Sea People [Christina Thompson]

Goodreads link.

Start date: 26 August 2019

Finish date: 27 November 2019

Source: Brooklyn Public Library ebook


  • This took a really long time to read because I was determined to take notes on it along the way instead of just reading through and recording impressions and memories. What that meant practically is that I never read it in bed, or on a bus, or anywhere where I couldn’t use a notebook. It was very like the Akira Kurosawa quote featured on Zen Pencils. The downside is that I read it super slowly, and didn’t start new books also because I couldn’t bear the thought of being behind on note taking on two books. Life is pain.
  • If there was a major theme that I noticed in the book as a whole, I think it’s to highlight the tendency of people to force fit the facts to a grand theory; and for the evidence to knock that theory over. More on this later.
  • Now, for the chapter by chapter breakdown.

Part I Chapter 01: A Very Great Sea

  • Sundaland was a continuous continent from Western Malaysia / Thailand coast, up to Bali and Boreno. Sahul was a continous continent running from Australia to New Guinea. This was in the ice age, when sea levels were much lower.
  • Magellan was the first to cross the Pacific in a single voyage. It took him three years, destroyed two of his three ships, and only 10% of his crew survived.
  • Age of Sail navigators were convinced that something called Terra Australis Incognita existed – a continent in the southern hemisphere that would balance out the weight of all the land in the northern hemisphere, and went frantic looking for it. A real life Counterweight Continent from the Discworld, and Terry Pratchett’s Nation is pretty much the alternate universe where TAI does exist.

Part I Chapter 02: Mendaña in the Marquesas

  • The first European Polynesian contact: Alvaro de Mendaña in 1595, at the Marquesa Islands, also known as Fatu Hiva
  • Mendaña got excited and believed that this was an outlying island of Terra Australis Icongnita.

Part I Chapter 03: Barely an Island at All

  • South Pacific winds (the Roaring Forties, etc) get so fast because there’s no landmass to break them
  • Without Suez or Panama canals in place, Europe to Pacific had to be done either by rounding the Cape of Good Hope (which was much longer as a route) or by rounding Cape Horn, which was a shorter route but deadly dangerous.
  • Alternately, the Straits of Magellan, which had unpredictable winds and currents.
  • I learned about the Ghyben Herzberg lens, the ability of fresh water to float above seawater and provide drinking water for islanders in atoll environments.

Part I Chapter 04: Outer Limits

  • New Zealand was first spotted by Abel Tasman
  • Easter Island being devoid of trees raises the mystery of how the Easter Islaanders were able to erect such stupendous maoi without timber supports. Archaeology eventually revealed that Easter Island used to have trees, but a complete deforestation had taken place. If this deforestation had been done by, or during the time of Polynesian settlement, that would have meant the settlers would have been trapped there for centuries, unable to build canoes to leave Easter Island again.
  • Roggeven was the first European to realise that all Polynesians are very similar.

Part II Chapter 01: Tahiti: The Heart of Polynesia

  • The end of the Seven Years War freed up European navies from combat duty, allowing them – particularly the British navy – to go explore the Pacific.
  • The failure of the Transit of Venus observations in 1761 made people desperate to get it right in 1769; but the 1769 one would only be observable in uncharted areas of the Pacific. The Royal Society hired James Cook and his Endeavour to observe it from any place he could find. This reminded me of all the things I had heard in the In Our Time episode about Venus.
  • There was nothing known between the Marquesa Islands and Tonga.
  • Just before the Endevaour departed, the Dolphin returned with news of Tahiti.
  • Tahiti is the centroid of the Polynesian triangle; and turned out to be a Goldilocks location for observing the Transit of Venus – but also turned out to be in the Goldilocks location for navigation, and for weather.
  • The Tahitians initially thought that the Dolphin was a floating island, and not a ship – we know this from a missionary asking old timers or descendants thirty years after the Dolphin‘s visit.
  • Nails became currency in Tahiti to purchase food and sex – sailors took out the ones tethering their hammocks and started sleeping on the deck instead. The carpenter was worried about the ability of the ship to hold together.
  • Bougainville arrived in Tahiti when Tahitians were already used to Europeans, skipped the war with Polynesians, and went straight to trade, hospitality and prostitution, which is the source of the French vision of Tahiti as a Polynesian idyll.

Part II Chapter 02: A Man of Knowledge

  • We learn about Tupaia, the wise man/ adept who Cook meets once he reaches Tahiti to carry out the Transit of Venus observations.
  • Tupaia’s visited twelve islands himself, knows of even more second hand, and even more through oral tradition – two thousand miles of an east to west stretch.
  • Banks ethnography: how to build canoes, Tahitins disgusted that Europeans didn’t shave their armpits, and that men and women shared the same food.
  • Tupaia decides to join the Endeavour on the way back to England, and Banks said, sure, join.
  • Because of the reputation for prostitution, Tahiti’s highest point was named Mount Venus; and Cook prohibited using nails and clamped down on the black market.

