- On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact
If I had been asked to predict the kind of synthesis Pat Kirch would write, it would have matched On the Road of the Winds pretty closely.
Scholarly? Very much so, with up-to-date (1999 included!) references into most Pacific nooks, a generous appreciation of major discoveries from New Guinea to Hawai'i—and with a title and approach lineally descended from Peter Buck.
Readable? Undoubtedly, with persuasive accounts of areas and times, often enlivened by the personal reminiscences of a widely experienced researcher.
Holistic? Yes. Kirch believes strongly in the reconcilability of linguistics, human biology, ethnography, oral history, and archaeology in much of Pacific prehistory. The book is certainly primarily archaeological, but all disciplines come into play at various places.
Grandly synthetic? Indeed, emphasizing where he can aspects such as settlement patterns, economic systems and their intensification, palaeoenvironmental indications of land use and misuse (p. 11). The end result of this, as he admits, skews the book towards Polynesia, where much more research and theorizing has been done—and, I would argue, a shorter chronology makes some syntheses and problems considerably more straightforward.
Argumentative? Not quite as much as I had expected. Kirch often prefers to outline a problem but then back off with a comment about the need for more field-work (interestingly, not usually better thinking).
Overall then, one has to hand it to him. This book will undoubtedly become, as the cover says, "the essential reference," a more readable and up-to-date addition to, and usually replacement of, much of Peter Bellwood's Man's Conquest of the Pacific (1978). He doesn't cover quite the same ground of course, since he starts in Pleistocene Near Oceania rather than Southeast Asia; nor does he have the same concentration on artifacts, being of a more anthropological inclination. But this is magisterial stuff, with few factual errors. There are chapters on the history of archaeology (a bit Americo-centric), Pacific environments, 100 pages each on Melanesia and Polynesia, 40 on Micronesia, and a Polynesia-centric conclusion on "Big Structures and Large Processes." Plenty of illustrations, maps, useful tables.
So what did I want that wasn't there? Most importantly, I think, a stronger sense of problem. What are the exciting questions in Pacific archaeology and how might we go about researching them? My bent is considerably more towards Near Oceania than Kirch's, but here are a couple of suggestions.
Kirch accepts that Austronesian languages were introduced from Southeast Asia, almost certainly with the Lapita culture complex. These languages are currently spoken in much of coastal Near Oceania, much more widely in fact than Lapita pottery is found. [End Page 189] A holistic researcher might wonder what features gave these languages such an advantage that they should have spread in this way. Is it just because the speakers may have brought falciparum malaria with them (p. 100)? I doubt it: there is a major problem here for a holistic prehistorian.
In the exploration of Remote Oceania, people transported landscapes, including animals and plants, some inadvertent, some intentional. Not all made it to all islands and this was choice as much as chance. How did these choices affect the histories of the different islands?
There isn't too much agency in this book, but such questions could have been looked at within the framework that Kirch has set himself.
On a larger scale it could be argued that Kirch's Polynesian inclination itself makes the book a bit more of a statement about the past than the future of Pacific archaeology. There certainly are still problems in Remote Oceania, perhaps the most important being whether the various expressions of complexity are all simply the result of population growth (p. 311), environmental differences, and historically accidental trajectories, as he is inclined to believe. But a different and more open set...