On the Road of the Winds:
An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Conquest

Patrick Vinton Kirch

University of California Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000 http://dannyreviews.com/
On the Road of the Winds is a history of the Pacific islands that combines a "big picture" overview (invoking Braudel and the longue durée) with a feel for the "dirt" of actual excavations. It is both a historical synthesis and, in so far as is possible in the space, an archaeological survey. Kirch integrates the diachronic evidence of archaeology with the synchronic evidence of linguistics, ethnography, and biology to describe the human settlement of the Pacific and its history down to European conquest. And along the way he summarises the archaeological record, with details from key excavations.

Kirch writes for specialists (he merrily switches, for example, between BC/AD and calibrated and uncalibrated radiocarbon BP dates), but for such a broad range of specialists that the informed lay reader won't miss much — and unwanted detail about excavations and artifacts is easily glanced over. With an effective selection of halftones, figures, and maps complementing clear and incisive prose, in elegant and attractive physical packaging, On the Road of the Winds is an all-round outstanding volume.


Pacific archaeology has an intriguing history of its own, from voyages of exploration and missionaries to modern academic research and cultural resource management. Earlier thinking was bedeviled by now antiquated racial typologies and a stress on the ethnographic present that in some cases amounted to outright denial of history and time-depth. The power of archaeology to uncover depth in Pacific prehistory is now unquestioned, but much remains unknown and work in Melanesia and New Guinea is really only beginning.

The Pacific islands are a unique and diverse environment, offering unique challenges to human settlement. In twenty pages Kirch gives a rapid overview of the geological origins and development of the different islands (island-arc islands, high islands, atolls, and makatea islands), their climate (especially rainfall variation), their biogeography and ecosystems, and the considerable impacts of indigenous Pacific peoples on the latter. He also touches on the often neglected microbiotic world, explaining how "the concentration and persistence of disease-causing microorganisms in Near Oceania had serious consequences for long-term human history" (with Remote Oceania in comparison relatively disease-free).

Human settlement of Sahul (Australia and New Guinea, joined when sea levels were lower) in the Pleistocene almost certainly involved repeated, purposeful water crossings of some distance. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that people had crossed the Vitiaz Strait to the Bismarck and Solomon Islands by 35 000 years ago; scattered evidence reveals tantalising glimpses of their lives. The early Holocene saw changes in settlement and foraging patterns: in the New Guinea Highlands there is evidence for very early agriculture, while the lowlands and islands saw innovations in arboriculture and shell-working. Malaria may have played a key role in limiting population growth in the region.

One of the central events of Pacific history (and one of the great human migrations) is the spread of Austronesian speaking peoples from Taiwan. Some groups travelled along the north cost of New Guinea and interacted, starting around 1500 BC, with the indigenous occupants of the Bismarcks to create the Lapita cultural complex. Around 1200 BC this jumped across the gap between the southeast extremity of the Solomons and the Santa Cruz islands, then rapidly expanded, reaching to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa by around 1000 BC. This reconstruction rests on a combination of ethnographic, linguistic, and biological evidence.

Post-Lapita, the New Guinea Highlands saw increasing populations, especially with the introduction of sweet potato by the 17th century. Patchy excavations across the islands between coastal New Guinea and Fiji leave it unclear to what extent these were linked, but there is evidence for increasing economic specialisation, with trading networks in the Massim and coastal New Guinea and islands specialising in ceramics. There is also evidence for concentration of chiefly power (notably the burial site of Roy Mata in Vanuatu) and for agricultural intensification (with terraced, canal-fed irrigation systems on several islands). Disruptive volcanic events may have played a significant role in some areas.

Micronesia was settled from several directions: the Marianas and Palau were settled by Western Malayo-Polynesian speakers, probably from the Philippines; the Caroline, Marshall, and Kiribati archipelagoes were settled by speakers of the Nuclear Melanesian branch of Proto-Oceanic, probably from the Solomons or Vanuatu; Yap is something of an anomaly, possibly reached directly from the Bismarcks in the second millennium BC; and then there are Polynesian Outliers such as Kapingamarangi. Kirch surveys the archaeological record of the region, covering the Caroline high islands, limestone columns in the Marianas, terraces on Palau, the Yapese "empire", and so on.

Culturally and linguistically "monophyletic", Polynesia is a unique opportunity for studying cultural and linguistic change. Historical linguistics and ethnography provide a fairly clear picture of Polynesian origins and dispersals, starting with the Ancestral Polynesian region around Tonga and Samoa and then expanding first to the Society and Marquesas islands and thence to Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Many of the details are still debated: the exact sequence and timing of settlements in Eastern Polynesia, the nature of Polynesian exploration and voyaging, and whether there was a "long pause" between the initial Lapita occupation of Western Polynesia and expansion eastwards. Kirch outlines the archaeological sequences in Western Polynesia and the earliest settlements in Eastern Polynesia, with details from key excavations.

A second chapter on Polynesia looks at its subsequent history, at the evolution of chiefdoms. Here Kirch uses a Traditional/Open/Stratified typology, but only heuristically — he argues that there was no "standard progression" and that the various islands "are best seen as a series of sometimes parallel or convergent, sometimes divergent, historical trajectories, all ultimately springing from the common basis of Ancestral Polynesia Culture". He presents case studies from Mangaia, the Marquesas, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), New Zealand, Tahiti and the Society Islands, and Hawaii, illustrating "the contexts, constraints, and processes" behind sociopolitical transformation.

The final chapter of On the Road of the Winds looks at "big structures and large processes" in Oceanic prehistory: correlations between language, biology, and culture; the role of demographic change and controversies about pre-colonial populations; the environmental impact of human settlement; the political economy of changing landscapes; intensification and economic specialization; and transformations of status and power.

August 2000

External links:
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Related reviews:
- Patrick Vinton Kirch - The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms
- Patrick Vinton Kirch - The Wet and the Dry: Irrigation and Agricultural Intensification in Polynesia
- books about Oceania + Pacific history
- more archaeology
- books published by University of California Press
- other "best book" selections
%T On the Road of the Winds
%S An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Conquest
%A Kirch, Patrick Vinton
%I University of California Press
%D 2000
%O hardcover, halftones, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520223470
%P xxii,422pp