Part II Chapter 03: Tupaia’s Chart

  • In which we learn that Tupaia made a chart of the Pacific islands.
  • Are the Society Islands named after the Royal Society? According to Wikipedia, Cook named them Society because “they lay contiguous to one another.”
  • Cook kept heading south with hopes of discovering Terra Australis Incognita but found nothing, have up, and turned west between 37 and 40 degrees South.
  • Tupaia’s chart doesn’t match an actual map at all, and there have been various reasons proposed for this.
  • Hypothesis 1: South / north mixed up with southerly/ northernly winds; but Cook made edits to Tupaia’s chart for whatever islands he already knew about.
  • Hyopthesis 2: the map is not of actual NSEW co-ordinates, but of instructions of how to move; in Polynesian relative/ subjective (egocentric?) language. This connects up with Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass.
  • Thomson draws a comparison to Saul Steinberg’s View from 9th Avenue.
  • An explanation of how the star compass works.

Part II Chapter 04: An Aha Moment

  • This chapter is all about the fact that almost all Polynesian languages are mutually intelligible (Tonga is an exception).
  • First indication for this was when Tupaia from Tahiti was able to talk to the Maori of New Zealand.
  • Cook noted three similarities:
    • appearance of the islanders
    • material culture
    • and most of all, language
  • I learned that one of the Grimm brothers had worked on the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European.
  • The Principle of Regularity in linguistics is that all words from mother language will have the same sound shifts to the daughter language.
  • Tahitian has multiple stringed vowels, e.g.: Fa’a’a airport
  • The Austronesian language family covers Polynesia, Micronesia, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
  • Tupaia died in Indonesia.

Part III Chapter 01: Drowned Continents and Other Theories

  • Cook’s voyages opened up the Pacific to European traders and whalers
  • Port services and towns on Polynesian islands followed, as did colonisation
  • This in turn led to European – Polynesian communication and sharing of Polynesian history and myth
  • A mystery opened up: was Polynesia settled west to east, or east to west?
    • Prevailing winds support the idea of east to west
    • South American culture and language being so different from Polynesia undercuts this idea
    • An Asia – Siberia – Aleutians – Americas – Polynesia route was suggested to resolve these two opposing pieces of evidence
    • Another theory: Polynesia is the highlands of a submerged continent

Part III Chapter 02: A World Without Writing

  • Discusses the same Kazakh villager response to odd-one-out tests that came in the EconTalk episode about Range.
  • Tahitians were disgusted at the idea of fiction – is this a parallel to how certain Hindutvists insist on the Mahabharata being iti-haas?
  • The Tahitians thought that fiction was immoral and a form of lying.
  • Polynesian Cosmogony has two standout themes:
    • Everything, animate or inanimate, is a family member to something else
    • Everything is created through a sort of sex between two other things

Part III Chapter 03: The Aryan Maori

  • 19th Century anthropologists who read or heard Polynesian myths saw similarities to Atlas, Zeus Pater, and Genesis – and then concluded that Polynesians were descended from Greeks, Jews, or Aryans.
  • My editorialising on this is that it shows the danger of focusing on similarities rather than differences.
  • Overall, too many people were succumbing to the temptation of a Grand Unifying Theory. Grand Unifying Theories, taken ironically or not, are also seen in: The Da Vinci Code, Foucault’s Pendulum, @stupidosaurus’s tweets linking EVMs, Aadhaar, the CIA, and the British Royal Family, that paragraph from American Gods, and also the one from Good Omens.

Part III Chapter 04: A Viking in Hawaii

  • Thomas Fornander: a Swede who dropped out of university, became a whaler / sailor, and eventually got off the ship in Hawaii; and took Hawaiian subjectship so that he could marry his Hawaiian girlfriend.
  • His wife and four kids died – the aftermath of Polynesians falling victim to Europeans bringing epidemics with them
  • The Polynesian pandemics led to a race to record and preserve Polynesian customs and lore before population collapse led to them dying completely.
  • Fornander wrote a book as part of that, and dedicated it to his surviving daughter / in memory of his wide
  • Fornander latched on to the Aryan origin theory.

