Review of an annual review

A review of the annual review “Peopling of the Pacific: A Holistic Anthropological Perspective” by Patrick V. Kirch

For this week’s blog I went specifically to the regional area of my studies, and I was between two reviews of interest. One is called “Archaeology in Oceania”, written in 1978 by Jeffrey Clark and John Terrell. The second is “Peopling of the Pacific: A Holistic Anthropological Perspective” written by Patrick V. Kirch in 2010. I selected this second review not only because it is more recent, but also because I am a big fan of Kirch.

From the title of the review you can recognize that Kirch supports a holistic approach and the integration of various research methods from multiple subdisciplines in anthropology. This review summarizes the recent (the last 30 years before 2010) advances in archaeology, bioanthropology, and historical linguistics which have analyzed migrations, colonization, and interactions in Oceania. Oceania can be divided into three distinctive cultural subregions: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. However these divisions were subjected to racist prejudices in the 19th century so scholars have suggested alternative categories of Near Oceania (Western Oceania, closer to Australia and Southeast Asia) and Remote Oceania (Eastern Oceania, the remote islands as far out as Hawaii and Rapa Nui). Remote Oceania/Polynesia has been the focus of Kirch’s own work where he has written numerous publications from ethnographic field studies to historical syntheses of the earliest known Polynesian ancestors, the Lapita peoples.

Kirch begins his review by discussing the earliest (and still present) problem of Pacific anthropological research: origins. Historical questions were initially investigated by ethnologists yet over time the interest shifted to archaeology, linguistics, and eventually bioanthropology. The structure of Kirch’s review is then sectioned by subdisciplines where he discusses their earliest approaches, research developments since that initial period which have answered numerous questions of the chronology of origins and colonization, and the recent advancements in methodology. In this part of the review Kirch highlights the correlations between evidence of different subdisciplines, indicating that when applied together the two subfields can strengthen each other’s theories and arguments.

The evidence is complex and at first glance it seems like an overload of information. I would not recommend someone who knows nothing about Pacific anthropological history to start their literature review with this article. Perhaps one of Kirch’s other works instead such as On the Road of the Winds (which is an excellent historical narrative) where he eases into each field of research instead of cramming the major points into a 10+ page review. Nevertheless, Kirch performs well at structuring his synthesis so that initially the reader feels up-to-date with the recent advancements in each subfield, then all of the evidence is collectively applied to the grand narrative, the movements and settlements of Pacific peoples. This second half of the review is broken down into the differing Oceanic regions, and the sequences of narrative are overall chronological, starting from the Pleistocene epoch to the period of contact with the Americas.

Kirch supports the creation of homologous histories in the Pacific yet at the same time does not ignore the regional, cultural, linguistic, and genetic complexity. His other synthetic publications have utilized broad perspectives to narrate long-term histories by also incorporating smaller-scale regional variability to contribute to his comparative analyses. Broad and wide-spread knowledge is exactly what the reader receives in this review and at times it is easy to forget that these histories range over numerous islands separated by ocean and go back as far as the Pleistocene epoch. I was truly impressed how Kirch could summarize into eleven pages these major events in migration and settlement, as well as how he synthesized the significant developments from three subfields. I myself found it incredibly challenging last term when I wrote a 20 page literature review on Pacific archaeological history and my geographic and temporal frameworks were much smaller!

Another reason I admire Kirch is his narrative, because if you stop to think, the colonization of the Pacific Islands consisted of impressive seafaring journeys and what a better way to describe such journeys than with creative narratives. Kirch is remarkable at situating the reader in the Pacific Islands and producing vivid imagery. He himself grew up admiring the islands (born in Hawaii), and his lifetime experience and appreciation for the places and peoples emerges through his narratives. He is a great storyteller and unfortunately the reader does not get to experience it much in this article. It is one thing I dislike about this review, the lack of his creative voice. I understand that someone writing an annual review, especially one that encompasses such a large time span and region, would run into the problem of limited space and would need to reduce their description and detail. Yet although this review is rather descriptive, it still does tell interesting stories of human career and paints a ‘picture’ (Kirch’s imagery, see annotations) of Pacific history.

