Sea People

Come with me now as we set sail from the Sea of Grass to the South Seas,where the charismatic megamammals (whales) make ours (bison) look puny, where plankton outnumber chiggers (yay!), where the wind blows strong and the sky is big... oh wait.

Say "South Seas" and we landlubbers think of Broadway musicals, or voyages of discovery, or stories of whalers, or wars and thermonuclear bomb tests, or maybe just palm trees and tattooed natives.

But about those natives. How did they get to all those tiny islands spread out over 25 million square miles of open ocean? The question has vexed westerners for centuries, but we’re gradually uncovering many parts of the story -- thanks in large part to native islanders' renewed interest in their own history, and fleets of discoverers rather than colonizers -- and the answer is as lively and complex as the ocean.

I'm an island native myself (Key West), and my first memory is of swimming in the ocean off Hawai’i. I figure that explains this Kansan’s fascination with maps and migration and the deep blue sea. And I'm here to tell you of a couple new books investigating the question of Pacific settlement that have done nothing but increase these fascinations many-fold. They are Sea People, by Christina Thompson, and Wayfinding, by M.R. O’Connor.

Bits of the story have appeared here before, in, for example, reviews of Barry Lopez's Horizon, Caspar Henderson's A New Map of Wonders, and Tristan Gooley's How to Read Water. But Thompson and O’Connor put a new twist on things by completely upending the notions of maps and navigation that we're familiar with. To be fair, Henderson and Gooley hinted at it for a few pages, but it sort of got drowned out (ha) by all the other wonders in their books.


Think for a moment about where you are on this lovely planet. Chances are a series of map-like images comes to mind, a vague bird's-eye view of the U.S., Kansas, and/or a map of Lawrence. But which way is the wind blowing? Which birds are flying overhead? Where and when does Scorpius rise over the horizon? Can you point to it?

These are the sorts of navigational aids used by the people of Polynesia for a very long time. No compass, no maps, no phones, no apps. As Thompson points out, Europeans have known of the Pacific for 500 years, since Balboa walked west across Panama. Pacific Islanders have known it since the Ice Ages, some forty or fifty thousand years ago, with ocean-going voyages increasing around four thousand years ago.

By studying the wind and sky and water from their outrigger canoes (sometimes while stretched out flat on their bellies), Polynesians settled nearly an entire watery hemisphere, passing along what they learned in story and song rather than maps and journals. Once you digest that, it’s an additional shock to learn that different islanders navigate differently, build their boats differently, and sing different songs.

It’s epic in every sense, and as these books make clear, how we figured out how they figured it out is also a great story. O’Connor, a journalist, has read as broadly as she has traveled, encountering out-of-the-way sources to embellish her stories of out-of-the-way places, and inquisitive readers will appreciate her extensive bibliography.

Her focus on wayfinding goes beyond the South Pacific, too, including trips to the Arctic and Australia. Thompson stays in the South Seas, and her book expands from tales of navigation to include island geology; anthropology and cultural history; and the contemporary native islander renaissance, including intrepid 21st century sailor-navigators. All told, the two books are the best kind of beach reads – for what’s a beach without a great big ocean?

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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