The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 251-253
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On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact
On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact, by Patrick Vinton Kirch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN 0-520-22347-0; xxii + 424 pages, tables, figures, maps, photographs, notes, references, index. US$45.
During the last three decades, Pacific archaeology has come of age. Comprising a handful of specialists in the late 1960 s, these days the discipline has risen to several hundred professionals, opening new fields, publishing new research, and prompting new ideas at a rapid rate. One of the most energetic personalities over the years has certainly been Patrick V Kirch. Born in Hawai'i, Kirch had the opportunity very early in his career to work in the field on various remote Pacific islands, mostly in Polynesia but also in different archipelagoes of island Melanesia. More important, he is well known as one of the most prolific writers in the discipline, publishing site reports as well as theoretical analyses. With his long involvement in the fields of archaeology and cultural evolution in Oceania, he was the specialist most able to put together a new synthesis on the early history of the region, to replace Peter Bellwood's famous but now out-of-date monograph, Man's Conquest of the Pacific.
On the Road of the Winds is divided into nine chapters after a general introduction. The first two chapters set the scene in terms of scientific interest in the Oceanic past and the environmental diversity of this vast region. The chronological chapters start with a short synthesis on the data recovered about Pleistocene-early Holocene occupations in the northwestern part of Melanesia, starting over forty thousand years ago. The Lapita expansion chapter, dating from the second half of the second millennium BC, is followed by three chapters on post-Lapita sequences in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. These chapters form the core of the book, with general chronologies proposed for the major archipelagoes. The final chapter presents a more focused discussion on Polynesian chiefdoms, before a balanced synthesis entitled "Big Structures and Large Processes in Oceanic Prehistory."
Kirch is known to be a strong advocate of cross-disciplinary studies, relating archaeological reconstructions to linguistic, anthropological, and biological data. In the introduction, he acknowledges that "while primarily a [End Page 251] work of history, this book also seeks an anthropologically grounded explanation for--and understanding of--the synchronic cultural, linguistic, and human biological variation exhibited throughout the modern Oceanic world" (6). The chronologies proposed, though, are not only based on archaeological studies, but use related fields to attempt a more complete reconstruction of past societies and their evolution. The variety and amount of scientific data compiled to reconstruct the Oceanic past is thereby expanded massively; the reference list of over fifty pages leads the author to confess that "only a few committed scholars and students can possibly take the time to read and digest for themselves all the relevant articles, chapters, monographs, and books underpinning a work such as this" (10).
Written in a very clear style, well illustrated, covering the whole region (except Australia), the book should be easily accessible to scholars and professionals working outside the narrow archaeological sphere. It will certainly help to disseminate knowledge about Pacific prehistory among other disciplines studying the contemporary evolution of Oceanic populations. Although some chapters are shorter presentations of more complete monographs written by Kirch, his "grand synthesis" book (10) is also a mine of information for archaeologists, bringing together in a logical way scientific data otherwise dispersed and often poorly published. For example, the chapter entitled the "Sea of Little Lands," on Micronesia, offers for the first time an accessible summary of the data on that vast region.
Other parts are more limited; for example, one might regret the brevity of the chapter on the Pleistocene-early Holocene phase (which makes up about nine-tenths of...