These are the questions at the core of Sea People, an elegantly written and superbly researched survey of a great geographical and historical puzzle. Thompson’s focus is on a swathe of the mid-Pacific called the Polynesian Triangle, with its extreme points at New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island. The Polynesians, with their shared cultural, linguistic and biological ties, are found on islands throughout this area, which measures roughly ten thousand square miles (about a third of the size of Africa). Thompson points out that despite the vastness and inhospitality of this region and the fact that the Polynesians did not have the advantages of writing, maps or compasses, the colonisation of these islands was so rapid and comprehensive that it left them both the ‘most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world’.
As she puts it, the story of Polynesia’s settlement is less about what happened and more about how we know what happened. Sea People is, at heart, a tale about the history of knowledge: how it is gained, how it is corroborated or challenged, and how, above all, it is shaped by the knowledge-makers themselves. Like a donnish whodunnit (Thompson’s prose is engaging, but distinctly authoritative), the question of Polynesia’s origins is examined through successive historic epochs... Where Sea People really breaks new ground is in Thompson’s ability to unpick not just the evolving (and sometimes revolving) research findings, but the personalities and prejudices of the researchers themselves. Time and again, she shows how insights were missed and opportunities lost because of the questioners’ inability to look outside their own cultural prism... Sea People does a superb job of highlighting the cultural complexities inherent in knowledge creation