Voyagers: The settlement of the Pacific

When the many islands that are scattered across the waters of Oceania were first settled, how, and by whom are questions that have generated much discussion over the centuries. It is such questions and responses to them that Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, deftly guides us through in Voyagers, a relatively compact book that is far-reaching in both space and time.

Early on, Thomas gives a detailed and considered overview of European exploration and study of the region. Among the figures we encounter here are Abraham Fornander, who left his native Sweden to settle in Hawaii in the 1840s and attempted to trace the ancestral origins of his new home back to the Cushites, and Captain James Cook, who, on his visit to Rapa Nui, was struck by the people he met. They were, he observed, closely related to Society Islanders, Maori, and Tongans – all a great distance from the Rapu Nui.

Over the course of the book, Thomas deals with a remarkable wealth of information, discussing canoes, coastal versus inland occupation of islands, and more. He draws from early archaeological evidence, including a 42,000-year-old burial in Australia and Sulawesi’s 43,300-year-old cave painting of a hunting scene, to explore the first crossings from Sunda (continental south-east Asia) to Sahul (greater Australia). And, later, decorated ceramics attributed to the ancient Lapita culture (c.1500-500 BC) help chart the rapid expansion of Lapita people across Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

There is also an eloquent account of art in eastern Polynesia, whose islands appear to have been settled during a period of rapid expansion: the Austral Islands, Hawaii, and Rapa Nui by around AD 1100, and New Zealand by c.1200. One important early sculpture from the region is the Kaita¯ia carving, discovered on New Zealand’s North Island in 1920. Dated to the 13th century, and so the work of Maori ancestors relatively shortly after their first settlement, the wooden sculpture, with its squat, angular central figure, is thought to have been part of a gateway to a ritual precinct. It differs from later Maori art, but bears similarities to works from the Austral Islands and Society Islands – notably a 16th- or 17th-century sculpture with two similarly squat and angular figures collected from Tahiti during Cook’s first voyage. Such works highlight the ancestral connections and shared artistic heritage of the islands.

Weaving together material culture such as these sculptures, linguistic evidence, and personal accounts of the author’s own time in some of these islands, the book is an elucidating, accessible, and well-illustrated guide to the long history of Oceanic settlement and connections.

Voyagers: The settlement of the Pacific Nicholas Thomas Head of Zeus: An Apollo Book, £18.99, Hardback ISBN 978-1838930486. Reviewed by Lucia Marchini.