Book Review

PATRICK V. KIRCH. A shark going inland is my chief: the island civilization of ancient Hawai'i. xvii+346 pages, 29 illustrations, 8 colour plates. 2012. Berkeley: University of California Press; 978-0-520-27330-6 hardback $45 & £30.95.

Review by Atholl Anderson
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Anderson image

Pacific archaeologists write books relatively seldomly, and of those who do, Patrick Kirch, with eight to his name, is by some distance the most productive. In the previous seven his approach has been conventionally academic, but A shark going inland is deliberately different. Kirch describes it as "my effort to break out of the straitjacket of academic prose [in order to recount] a saga that deserves to be told in a manner acceptable to all who are interested" (p. xiii). Achieving broad acceptability, he suggests, requires combining two themes: his own research history and recollections, and native Hawaiian tradition: one an 'outside', the other an 'inside', perspective. This is an interesting approach, if self-indulgent, and it works quite well at a level that probably has considerable popular appeal.

The author weaves his personal anecdotes and the imagined journey of a colonising canoe into a leisurely chronicle of the development of Hawaiian archaeology that takes up the first two parts of the book. These cover the back-story of western Pacific origins and journeys and successive concerns for material culture typology, constructing a radiocarbon chronology, discovering the palaeoenvironment and understanding colonisation voyaging and settlement. Chapters on the early traditions and the development of Hawaiian agriculture and demography provide the link to the third part of the book. That is much denser, more theoretical and framed by the intricate history of the high chiefs and the eventual tragedies of European arrival. It discusses Kirch's contention that Hawaii was a unique experiment in social evolution which produced, in prehistoric isolation, several archaic states. The emphasis given to this hypothesis, and the arresting title of the book (Hawaiian rulers were the sharks that devoured the land), suggests that the author is determined to fix his views, argued at scholarly length in Kirch (2010), in the public mind.

The text has an unusually narrow focus. In approaching his main theme Kirch chooses an orthodox path through Polynesian prehistory, largely ignoring or dismissing alternative perspectives and conclusions. In discussing voyaging, Heyerdahl is characterised as a confused self-publicist, Sharp an amateur contrarian (pp. 59–60), and none of the subsequent and extensive critical commentary on the topic rates a mention. Instead, the traditionalist views and activities of the Polynesian Voyaging Society are elaborated enthusiastically and awarded Ernst Mayr's prize of "self-correcting science" (p. 63). In the matter of dating human arrival in eastern Polynesia, the author cites revised radiocarbon dates from one site, but airily ignores the two decades of argument inside and outside Hawaii that actually compelled his recent conversion to a short chronology. On interaction between Tahiti and Hawaii, an adze of Hawaiian basalt found in the Tuamotus is hailed twice as "incontrovertible evidence" of two-way voyaging (pp. 127, 129), despite Kirch (2008) conceding that the specimen lacks archaeological provenience. It seems that stripping away discursive qualification and dissent was thought a necessary route to readership acceptability.

In promoting the Hawaiian kingdoms as unique archaic states in Polynesia, it would have been useful to include comparative material from Tahiti and Tonga to show where, and by how much, the Hawaiian cases are distinctive. In addition, the case for treating Hawaiian traditions as patently historical narratives is not made sufficiently. There is only cursory mention of historiographical cautions about interpreting oral traditions, and that could be problematic. For example, the ruler lists are taken as generational and a 20-year interval is used to estimate a calendrical chronology from them. Modern research, however, shows that the mean generation interval, calculated from the mean age at parturition for females and the mean age at paternity for males, is about 30 years for subsistence farmers in small-scale societies. In this case the chronology would begin around AD 1100 rather than after 1300 and the genealogies would represent the full span of Hawaiian prehistory—as they do in my comparable research on Maori genealogy—calling into question much of the argument about how and when archaic states developed in Hawaii. For example, 'Umi and Pi'ilani are credited with creating the first Hawaiian kingdoms about the end of the sixteenth century, approximately a century after a dramatic demographic transition and at the peak of a period of sustained, dryland, agricultural expansion, both key features for explaining the political consolidation involved. But using a 30-year generation interval would place 'Umi and Pi'ilani near the end of the fifteenth century, before those processes—only just beginning—could have offered any benefit. Major changes in temple construction, here associated with royal power, would also have been a century in the future. Could kingship have coincided with the beginning of temple construction, or has regal status been accorded too soon in the generational sequences? Perhaps genealogies have been distorted by incorporation of regnal intervals, which tend to be shorter? Might the occurrence of important traditional events have been re-distributed in royal genealogies once all competing versions had been destroyed? Greater reassurance on these potential problems might have been offered.

Such concerns may not worry the intended readers of A shark going inland, even if they should, and it would be unfair to suggest that they detract substantially from the story being told or from the broad veracity of it in terms of current research findings. Kirch is a specialist in Hawaiian prehistory and an accomplished writer. His book is attractively produced and easily read. It deserves both critical attention and the broad readership for which it is intended.


  • KIRCH, P.V. 2008. Comment on Atholl Anderson's 'Traditionalism, interaction and long-distance seafaring in Polynesia'. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 3: 260–61.
    – 2010. How chiefs became kings: divine kingship and the rise of archaic states in ancient Hawai'i. Berkeley: University of California Press.