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  • A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai‘i by Patrick Vinton Kirch
  • Kerri A. Inglis
A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai‘i. By Patrick Vinton Kirch (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012) 368 pp. $45.00

In a mix of archaeology, anthropology, and history, Kirch endeavors to answer questions that have perplexed explorers and scholars of the Pacific alike, even into the twentieth century, including how the islands of Polynesia and Hawai‘i were settled, how Hawaiian society grew and developed, and how the Polynesian chiefs became divine kings (16). Interweaving personal experiences, travels, and research into Hawaiian history, Kirch presents this work as his attempt to “trace the big themes of Hawaiian history” in an accessible manner (xiii).

In Part I, Kirch discusses Lapita’s place in the larger saga of human migration, Austronesian migrations, and the Polynesian homeland Hawaiki—from which Polynesian voyagers departed “in a great diaspora that led them to discover, explore, and settle virtually every speck of land in the far-flung eastern Pacific, including Hawai‘i” (46). He highlights the impact of the Hōkūle‘a, the Hawaiian double-hulled canoe, in displacing drift-theory explanations for the settlement of Polynesia, and even attempts to reconstruct the first voyage of settlers from the Marquesas to Hawai‘i with “a certain degree of narrative license” (319). After a discussion of the role of archaeology in reconstructing the past, Kirch explains early settlement patterns in the islands.

In the second part of the book, Kirch examines the history of Hawaiian plant and animal life, offering a glimpse into the astounding “world of ancient Hawai‘i that has emerged from the collaborative, interdisciplinary work of archaeologists and natural scientists” (110). With a focus on Mā‘ilikūkahi, an innovative chief of the island of O‘ahu in the fifteenth century, Kirch explains the transition from the ancient system of Polynesian chiefship to that of kingship through the introduction of the ahupua‘a system. In Mā‘ilikūkahi’s new hierarchical order, “the land tenure system became one of chiefly territories, in which the common people’s rights to land depended on their relationship with their chief” (139). Following explanations of Hawaiian agriculture and cultivation practices, specifically concerning taro, Kirch uses the notion of balance between a population and its resources to enter into a discussion of the debates surrounding Hawaiian population history.

Part III of the book introduces the mo‘olelo (histories) of the chiefs ‘Umi-a-Līloa, of Hawai‘i Island, and Pi‘ilani, of Maui. In this context, Kirch expounds upon the key role of Hawaiian dryland field systems in the rise of archaic states in the islands of Hawai‘i and Maui, explaining how they nourished and fed the population and supported the political economy of the time. Once agricultural production had reached its limit, political futures lay in the conquest of other islands, which furthered state development. In crossing the threshold from polities ruled by chiefs who were considered the commoners’ kinsmen to states ruled by divine kings, Kirch asserts that “Hawai‘i had discovered what it was [End Page 268] to be a civilization” (225). Most significantly, Kirch asserts, this development was endogenous, but it had multiple “causations that helped to move Hawaiian society along the path from chiefdom to state” (228).

Kirch ends with a recounting of the history of the ruling chiefs of Hawai‘i Island and Maui, their wars and manipulations, their encounter with Captain James Cook and with other foreigners, and the rise of Kamehameha I. In his epilogue, he offers an analysis of the history of Hawai‘i as a “microcosm of the development of civil society” (288), arguing that “Hawai‘i is at once both unique and typical on the stage of world history” (290).

In hopes of complementing the archaeological record, Kirch utilizes oral traditions that were translated into written form in the nineteenth century by such native Hawaiian scholars as Fornander, Kamakau, ‘Ī‘ī, and Malo “to tell the tales of Hawaiian history” (68). However, although he makes use of the work of these and other scholars in the...


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