I admire this review because Kirch not only uses this opportunity to exhibit the numerous contributions to the ‘origins question’ from recent years but also effectively argues for the multidisciplinary approach by presenting and connecting findings from all three fields. I have not read many annual reviews of anthropology so I am unsure whether authors are encouraged to make arguments or simply synthesize past research. Since 2010, there have been a number of studies in the Pacific which have applied multidisciplinary approaches to investigate large questions, not necessarily of origins since it has been a debatable topic for some time, but of mobility, subsistence, and social stratification. Kirch himself has collaborated with other researchers from varying fields (ethnographers, linguists, zooarchaeologists, geologists to name a few) to address the deep time problems of Pacific human history. So as Kirch sums up towards the end of his review, a number of research questions have been answered about Pacific island history, but many more remain.

So to summarize, what works for this review is such:

  • His perspective, broad yet diverse, holistic and integrative
  • His confidence in recent advancements and paths of future research
  • His argument for a multidisciplinary approach as a methodology for historical reconstruction and answering the big questions

And this is what may not work so well:

  • A lot of summarizing and a lot of information to absorb (may not work for some readers, although it supports his argument on multidisciplinary research)
  • Lack of creative narrative (which is more of a personal critique because I am so accustomed to Kirch’s other publications)



Kirch, Patrick V. 2010. “Peopling of the Pacific: A holistic anthropological perspective”. Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 131-148.


Buckley, Hallie R., Rebecca Kinaston, Siân E. Halcrow, Aimee Foster, Matthew Spriggs, and Stuart Bedford. 2014. “Scurvy in a tropical paradise? Evaluating the possibility of infant and adult vitamin C deficiency in the Lapita skeletal sample of Teouma, Vanuatu, Pacific islands.” International Journal of Paleopathology 5: 72-85

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Review of an annual review

  1. Daniel Ionico

    Hi Roxanne,

    I like how you took on another review to consider the potential changes in the field from the 70’s to the more recent past (late 2000’s). I like how you mention that there has been attempts to rename regions that derived from colonial associations. I’m curious, how successful has that renaming process been within this region? Has the shift to Near Oceana and Remote Oceania stuck in archaeological writings, or are the old names still used for geographical communicative purposes in other recent articles you have read?

    Also, these reviews are quite monumental task when their job is to review large amounts of literature and try to summarize the findings! Talk about having to deal with info-glut! You even mention that the reviews are an information overload. I see that you generally are impressed with this work but, as you mention Kirch engages with many of the subdisciplines, do you think that he may have missed any important details? Perhaps not enough details on fish bones? In my review article I felt the author did a good job but also felt she didn’t cover all the important developments in the field of material studies. I was just wondering if you had any similar feelings with these two reviews.

    1. wildenrk Post author

      Hi Daniel,

      A shift to primarily using Near Oceania and Remote Oceania as regional terms has not really happened, there for sure has not been a complete change-over. All of the terms are used, often all together in single publications. It appears the controversies related to the original regional terms are presented as disclaimers, such as “researchers should be careful how they study/make interpretations of these regions”.

      In relation to Kirch’s engagement with the subdisciplines, there were definitely some important things he did not mention but I believe it was intentional. Of course I would have liked more on fish bones but since the review was not zooarchaeological I think Kirch knew his audience would not care very much if he started to talk about fish variability and relations to fishing practices, therefore he just selected the big ideas such as the colonizers’ abilities to exploit both native land and sea environments to sustain successful settlement. It is like we have discussed in our other class on historians and Carr, the author is selective and picks out specific points he thinks are most important for the story he wants to tell, in this case Kirch chose points of evidence which depicted major events of movement and settlement.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *