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Captain James Cook, on his first exploratory voyage in the Pacific in 1769, encountered a “tall, impressive” Tahitian named Tupaia who was “an expert in the arts of politics, oratory, and navigation.” Across a daunting cultural divide, the two men attempted to share their knowledge of the region.

Tupaia, Christina Thompson tells us in her magnificent new book, “Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia,” gave Cook the names of nearly 130 islands “stretching east-west from the Marquesas to Samoa, a distance of more than two thousand miles, and south some five hundred miles to the Australs. Tupaia did not claim to have visited all of the islands whose names he knew; he told Cook that he himself had firsthand knowledge of only twelve. But he had second- or thirdhand knowledge of several more; he spoke at one point of islands that were visited by his father.”

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When the Cook expedition left Tahiti, Tupaia eagerly joined it. Two months later, upon reaching New Zealand, Cook’s men were met by hostile Maori, one of whom they killed.

“The stage was set for a confrontation,” Thompson writes, “and then something unexpected occurred. Tupaia stepped forward and addressed the warriors in fluent Tahitian and, to the surprise of everyone present, he was immediately understood.”

New Zealand is more than 2,500 miles southwest of Tahiti. There seemed no reason, to Cook and his officers, why its residents would speak Tupaia’s language. But the evidence was undeniable.

In the 250 years since, investigators of every sort — amateur and professional scholars, adventurers and crackpots — have tried to solve the puzzle of how, before the era of instrument navigation, a single culture spread across a 10-million-square-mile area, “occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galapagos.”

“Sea People” does a marvelous job of covering every line of inquiry into this phenomenon. It’s a grand, symphonic, beautifully written book, drawing on findings in anthropology, archaeology, oceanography, linguistics, DNA research, radiocarbon dating, and Polynesian myth and folklore as it examines a reality that, when first apprehended by Westerners, seemed to defy explanation.

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Thompson, as it happens, has a leg up on this subject. Her husband, whom she credits with helping her “see things in a different way,” is a Maori from New Zealand. (She recounts the story of their courtship in her 2008 memoir, “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.’’) The Harvard Review editor touches briefly on their travels with their three sons within the “Polynesian Triangle” (cardinal points: New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island), but most of “Sea People” is an archive-researched historical account that has the page-turning qualities of an all-absorbing mystery.

Thompson acknowledges “the claim that any European explorer discovered anything in the Pacific — least of all the islands of Polynesia — is obviously problematic.” But it did take a combination of Polynesian and Western input — sometimes embodied in a single person such as Anglo-Irish/Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa — to fathom how, in prehistoric times, Polynesians’ ancestors were able to reach and establish themselves on some of the world’s most remote islands.

Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen, in the 1720s, felt the notion that Polynesians’ own sea-going skills got them there resembled “mockery rather than serious thought.” Either early Spanish mariners in the Pacific had brought them there, he believed, or the islanders “had been created in situ by God.”

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In the 1960s, New Zealand historian Andrew Sharp argued that while Polynesian mariners had spread across the Pacific without assistance from westerners or God, no evidence supported “the myth of deliberate long off-shore voyages in the days before navigation instruments.” More likely, he contended, they had drifted there, propelled by ocean currents and prevailing winds. Yet computer models contradicted this by showing that drift alone would never have gotten anyone to Hawaii or New Zealand.

Attention eventually turned back to Polynesians’ own legends about their migrations which have, as Thompson so eloquently puts it, both a “texture of history” and a “texture of myth.” In 1976, a replica of a double-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe, dubbed the Hokule’a (Star of Joy), successfully made the trip from Maui to Tahiti, piloted by a navigator from the Micronesian island of Satawal using traditional methods. More voyages followed — one disastrous, the rest successful — establishing once and for all “that a trained and capable navigator, using nothing but the stars, winds, and swells, could hold a course, calculate the distance traveled, hit a small target with sufficient accuracy, and incorporate all the necessary information into a mental construct that was both flexible enough for adaptation and systematic enough to be passed on.”

Some details on the chronology of this ocean-wide diaspora inevitably remain vague.

“The problem of Polynesian origins,” Thompson writes, “has never been an easy one to solve, and there are questions remaining. For instance, it is unlikely that we will ever know how some of the remotest archipelagos were initially discovered or how many canoes were lost in the course of this long and arduous colonizing process.”

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The greater point is that no single mind or mind-set holds the key to shedding light on these matters. Instead, as Thompson wisely notes, all insights into it have come from “a twisting, braided rope of intersecting narratives, a set of conversations between different people with different bodies of knowledge, different ways of thinking, and different reasons for wanting to know.”

SEA PEOPLE:

The Puzzle of Polynesia

By Christina Thompson

Harper, 366 pp., illustrated, $29.99

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where New Zealand is relative to Tahiti. It is more than 2,500 miles southwest of Tahiti.


Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.