Review of Patrick Kirch’s A Shark Going Inland is My Chief – Makana Risser Chai

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.

Patrick Vinton Kirch

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 It’s very easy to register to join, 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.


Makana Risser Chai



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10 responses to “Review of Patrick Kirch’s A Shark Going Inland is My Chief – Makana Risser Chai

  1. Tom

    Umi, thanks for this. I am a little staggered by Pat’s vast revision of migration and settlement dates, since there is so much carbon dating of finds proximate to the bays of windward O’ahu close to or around One A.D. What did the learned Dr. L. Perkins think of these new dates? More broadly, I applaud the publication. I have staggered around the crumbly slope of Kahikinui several times with camera to film Pat and his young charges engaged in the laborious digging and sifting. I hope this triggers a broader discussion of the related oral tradition, archaeology and migration stuff. Getting a grip on the complicated process of human settlement in its entirety is fundamental to displacing the Eurocentric framework. Tom


    • leialoha perkins

      Tom, you are right to be “staggered.” The date is extremely generalized and seems to match the Kāneʻoheʻs Bellows Field site with its reported aliʻi artifacts. The problem with generalizations, whether of new books and their reviews (even out of agenda directed academia intent on making “new contributions to knowledge” and their reviews is precisely because they cover so much ground and simplicity is key to ready public understanding. Although I have not read A Shark, I do not think this book displaces Kirchʻs Feathered Gods and Fishhooks (l985) except probably in some details. The merits of that book are many — among the best are the recognition of the proud independence of Chiefs AND Priests over their kuleana and the Separation AND Unity of priests AND chiefs over such kulelana, making sacrifices BOTH deeply Religious and Secular, and the dating of sites singular yet double tracked, island by island. Western academic training discounts Priests and Religion and Western academic training values new findings, one result of which is to diss the traditional. Kirch is one of my gurus, too. His earlier dates, more complicated, not for the general, oerhapsm are credible, being multiple resourced in origins of which he was a party. His double page chart on p. 300 masterfully condenses
      general dates if one wants general dates. Not every new book is a gold mind. But Feathered Gods was and is. It deserves re-evaluation.


  2. umi

    Perhaps more importantly (or provocatively) – what would the learned Dr. Kehau Abad say about Kirchʻs “proving definitively” settlement after AD 900? Iʻve been teaching that 300-400 is a fairly conservative estimate for settlement, but I havenʻt even been on a dig. Cordy says sites dating before 600 are extremely rare, so maybe Kirch is doing us a favor by at least adding a credible voice to a debate that needs to progress toward some basic consensus – ditto with the debate over population.


    • leialoha perkins

      For critics like R.F.Perkins who charges I am “non-committal,” on the contrary. My point was Kirch in A SHARK is proposing a Hypothesis, not a Theory. Kirch himself knows the Theory will change, as ʻUmi and KIrch himself foresees — Paradigms change, but for more solid ones, by consensus.


  3. Makana Risser Chai

    Before I get Pat Kirch in big trouble, let me clarify that the “definitively proved” language is mine, not his. As regards the Windward side sites, Pat was in on the original dig at Bellows in 1967, and co-wrote the paper showing dates that did go back to the fourth century. However, they noted at the time that the dates were troubling, because the oldest date came from a higher layer. In this book he reports (at p. 95) that the artifacts were re-dated using more current technology some thirty years later. “The new AMS results give a high probability that the initial Polynesian settlement at Bellows was established somewhere between AD 1040 and 1219.”


  4. Evan

    Regarding the earliest settlements, it makes sense that the most developed and nutritious soils were cultivated first. O’ahu and Kauai surely must have been easier and more fruitful. Distance between islands would have been no obstacle to such accomplished seafarers. They would have cherry picked. Later, with higher population pressures, it seemed that competition for good lands and higher yields provided impetus for wars. Anyway, examining natural conditions as drivers of social and political developments seems a worthy direction of study. Nature and people used to have a bit of sense about them, yes?