Part III Chapter 05: Voyaging Stories: History and Myth

  • No special takeaways

Part IV: The Rise of Science

Part IV Chapter 01: Somatology

  • Early 20th Century millionaires found it fashionable to fund anthropological research expeditions
  • Bayard Dominick Jr, a Wall Street millionaire, funded the Bayard Dominick expeditions, which sent teams to Tonga, the Marquesas, the Australs, and Hawaii.
  • The expeditions were despeate to fit Polynesians into known ‘races’ rather than examine them as they were.
  • There’s a bit about the difficulty of conducting a rigorous statistical analysis with 1920-1930s equipment and methods on body measurements which reminds me of my idea of Neural Net driven Big Data Neophreonology!

Part IV Chapter 02: A Maori Anthropologist

  • Peter H Buck / Te Rangi Hiroa was a half-Irish half-Maori medical student who became a doctor and also an anthropologist after moving to Honolulu.
  • This is the time when the Northern (Melanesian) vs Southern (Micronesian) origin hypotheses came up.
  • Racism meant that Melanesians were thought black (-ish?) and Polynesians to be Aryan. Te Rangi Hiroa couldn’t get US citizenship despite this classification, to his annoyance – which reminds me of the Bhagat Singh Thind case. Maoris were thought to be a Melanesian / Polynesian mixed race.

Part IV Chapter 03: The Moa Hunters

  • 1840s-50s brought the realisation that man and moa coexisted
  • Guy called Hoast said: Maori were obviously Neolithic, the moa obviously Paleolithic, therefore someone was in New Zealand before the Maori
  • Moa exacations and other archaeology at Wairau brought in a new theory of small settlements and local evolution of culture instead of huge migrations across the ocean

Part IV Chapter 04: Radiocarbon Dating

  • Anthropologist Kenneth Emory wrote a WW2 survival guide for aviators, on what to do if they crashed on a desert island.
  • Due to an absence of pottery in Polynesian excavations, fishhooks were used instead when it came to radiocarbon dating.
  • I learned that the radiocarbon dating formula isn’t a formula, but something that has to be calibrated for magnetic field changes, sunspot activity, and similar over the centuries.
  • 1957: radiocarbon showed that Nuku Hiva was the oldest settlement, contrary to oral tradition.

Part IV Chapter 05: The Lapita People

  • 1908: Watou: Polynesian pottery is finally found. More and more examples are found in the future, not just in Watom (which is near New Britain, which is off Papua New Guinea)
  • 1920: the Bayard Dominick expedition finds pottery in Tonga
  • 1947: even more is found in Fiji
  • 1952: Site 13 in New Caledonia has decorated pottery instead of plain as in Fiji and Tonga. Site 13 is called Lapita, and therefore the culture is called the Lapita people. By now radiocarbon dating is also possible.
  • Lapita sites are subsequently found in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Samoa – the western part of Polynesia.
  • All these sites appear simultaneously around 1000 BCE.
  • Also links to Proto-Oceanic language.
  • And finally, this places the Polynesian origin in Taiwan, between 5000 and 6000 BCE.
  • Probably there were huge cultural rewards for being the founder of a new settlement – which is why the Lapita people kept heading over the ocean instead of into the highlands.

Part V: Setting Sail

Part V Chapter 01: Kon-Tiki

  • Heyerdahl was a proto-hippie. He got married, moved with his wife to Fatu Hiva to ‘get close to nature.’ They almost died, but while he was there, looking at the winds and currents, he became convinced of a South American origin for Polynesia.
  • He proposed that in 600 AD, a defeated tribe of Peruvians had run away to Polynesia; and moreover, that the megaliths in Tiwanaku were the same as the Easter Island statues.
  • He did the Kon-Tiki expedition to show that a balsa wood raft could safely make it from South America to Polynesia.
  • He also proposed a crackpot Asia – Bering Straight – North America – Hawaii route.
  • The Kon-tiki made it from Chile to Raroia, where it crashed.
  • An unsolved mystery is how come there are sweet potatos (native to South America) in Polynesian islands when all the other crops (yams, chickens, breadfruits, pigs, etc) have an Asian origin.

Part V Chapter 02: Drifting not Sailing

  • Andrew Sharp was a guy whose theory was: Polynesian navigational ability was only up to 300 miles, and journeys beyond that were by accident, being taken from place to place by currents and not by following a plan.
  • 1964: Geographers Webb (USA) and Ward (New Zealand) came across computer simulation and thought of using it to measure the probability of accidental colonisation.
  • They divided the Pacific ocean into 5 deg by 5 deg squares; and quantified wind velocity, current velocity for each square / month of year combination. It took three years just to complete the data entry and runtime was barely available.
  • The simulation results were:
    • you can only drift east-to-west, not west-to-east
    • It’s impossible to drift to Hawaii, New Zealand, or Easter Island
    • It’s impossible to drift from the South American coast to Polynesia – the only reason the Kon-Tiki could make it is that it was first towed out to sea
    • When the simulation added the possibility for some navigational intent and ability, the colonisation of Polynesia became possible
      • Samoa as a starting point makes it possible to reach Tahiti, etc; and even to reach Colombia
      • There’s an 8.5% chance of reaching Hawai’i from the Marquesa Islands
      • There’s a 50% chance of making it from Rarotonga to New Zealand
  • It basically meant that as accidental colonisation is impossible, the ancient Polynesians must have had navigational intention and ability

Part V Chapter 03: The Non-Armchair Approach

  • The simulation showed that it was possible, but not how it was done
  • 1964: a guy called Lewis took his family on a sailing trip around the world on a catamaran called Rehu Moana, and tried to do a Society Islands – Cook Islands – New Zealand route using only naked eye sighting of sun and stars, and no instruments. He ended up within half a degree (26 miles) of his target.
  • 1968 voyage: Lewis met navigators in outlier islands (Melanesian geography but Polynesian people), Micronesia, Western Polynesia, Indonesia, Alaska, and Kamchatka; and realised that ancient navigational skills were still present.
  • His other realisation was that skills are the same across the Pacific Ocean.
  • The navigational methods include:
    • track rising stars as they appear on the horizon, and orient canoe to them. Ten stars are sufficient, and two are necessary.
    • track the position of the sun at dawn and dusk, and the shadow of the mast at noon
    • track the direction of ocean swells (not waves, the waves underlying the waves, and less dependent on winds)
    • using a wind compass: and this was driven entirely by navigational lore, there was no drawing, it was purely oral
    • cloud lore
    • bird lore
    • assume that the canoe is stationary, but the reference island is moving on the horizon (and again, in relation to a star)

Part V Chapter 04: Hokule’a

  • 1965: Ben Finney tried to recreate a Polynesian canoe at UC Santa Barbara, after racing catamarans.
  • He thought that Sharp (the accidental drifting on currents led to colonisation guy) was talking nonsense about Polynesian canoe seaworthiness, so he decided to build one and see for himself.
  • The first attempt, Nalehia, was badly designed. The second attempt is Hokule’a (Star of Joy, the name for Arcturus).
  • There was mild outrage by Hawaiians at why white people were on the votage, and why they were calling it an experiment instead of a revival of Hawaiian culture.
  • A Hawaiian captain and Caroline Islands navigator, Mau, were appointed to ease the outrage.
  • The voyage started on 1 May 1976 and successfully reached Papeete on 4 June. The second voyage, under Nainoa Thompson, ended in disaster.

Part V Chapter 05: Reinventing Navigation

  • After the disaster, Nainoa Thompson tried again in 1980. He persuaded Mau to be on board – and he agreed to be there as a fallback, but made Nainoa do the navigation himself.
  • The apprentice navigator Nainoa Thompson successfully made it from Hawaii to the Tuamotus.
  • This success prompted building a whole fleet.
  • In 1999, they finally made it to Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
  • Samoa to Tahiti is possible by waiting for the West Wind

Part VI: What We Know Now

Part VI Chapter 01: The Latest Science

  • An mDNA study shows that all Polynesians have mDNA mutations stretching back to Taiwan / the Philippines aboriginals, which supports the “Express Train out of Taiwan” hypothesis
  • But a Y-chromosome study shows that there are Melanesian ancestors too – which is also supported by how Polynesians are malaria resistant
  • These two pieces of evidence can be reconciled if we hypothesis that people went from Taiwan to Melanesia, and allowed Melanesian men to join the community; and after a period of settlement and intermixing, migrated again to the Pacific.
  • Between the 1950s and 1970s, Maoris protested human remains from archaeological sites being experimented on, and eventually had them returned for burial. As tech improved, smaller and smaller samples give more and more information.
  • From the Teouma site, we find: the early Lapita people had no Melanesian ancestry – which means that Polynesians mixed with Melanesians later on
  • The Wairau Bar (NZ) remains are very diverse – which means that the New Zealand founding population was also very diverse, ie large – which means it was settled by a fleet, not by a canoe
  • It’s possible to use a rat genome when a human genome is not available
  • Rats are very diverse, which means that there were multiple waves of settlement
  • But Easter Island has very little rat diversity, which means that it’s likely that Easter Island was settled by a solitary marooned canoe
  • After throwing out dodgy radiocarbon samples and results, this is the state of knowledge:
    • Asians settle in Samoa and Tonga in 1000 BC, become Polynesians, and stop moving for a thousand years
    • 1000 AD onwards – they explode out of Samoa again – perhaps driven by minor climate change
    • They reached New Zealand in 1250 AD




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