an Ancient Mariner, the Secrets of the Sea. )on preview you've read this).

Slightly orthogonal but an interesting contextual note is this book which traces the story of Tupaia, who guided Captain Cook around the Pacific.

If you get into this more, then topics like the genetics of Polynesian peoples and their commensals and domesticates are interesting - e.g., the Pacific Mulberry - though hard to find user-friendly exposés. And the most detailed origin stories of sea voyage are found in the Māori whakapapa, and drilling into those could be fascinating. Also, odd case studies like Henderson island (as mentioned) and of the dynamic human history of Rēkohu (Chatham Island) and the Moriori peoples are really interesting vignettes of human history. And of course Rapa Nui has been the site of some of the most vigorous pro- and anti- Jared Diamond debates.

Outside of books, the Wade Davis documentary "Light at the End of the World: The Wayfinders" is slightly cheesy but has some good sequences in it. Not sure of a high resolution online version, but this youtube video exists. This documentary "The Navigators" which extensively features Mau Pilaug is very watchable, as is the kind of hand-rolled "Papa Mau". There is also the 1990s BBC series "The Sea Nomads"

I agree with Nelson that "Kon-Tiki" is not where you should be looking for facts. But if you do some reading and feel comfortable in some more grounded and up to date ideas around the Peopling of the Pacific, then Kon Tiki is a classic case study in a failed approach in Archaeology and Anthropology, as well as in how some bad science can seize the public imagination if the time is right (in this case, post-WW 2 exhaustion). Watching the original 1950 movie from a position in the present with some knolwedge of the topic is actually quite informative about the biases of past Science. You can then follow Heyerdahl's career into the Ra expeditions and really get a sense for one expression of a naive at best, racist at worst, human tendency to look for connections, that persists nowadays in the obsession with Atlantis, Nazca, Norse in the Midwest, and Ancient Aliens.
posted by Rumple at 10:08 PM on July 11 [16 favorites]

I recently heard half of an interview with Andrew Crowe re his Pathway of the Birds: The Voyaging Achievements of Māori and their Polynesian Ancestors.

I haven't read it yet but Crowe's approach was "inspired by commonalities of language across the Pacific to describe nature: birds, plants, fish, stars". His books are normally amazing as I expect this one to be.
posted by unearthed at 11:19 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all your recommendations: I just received Christina Thompson's Sea People, thinking that I'll start with the book with the latest stuff and move backwards in time, so to speak.
posted by dhruva at 6:07 PM on July 25 [1 favorite]

Ooh, please let me know if you like it.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:25 PM on July 25

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