Whether you have read all the books on Hawaiian history, or are new to the subject, A Shark Going Inland is My Chief by Patrick Kirch is essential reading. Someone who has never read the old books can start with this one and get a fantastic introduction to Hawaiian society from its roots in Asia and the Lapita culture up to European contact with Captain Cook. I am not aware of any other book for the general public that goes so deeply into the pre-historic record.
For those who have read on the subject through the years, you may be as astonished as I was by how much of the old information is now proving to be wrong through the latest scientific methods. In this highly readable book designed for the general public, the author, a kama’aina who is a highly respected professor at the University of California at Berkeley, brings in new insights from archaeology as well as the study of pollen and snails in order to date when Polynesians first landed in Hawai’i. Unlike earlier estimates of 100, 300 or 600AD, he presents persuasive evidence that the islands were settled after 900! Other authors had placed Pa’ao, the immigrant priest who introduced human sacrifice, in the 11th to 13th centuries, but Kirch says it was the end of the 14th.
In addition to changing what we thought we knew, this book adds new levels of complexity to our understanding. One fascinating aspect of the book is its emphasis on O’ahu as likely one of the earliest settled islands, and perhaps the most technologically advanced. It was Ma’ilikukahi of O’ahu who Kirch credits with developing the system of ahupua’a and konohiki. As he writes, “the fifteenth century would become O’ahu’s golden age, a time of peace and great prosperity, when chiefs from all the other islands would visit and return to their own lands filled with desire to emulate what O’ahu’s rulers had accomplished.” O’ahu and Kaua’i also differed from Maui and Hawai’i in that the former worshipped Kane while the latter focused on Lono and Ku. From this, we can see how some of the classic authors of mo’olelo such as Kamakau and Malo may have focused on big island practices that might not be applicable to other islands.
The book also has some very interesting ideas about the orientation of heiau and how that may relate to the god for which each heiau was built. In email correspondence with Professor Kirch, he informs me that his next book will explore that issue in depth, but in the mean time, it is worth reading what he has written here.
This book is a spectacular contribution to the field and sorely needed. And it has inspired me to read some of the author’s other books, starting with How Chiefs Became Kings. That book is written for a technical audience and contains much of the same material, but it does fill in some additional information.
What kept me racing through Shark was the great hope that it would answer the burning question in my mind, which is about Pa’ao and the introduction of human sacrifice. Pa’ao is largely ignored in this book, and so it was that I resorted to How Chiefs Became Kings. What we learn is that he probably came from Tahiti (Porapora, anciently known as Vavau) and that he did introduce human sacrifice. We also learn that human sacrifice was not practiced in Tahiti or anywhere else in Polynesia (though it is in the mythology of the Maori). So how and why did this blood-thirsty immigrant convince the ruling chiefs of Hawai’i island to adopt the practice? When I asked Professor Kirch he replied that no one knows. He does point out in the book that many archaic states, such as the Maya and the Egyptians, practiced human sacrifice, so that it is not uncommon. This is one mystery that may never be solved.
Professor Kirch will be in Honolulu talking about his book at the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival, which runs May 18 and 19, 2013 (not sure which day he is speaking). Also, he notes that a large number of his publications are available for download on his profile at Academia.edu. It’s very easy to register to join Academia.edu, and it is free. Once you have a logon you can look up any scholar who is on the site and get access to publications, etc. He also posts a blog from time to time there about issues in Polynesian and Hawaiian archaeology and history.