The best books on Polynesian history

Who am I?

A dual citizen of Australia and the US, Christina Thompson has traveled extensively in the Pacific, including through most of the archipelagoes in Polynesia. She is the author of two books about Polynesia: a memoir of her marriage to a Māori man called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All and a history of the ancient voyagers of the Pacific called Sea People. She edits the literary journal Harvard Review and teaches in the writing program at Harvard University Extension. 

I wrote...

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

By Christina Thompson,

Book cover of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

What is my book about?

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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Patrick Vinton Kirch,

Book cover of 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.

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

By David Lewis, Derek Oulton,

Book cover of 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. 

Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land

By Greg Dening,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Anne Salmond,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Professor K. R. Howe,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in prehistory, explorers, and human migration?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about prehistory, explorers, and human migration.

Prehistory Explore 21 books about prehistory
Explorers Explore 66 books about explorers
Human Migration Explore 9 books about human migration

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies, South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage, and Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass if you like this list.