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. …