Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Patrick Vinton Kirch's "How Chiefs Became Kings"

Patrick Vinton Kirch is Class of 1954 Professor of Anthropology and Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of many books, including Feathered Gods and Fishhooks and On the Road of the Winds.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How Chiefs Became Kings: Divine Kingship and the Rise of Archaic States in Ancient Hawai'i, and reported the following:
The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated islands on Earth. Yet voyaging Polynesians managed to discover and settle this large and fertile archipelago around A.D. 1000, establishing the roots of what would grow to become a unique island civilization. When he established contact with the Hawaiians in A.D. 1778, the English explorer James Cook was amazed by their complex society with its many gradations of status and rank. Drawing upon Cook’s account as well as other European and indigenous sources, in How Chiefs Became Kings I argue that by the time of their fateful contact with the West, the Hawaiians had invented the concept of divine kingship. Moreover, their political system had evolved from a classic Polynesian chiefship into true archaic states, as were found in other early complex societies in both the Old and New Worlds.

How does chiefship evolve into kingship? The question is at the heart of long-running debates in anthropology and sociology. I argue that an explanation of this kind of socio-political change requires that we take into account both individual human agency and longer-term dynamic processes. Thus, for example, on page 99 of How Chiefs Became Kings, I examine Hawaiian oral histories regarding the first political consolidation of Maui Island, around A.D. 1600, by the high chief Pi‘ilani and his sons. I write that “a rivalry between junior and senior siblings (and hence a test of inherited privilege versus demonstrated mana) is at the core of this mo‘olelo [tradition].” It was frequently such contests between senior and junior lines that gave the impetus to conquest and political consolidation. Both Maui and Hawai‘i islands became single polities around the same time, and indeed their royal houses intermarried.

Yet powerful leaders such as Pi‘ilani, or the famous ‘Umi of Hawai‘i Island, carried out their wars and strategic alliances within a broader context. Drawing upon recent archaeological findings, I demonstrate that a history of population growth coupled with significant intensification of the islands’ agricultural production systems enabled these new kings to achieve their political aims. And, once kingship had been established, new forms of ritualized control of the political economy were instituted, as is well documented in the archaeological record of monumental temple architecture. In short, my book shows how—over the course of just eight centuries—the most isolated society in the world developed social and political institutions that paralleled those of the world’s other pristine states.
Learn more about How Chiefs Became Kings at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue