The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms

Patrick Vinton Kirch

Cambridge University Press 1984
A book review by Danny Yee © 1993
The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms is not about the institution of chiefdoms in a restrictive sense, but rather a general study of the prehistory of the Polynesian islands. Kirch uses archaeological evidence extensively (unsurprisingly given his background), and stresses a diachronic viewpoint. The use of the word "evolution" in the title, and the drawing of analogies with the "founder principle" in genetics reflects his understanding and use of the natural sciences: demography, ecology and climatology also feature prominently.

Part one describes the physical environment of Polynesia and constructs an outline of ancestral Polynesian society as deciphered by archaeology and linguistics. Part two looks at the different processes that have dominated the diachronic development (both cultural and ecological) of the different islands: colonisation and attendant adaptation, demography, changing environments, intensification of production systems and warfare. In part three societies on Tonga, Hawaii and Easter Island are examined in detail and used to illustrate the processes described in part two.

Rather than presenting a collection of miscellaneous facts without any overall perspective (as many archaeological studies do), or insisting on viewing everything in the light of one "big" theory (as some social anthropologists do), Kirch presents a very nice balance of theory and evidence. While he always tries to look at things from a global perspective and to incorporate the evidence into theoretical models, the theories he employs are always chosen as the best tools for the data in question. He is also prepared to use theories from other disciplines where appropriate.

The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms is a clearly written and presented account of the development of a culture which is particularly intriguing because of its unique physical environment. It is an example of anthropology at its best, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with any interest in the area at all.

March 1993

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Related reviews:
- Patrick Vinton Kirch - On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Conquest
- Patrick Vinton Kirch - The Wet and the Dry: Irrigation and Agricultural Intensification in Polynesia
- books about Oceania + Pacific history
- more anthropology
- more archaeology
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms
%A Kirch, Patrick Vinton
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1984
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521253322
%P xii,314pp