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A Shark is Going Inland is my Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai'i.

A Shark is Going Inland is my Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai'i

By Patrick Vinton Kirch

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012

ISBN 978-0-520-27330-6. Pp. 386. $US45.

A Shark is Going Inland ... is an exemplary prehistory written for a popular audience. Archaeologists need to read it to see how to communicate with the public. Jared Diamond provides perhaps the best model for such writing about social history. His Guns, Germs. and Steel (Norton, 1997) was wildly popular, standing for years on the New York Times bestseller list and receiving a Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus have recently published The Creation of Inequality, (Harvard, 2012), which delivers another compelling account of world prehistory. Kirch provides a third example, focused on Hawaiian civilisation as an example of regional prehistory. A Shark ... should be read in conjuncture with How Chiefs Became Kings (University of California Press, 2010), a more conventional academic publication in which Kirch imparts the evidential and theoretical basis for his analysis. The present book is his serious attempt to display his life's work to a broad non-academic audience. His objective is met with a creative writing style and an encyclopedic knowledge.

To accomplish his objective, Pat Kirch chose wisely to write a fairly short book (about 300 pages) that weaves together succinctly the excitement of archaeological discovery, a brief history of Polynesian archaeology, the logic of archaeological inquiry, and the uses of oral history and linguistics. The origin of civilisation (state societies) took place independently in several world regions, but none has as good documentation as the Hawaiian case. Kirch has crafted arguably the best book, considering how an archaeologist works with multiple strands of data to complement and evaluate the record. In his brief consideration of Polynesian archaeology's history, he shows how the accumulation of systematic inquiries and new scientific analyses (radiocarbon dating, settlement pattern studies, material sourcing and soil science) have improved the quality of our evidential base. Many still believe that archaeology is based on rather crude conjecture, but Kirch demonstrates how we investigate substantially topics of importance. As a non-academic book, the use of evidence may at times grate with an archaeologist's sensibility. For example, he argues convincingly that we must incorporate Hawaiian oral history, but then uses the histories rather uncritically. Although I would have recommended handling the evidence more conceptually, I see how he depends on them to bring life to the dry bones of archaeology, much in the same way that Flannery and Marcus use traditional ethnography. In the context of non-academic prose, we must suspend some of the debates and concerns that permeate academic writing. Kirch conveys a synthetic view of Hawaiian prehistory that captures well his own research and much of the modern consensus of what probably happened.

Following the lead of Diamond, Kirch uses a highly personal style to bring to life the story that he tells. His personal perspective is both stylistically essential and historically justified. He and his graduate students have dominated Polynesian archaeology during the past 30 years, and they have contributed more than any other to our substantial advances in knowledge. Some Hawaiian scholars might point to places where our contributions are either de-emphasised or represented only obliquely. For example, although Marshall Sahlins played a key role both intellectually and substantively, he is referred to only three times in the text. Although careful references to the history of ideas, to personal contributions and to unresolved debates are essential to an academic book, in non-academic writing, too frequent referencing simply burdens a narrative's structure. Using the trope of "the great man"--and no Polynesian prehistorian has made greater impacts than Pat--Kirch crafts a very good story.

My criticism of A Shark. ... other than of a rather awkward title, is of its minimalist use of theory to make sense of the prehistoric narrative. Flannery and Marcus capture a similar disquiet with theory in popular writing: "There is probably no bigger 'buzzkill' than a long, ponderous chapter on competing theory" (2012: xii). Unlike some of his other writings, here Kirch seems reluctant to engage seriously with social evolution. As a result, he relies on historical specificity to frame his story and this framing depends heavily on the details from oral history. In the context of a book aiming at a general audience, such specifics seem rather excessive. In the latter chapters, the reliance on the histories has meant that his prose is peppered with proper names, mostly beginning with "K". Those without a background in Hawaiian history will find it difficult to follow the story without constant reference to the lists of Hawaiian people and terms. I am afraid that this burden will limit the book's primary objective to reach a general public. As an alternative, I recommend looking at how Jared Diamond captured public interest by developing a coherent theoretical argument as his architecture for complex argumentation. Some point to the problems of Diamond's theoretical overreach, but I for one embrace an audacious public face for science.

Kirch has made a long and most valued contribution to Polynesian prehistory, and his present book is a serious attempt to communicate with a public audience. We must value this purpose; a careful look at what works best in his book, as well as at what may be shortcomings, provides future guidance. The task of writing for a public audience is not easy, requiring that remarkable creativity that Kirch demonstrates well as was recognised by The Society for American Arcbaeology's 2013 Book Award (Public Service Category).


Northwestern University

DOI: 10.1002/arco.5015
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Author:Earle, Timothy
Publication:Archaeology in Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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