    • leialoha perkins

      Archeological facts re: settlement come with conditions. Conditions usually entail suggested or believed or evidenced variations for results (Hawaiʻi and Maui, e.g. “vs.”? Oʻahu and Kauaʻi). Variations include what must take a sizeable (adequate for task) population, which takes systematization (of Know-How/What/ People and Resources) and TIME. So, if the “new” time line 900 A.D. eliminates? the “old”, how does that square with Hawaiʻi and Maui islands being the sites of many investigators over many yearsʻ studying — agreeing where the purported earliest dated artifacts were found? One clear agreement lay in the fact that Hawaiʻi and Maui lay directly in the path of KeAlaNuiKaHiki, not only archeologically, but anthropologically and in the folklore. There are differences regarding facts and interpretations among the three but in the main, there is (not was) good general consensus. In addition, Kirch himself was a young Turk for the earlier dates. With due respect, heʻs just an older Turk — he did mean the new book for the neophyte, who are sharper than we were at the same age but also have more variations to contend with and richer cherries to pick, because, thanks to Pat, the whole field is FUN not stodgy
      and persnickity as academic interests used to be delivered as caviar for the general. The general that Pat engages is the Future. But then he has to go back and explain how — he was not,earlier, exactly wrong. Or was he?


      • leialoha perkins

        Kala mai iʻau. He does say so, in his Keynote Speech to the Haw. Arch. Soc., Kauaʻi, 2000 ( Regarding hard archeological dating, by other reviewers of the data Kirch critiques, the professional anthropologists, the jury is out (of the courtroom). But I will speak for my field. Content-wise, excepting for Emory with his technique of comparing lexical items for linguistic correlations between Tahitian and Hawaiian,e.g., there is not a single Folklorist, called Oral Traditionalist (to avoid the American prejudice against the first term — both terms refer as much to American immigrant lore, as in the Am. Folklore Soc., as to the Indian (Asian and American) and Chinese classical epics and myths outside it) whose viewpoint is newer. Fornander, Hiroa, even Thrum were not “professional Folklorists.” Kamakau, Haleʻole, Kepelino were Moʻolelo-ists — the best, even by contemporary standards though they did not work from the “outside” in critically (both sides are needed). I am saying
        the Oral Traditionalists/Folklorists are not taken seriously, except at places like Harvard and the Univ. Pennsylvania and Indiana Univ. where there were established departments; so this is not to fault Kirchʻs non-mention of any later than Fornander . . . Emory (who did know the field but what he knew got credited as Anthro, so to whom should one look for updating reviews? [

        The field is ORAL and Moʻolelo, Orature, but not treated as such, but as other, e.g.socio- linguistics (very well, but not the same), etc. So this is a chance for UH to Recognize a Lack, academically, and scholars an opportunity to weigh in, on the islandsʻ and world stage, if only persons existed. Ruby Kinney Johnson could do it. I could. I did, on several points, from studies of He Kumulipo, but not regarding dating, which gives so much confidence because it looks scientifically secure, yet is relative if not as tenuous as other means, unless corroborated, scientifically and by indigenous standards of moʻolelo. After Ong, we have no excuse to be silent, about the moʻolelo, yet, auwē, we are. However, although time is not always a friend, I expect good work from ʻUmiʻs well endowed friends. At least youʻre not afraid of risking being wrong. Thatʻs what it takes, and willingness to say so when itʻs so. To date Oral Traditions/Folklore,look at terms used especially forms/functions/contexts/situations (e.g. Havaiʻi, number of main deities and functions/places/people/time/uses), especially common words and rare to common names, with relationships to kinship structure, development emically, etically, diachronically, etc. Long, hard, steady, stick-to-it-ive and little money rewarded work. Important.


  5. Evan

    The introduction of human sacrifice may be used like war today— to accomplish political means and steer a population. It may have started as an advantageous cult and spread. As a later example… The overturning of the Kapu system by Ka’ahumanu was a political device as was the subsequent fulfillment of that social/philosophical vacuum with the convenient newly arrived Christianity. Powers are always inventing new mechanisms and devices for influence and political and economic control.


  6. Makana Risser Chai

    Evan, I like your analysis of sacrifice as a political means. Mahalo.


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