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Book Review


Patrick Vinton Kirch. A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawaiʻi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 346. $45.00 (cloth).


     In his fascinating new book, esteemed archeologist Patrick Kirch makes a persuasive case that the descendants of the Polynesians who discovered the Hawaiian Islands built a civilization comparable to those of Egypt, the Near East, China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes. A critical synthesis that advances exciting new arguments, A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief is a tour de force of Hawaiian, Pacific, and world history. Written for a general audience, it will also command the respect of specialists. Those interested in and those who teach human migration, state formation, and the history of archeology will want to place it high on their must-read list.

     Kirch utilizes two main sets of sources: the archeological record and the moʻolelo o Hawaiʻi, the histories of the nineteenth century native scholars who recorded the "great sagas" previous generations had transmitted orally. He also uses accounts of the eighteenth century European voyagers who observed the last "pristine state" to develop independent of outside influence. Blending the professional and the personal, Kirch traces the deep roots of Hawaiian society to the shores of southern China and Taiwan over 4,000 years ago and evolution of the field of archeology from the point of view of a practitioner who has labored in the trenches for nearly fifty years.

     A Shark has three parts. The first focuses on the origins of Polynesians and their discovery and colonization of the Polynesian triangle, bounded by Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, and Hawaiʻi in the north. The second explores Polynesians' transformation of the natural and social environment in Hawaiʻi. The third narrates the consolidation of divine kingship in Hawaiʻi after it became isolated as Polynesian voyages to and from there ended around 1400 and remained so until Captain James T. Cook arrived in 1778.

     Ever since Cook pronounced Polynesians the founders of "the most extensive nation on earth," Westerners have debated their origins and voyaging skills. Merging the study of indigenous sources, modern re-creations of ancient voyages, and a material record interpreted with the aid of ever more sophisticated ethnographic, linguistic, and scientific tools has allowed researchers to refute all those who doubted Polynesians' Asian roots and sea-faring skills.

     Kirch presents the broad consensus lately reached on these questions. From southern China shores, Austronesian-speakers sailing wangka (out-rigger canoes) reached the Bismarck Islands between 1500 and 1300 B.C., where they encountered the Papuan people. A synthesis of the Papuan and the Austronesian produced the Lapita culture and its famed pottery, which "mimics" Austronesian tattooing methods. The Lapita people began moving east in 1200 B.C. Research on their "trail of tattooed pots" shows that "the wangka-sailing pottery makers" who landed in Tonga and Samoa around 950 B.C. were the first humans to enter the Polynesian Triangle; it constitutes one of late twentieth century archeology's "great achievements" (35, 36). At the first millennium's end, Western Polynesians invented double-hulled canoes and voyaged further east and north. Between A.D. 900 and 1100, they colonized the rest of the Polynesian triangle in what ranks among the "greatest diasporas of human history" (49).

     The sailing farmer-families who followed the golden plover north to Hawaiʻi brought the domesticated animals and plants they needed to build a new society, along with weeds and rats. Pollen, shells, bones, and fire remains show that rats and humans decimated the native flora and fauna. They devoured snails and flightless birds, and farmers burned palm forests to plant fields. Material evidence confirms long-disputed indigenous stories of two-way voyaging by chiefs who visited their ancestral homelands. Archeologists discovered in the Tuamotua Islands an adz made there of basalt found only on the Hawaiian islands of Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe.

     While Hawaiians thrived in their new land, they remained a kinship society until the fifteenth century. Then, the sacred Oʻahu king, Māʻilikūkahi, embarked on land reform. He replaced a system based on ancestral rights with one anchored in ahupuaʻa, land units running from mountain to sea that kings distributed to chiefs; the reforms institutionalized a fundamental new divide between aliʻi (chiefs) and makaʻāinana (commoners). Hawaiʻi took "its first bold steps toward kingship" (142) on the irrigated taro fields of Oʻahu and also Kauaʻi, which supported exponential population growth and produced widespread prosperity.

     Kirch speculates that if all Hawaiian islands were as geologically old as Oʻahu and Kauaʻi, social evolution might have slowed. Instead, the locus of agricultural innovation and social development shifted to the younger, generally less fertile and drier islands of Hawaiʻi and Maui. In the late sixteenth century, ʻUmi, the first king to unite the island of Hawaiʻi, moved his royal seat from the irrigated valley of Waipiʻo to Kona. He oversaw the expansion of dryland agriculture on volcanic slopes, using its vast surpluses "to build a political economy on a scale before not witnessed in Polynesia" (191). Piʻilani, who was linked to ʻUmi's royal household through marriage and who united Maui, emulated his neighboring king's works.

     These kings and their successors supported the development of what became distinct classes of royal retainers, priests, warriors, and craft specialists, notably those who produced the magnificent feathered cloaks, helmets and other finery of the royal and divine. They made strategic marriages to enhance their genealogies and power, including pʻio marriages between high-ranking siblings. Reserving the power to break the incest taboo and command ritual human sacrifice, aliʻi akua (god-kings) displayed their divinity. No longer related to the people, they governed through reciprocal aloha, relying on increasingly powerful kāhuna (priests) to keep the social and political order balanced. As Hawaiʻi and Maui replaced Oʻahu and Kauaʻi as the key seats of power, Lono (god of lightning, thunder, and life-giving rains) and Kū (god of war) replaced Kāne (god of water) as principal gods of the divine kingship and archaic state of Hawaiʻi. Lono's festival, the Makahiki, ensured peace during the four-month period when the sweet potatoes matured in dryland fields and of an elaborate ritualized tribute collection.

     By the mid-seventeenth century, the dryland agricultural system reached its limits of growth. By century's end, population growth in Hawaiʻi and Maui leveled off, and soon, the feathers on which the royal wealth and display economy relied became scarce. Only then, on the broad eve of European arrival, did Hawaiian kings and chiefs adopt warfare and conquest as a key political strategy. Comparing Hawaiʻi to the civilizations of Egypt, the Near East, China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes, Kirch suggests that warfare may not be as central to complex state formation as others have argued. Even if Hawaiʻi was atypical in this regard, its multi-causal social evolution closely resembles that of these other Old and New World states. Indeed, Kirch's elegant epilogue details how "the history of Hawaiʻi is a microcosm of the development of civil society" (288).

     The best and most accessibly written single-volume history of Polynesian origins and voyaging and of the civilization, archaic state, and divine kingship of Hawaiʻi, A Shark Going Inland Is My Chief is well-suited for A.P. world history courses and a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses on world, Pacific, and Hawaiian history. It is an excellent for methods courses focused on interdisciplinary approaches, research, and writing. Each chapter and part at once stands on its own and advances the book's larger arguments, so one could assign those of particular relevance. Color plates, figures, maps, a glossary, and a list of historical Hawaiian persons provide valuable navigational aids, although a future edition would do well to include maps of Polynesian voyages and the Lapita cultural complex.

Christine Skwiot is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses in Pacific, U.S. and the world, and world history. She is the author of The Purposes of Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Cuba and Hawaiʻi. You may reach her by email at


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