By Christina ThompsonNon-fictionHarperCollins Publishers

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

A blend of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Simon Winchester’s Pacific, a thrilling intellectual detective story that looks deep into the past to uncover who first settled the islands of the remote Pacific, where they came from, how they got there, and how we know.

For more than a millennium, Polynesians have occupied the remotest islands in the Pacific Ocean, a vast triangle stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. Until the arrival of European explorers they were the only people to have ever lived there. Both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world before the era of mass migration, Polynesians can trace their roots to a group of epic voyagers who ventured out into the unknown in one of the greatest adventures in human history.

How did the earliest Polynesians find and colonize these far-flung islands? How did a people without writing or metal tools conquer the largest ocean in the world? This conundrum, which came to be known as the Problem of Polynesian Origins, emerged in the eighteenth century as one of the great geographical mysteries of mankind.

For Christina Thompson, this mystery is personal: her Maori husband and their sons descend directly from these ancient navigators. In Sea People, Thompson explores the fascinating story of these ancestors, as well as those of the many sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, biologists, and geographers who have puzzled over this history for three hundred years. A masterful mix of history, geography, anthropology, and the science of navigation, Sea People combines the thrill of exploration with the drama of discovery in a vivid tour of one of the most captivating regions in the world.

Sea People includes an 8-page photo insert, illustrations throughout, and 2 endpaper maps. 

Portrait of Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, which was shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays and criticism have appeared in numerous publications, including Vogue, the American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, and three editions of Best Australian Essays. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Writer's Grant from the Australia Council, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award. A dual citizen of the US and Australia, she lives outside of Boston with her family.

Judges’ report

Sea People is an incredible piece of history writing. Fascinating and engaging, it moves from western epistemological narratives of maps and human movement to oral traditions of the First Peoples of the Pacific in order to build a narrative of the region that refuses the myopic, colonial model. As author Christina Thompson says early on, the book ‘is not so much about what happened as a story about how we know.’

For more than a thousand years, the First Peoples of the Pacific were the sole inhabitants of the Polynesian Triangle, which stretches over 1200 kilometres and encompasses islands as distant as Hawai’i, Rapa Nui and Aotearoa New Zealand. By drawing on cultural knowledges that predate Western histories, Thompson brings together impressive and myriad threads of research and narratives to reveal the culture and technologies that enabled sophisticated networks of exploration, trade and settlement.

The stories of people, traditions and feats told in these pages unfold in moving and unexpected ways. The chapters detailing the recent, decades-long attempts to re-enact ancient voyages on double-hulled canoes, where we meet characters such as Piailug – ‘expert canoe builder and the grandson of a famous navigator’ – are riveting.

Thompsonmakes distinctions between colonisation as human migration and invasion, and in the process tackles the prejudice inherent in the way we have seen these worlds meet in the past. The original and provocative scholarship on display cuts through myth and colonial fantasy to weave a far-reaching history, contemporary in its importance and meaning.


If you were to look at the Pacific Ocean from space, you might notice that you would not be able to see both sides of it at the same time. This is because at its widest, the Pacific is nearly 180 degrees across – more than twelve thousand miles, or almost half the circumference of the earth. North to south, from the Aleutian Islands to the Antarctic, it stretches another ten thousand miles. Taken as a whole, it is so big that you could fit all the landmasses of earth inside it and there would still be room for another continent as large as North and South America combined. It is not simply the largest body of water on the planet – it is the largest single feature.

For most of human history, no one could have known any of this. They could not have known how far the ocean extended or what bodies of land it might or might not contain. They could not have known that the distances between islands, comparatively small at the ocean’s western edge, would stretch and stretch until they were thousands of miles wide. They could not have known that parts of the great ocean were completely empty, containing no land at all, or that the winds and weather in one region might be quite different from – even the reverse of – what was to be met with in another part of the sea. For tens of thousands of years, long after humans had colonized its edges, the middle of the Pacific Ocean remained beyond the reach of man.

