The best books on Polynesian history

The Books I Picked & Why

On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact

By Patrick Vinton Kirch

On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands Before European Contact

Why this book?

I like to think of Patrick Kirch as “Mr. Pacific Archaeology”—no one has written more, or more winningly, about Polynesian prehistory—and On the Road of the Winds is his introduction to the field. First published in 2002 and reissued in an updated edition in 2017, this elegant, eminently readable survey not only covers the history of archaeology in Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia but explains how the archaeological findings of the past half-century relate to discoveries in biology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, botany, and countless other fields.


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We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific

By David Lewis, Derek Oulton

We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific

Why this book?

First published in 1972, We the Navigators is a classic of modern Polynesian history. Lewis, who died in 2002, was a British physician and sailor who in 1967 quit his day job to sail around the Pacific studying traditional navigation. Based on interviews with navigators in the Santa Cruz and Caroline Islands, as well as many hours of firsthand observation, We, the Navigators represents the first attempt to codify and document the non-instrumental navigational knowledge and practices of the world’s most accomplished seafarers. 


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Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land

By Greg Dening

Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land

Why this book?

The Australian historian Greg Dening was one of the great creative thinkers of the late twentieth century, and his influence is everywhere in the modern history and anthropology of the Pacific. Dening, who died in 2008, was especially fascinated by ambiguous interactions and encounters between people from different worlds. One of his earliest books, Islands and Beaches, focuses on the period in the Marquesas when Europeans first arrived, bringing God, guns, germs, and a whole host of other complications. At once sparklingly and scholarly, it tells the vivid story of this tragic and consequential period in Polynesian history.


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Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772

By Anne Salmond

Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642-1772

Why this book?

Two Worlds, by Dame Anne Salmond, is another crossover work—part history and part anthropology. The author, an eminent New Zealand anthropologist, uses her knowledge of traditional Māori culture (what people believed, what they ate, how they lived) to flesh out the historical record left by early European visitors to Aotearoa/New Zealand. The result is a rich, authoritative account of encounters that for far too long have been described from only one point of view.


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Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific

By Professor K. R. Howe

Vaka Moana, Voyages of the Ancestors: The Discovery and Settlement of the Pacific

Why this book?

This handsome coffee table book with short, topical essays by Ben Finney, Geoffrey Irwin, Sam Low, and others is focused on Polynesian voyaging. Richly illustrated with paintings, photographs, and maps, it brings together the major threads: oral traditions, canoe design, navigational methods, theories of settlement. Most of the content can be found elsewhere, but the presentation is impressive; if you wanted just one book to browse through, this would be a fun one to have.


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