The Wet and the Dry:
Irrigation and Agricultural Intensification in Polynesia

Patrick Vinton Kirch

The University of Chicago Press 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
Kirch's The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms was a study of the dispersal of the Polynesians and their development of complex political systems. In The Wet and the Dry he turns his attention to Polynesian agriculture, but exhibits the same trait I found most attractive in the earlier book — a refusal to be constrained by disciplinary boundaries. Kirch combines ethnography and history, social anthropology and archaeology, and draws extensively on the natural sciences, in particular ecology and genetics.

The first part, about three quarters of the book, is a detailed ethnographic study of Futunan agriculture. This covers the island ecology and crops, the differences between the dry and wet halves of the island (with a detailed study of one "wet" area), the political economy of agriculture (gender roles, food prestations), and the archaeological record. The second part is a comparative study of agriculture on three other Polynesian islands — Hawaii, Mangaia and Tikopia — from a predominantly archaeo-ecological perspective. The The Wet and the Dry is notable for its illustrations: these are ordinary half-tones, but they are integrated unusually well into the text. A good selection of maps and diagrams is also provided.

While much of this material is rather technical — many anthropologists and archaeologists will find the details of the genetics and ecology of Futunan crops esoteric, for example — and the subject is ostensibly fairly narrow, Kirch does tackle some "big" questions. He stresses the fundamental distinction between the "wet" and the "dry", between pondfield irrigation and shifting cultivation, and he turns Wittfogel's hydraulic hypothesis on its head, arguing that throughout Polynesia it was the areas incapable of supporting irrigation which developed states and were politically expansive. Another concern is the importance of a long-term, archaeological perspective, which reveals the considerable effects agriculture had on Polynesian island environments even in the prehistoric period. This sort of material should have wide appeal, making The Wet and the Dry of interest to those without a particular interest in Polynesia.

April 1995

External links:
- buy from or
- details at the University of Chicago Press
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 Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms
- books about Oceania + Pacific history
- books about agriculture + pastoralism
- more archaeology
- more ethnography
- books published by The University of Chicago Press
%T The Wet and the Dry
%S Irrigation and Agricultural Intensification in Polynesia
%A Kirch, Patrick Vinton
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1994
%O hardcover, b&w halftones, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0226437493
%P xxii,385pp