The first people to reach any of the Pacific’s islands did so during the last ice age, when sea levels were as much as three hundred feet lower than they are today and the islands of Southeast Asia were a continent known as Sundaland. This meant that people could walk across most of what is now Indonesia, though only as far as Borneo and Bali; east of that, they had to paddle or swim. No one really knows how the first migrants did it – or, for that matter, who they were – but by at least forty thousand years ago they had reached the large islands of Australia and New Guinea, which were then joined together in a separate continent called Sahul.

They crossed water again between New Guinea and the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, reaching as far east as the Solomon Islands, where their progress appears to have been arrested. Perhaps they were stopped by rising sea levels or by the growing gaps of water between bodies of land or by the increasing poverty of plant and animal species as they moved farther out into the sea. Or perhaps they just petered out, like the Norse who tried to settle the island of Greenland and died there or gave up and retreated. In any case, this is how things stood for something like twenty to thirty thousand years. They had pushed out, as it were, to the edge of the shelf, but the vast expanse of the world’s largest ocean remained an insurmountable barrier.

Then, about four thousand years ago, a new group of migrants appeared in the western Pacific. A true seagoing people, they were the first to leave behind the chains of intervisible islands and sail out into the open ocean. They were perhaps the closest thing to a sea people the world has known, making their homes on the shores of small islands, always preferring beaches, peninsulas, even sandspits to valleys, highlands, and hills. They inhabited one of the richest marine environments in the world, with warm, clear tropical waters and mazes of coral in which hundreds of edible species lived. Most of their food came from the ocean: not just fish and shellfish, but eels, porpoises, turtles, octopuses, and crustaceans. They fished the quiet lagoon waters for reef species and trolled the open ocean for pelagic fish like tunas. They gathered sea snails and bivalves, Turbo, Tridacna, and Spondylus oysters, harvested slug-like sea cucumbers from the ocean floor, and pried spiny sea urchins from crevices in the rocks.

All their most ingenious technology – their lures, nets, weirs, and especially canoes – were designed for life at the water’s edge. They made hand nets and casting nets, weighted seine nets with sinkers and buoyed them with pumice floats. They shaped hooks and lures from turtle shell and the pearly conical shell of the Trochus snail. We refer to the vessels they built as ‘canoes,’ but this barely begins to capture their character, something of which is reflected in the language they used. They had words for lash, plank, bow, sail, strake, keel, paddle, boom, bailer, thwart, anchor, mast, and prop. They had words for cargo, for punting and tacking, for embarking, sailing to windward, and steering a course. They had words for decking, for figureheads, and rollers; they even had a term, katae, for the free side of a canoe – the one opposite the outrigger – a concept for which we have no convenient expression.

They lived on the margin between land and sea, and their language was, not surprisingly, rich in terms for describing the littoral. Two of their key distinctions were between the lee side and the weather side of an island and between the inside and the outside of the reef. The principal axis of the directional system they used on land was toward and away from the ocean, and they had another system based on winds for when they were out at sea. They had countless words for water under the action of waves – foam, froth, billow, breaker, swell – and a metaphor in which open water was ‘alive’ and sheltered water ‘dead.’ They had a word for the kind of submerged or hidden coral that was attractive to fish but dangerous for boats, and another for smooth or rounded coral that translated literally as ‘blossom of stone.’ They had words for pools, passages, and channels, and one for islets that was derived from the verb ‘to break off.’ They had a word for the gap between two points of land (as in a passage through the reef), which evolved into a word for the distance between any two points (as in the distance between islands) and which, as these distances expanded, eventually came to mean the far, deep ocean, and even space itself.

The one thing they do not seem to have had is a name for the ocean as a whole, nothing that would correspond to our ‘Pacific Ocean.’ They probably had names for parts of it, like their descendants the Tahitians, who referred to a region west of their islands as Te Moana Urifa, meaning ‘the Sea of Rank Odor,’ and a region to the east as Te Moana o Marama, meaning ‘the Sea of the Moon.’ But they seem not to have conceptualized the ocean in its entirety. Indeed, they could hardly be expected to have conceived of it as a discrete and bounded entity when, for them, it was not so much a thing apart as the medium in which they lived. It was tasik, meaning ‘tide’ or ‘sea’ or ‘salt water’; or it was masawa, meaning ‘deep or distant ocean’ or ‘open sea.’

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist