Futuna is virtually the last Polynesian place. World War II extinguished the copra business, and the world has left the Futunans alone since. Anthropologist Patrick Kirch thus chose it in 1974 for ethnographic and archaeological studies of traditional Polynesian food growing.
But "The Wet and the Dry" could not have been written in 1974, because the competing theories of how agriculture developed and in turn affected political and social evolution in Oceania had not been worked out.
Now they have been, and Kirch, a former department head at the Bishop Museum, finds that the oldest of them, "oriental despotism," doesn't work.
Like a lot of plausible bad ideas, this one goes back to Karl Marx. In the classic formulation of Karl Wittfogel, the invention of priests, kings and bureaucrats was mothered by the necessity to coordinate vast irrigation systems.
That, goes the theory, is why civilizations appeared in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, Nile, Indus and Huang Ho rivers. In "Oriental Despotism," Wittfogel considered Hawaii as a minor example of the phenomenon.
As it turns out, Futuna is almost too perfect as a natural laboratory for testing the idea. Sigave, the windward side, is rich in wet taro and consequently pigs, which are male wealth in the Futunan way of thinking. Alo, the leeward side, is wealthy in yams, which, unlike in Hawaii, have higher ritual status than taro; and in barkcloth, which is female wealth in Futuna.
Sigave is more vulnerable to cyclones but more resistant to drought. Since wet taro returns eight times more calories per unit of labor than yams and the dry taro grown on slash-and-burn fields in Alo, Sigave has more options to deal with environmental stresses, including increases in population.
Thus, there was more or less continuous warfare, usually initiated by Alo, between these two tiny and closely related communities until French missionaries enforced peace.
In the last war, 1839-40, Alo won. Even today, the paramount chief of Sigave defers to the paramount of Alo.
(Even without missionaries, there might be less reason to fight now. The island was depopulated by imported diseases and has never regained its traditional size. Today's population is under 4,000.)
In the second part of the book, when Kirch applies the theory derived from Futuna to Hawaii, Mangaia and Tikopia, the interactions are far less balanced and clean than at Futuna.
But the conclusion is the same: History and archaeology virtually stand Marx on his head. "It is a salient fact that the direction of political expansion in Polynesia typically moved from the 'dry' to the 'wet.' "
And while Kirch rejects "some outdated theory of environmental determinism," his ideas do help explain why the Hawaiian island were united by a chief from the Big Island, even though the chiefs of Oahu had higher status and greater wealth.
Kirch did not invent the new interpretation alone. In fact, the term "the wet and the dry" is borrowed from the ethnobotanist Jacques Barrau, who used it in 1965, and is not cognate with Claude Levi-Strauss' "the raw and the cooked." When it comes to Frenchmen, Kirch cites not the anthropologists but the Annales School historians: Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.
He also says that pure oriental despotism probably has few defenders nowadays. That may be true at Berkeley, where Kirch teaches, but in the backwoods where I went to school, Wittfogel is still served up pretty much unadulterated.
Kirch sticks to Oceania in "The Wet and the Dry" and has nothing to offer about how well oriental despotism may serve to explain the rise of the great "hydraulic" civilizations of the Old World. But certainly the ascendancy of the "drys" on small islands offers plenty of food for thought.
Even readers whose interest in generalized theories of political development is minimal will be rewarded for plowing through the duller parts of "The Wet and the Dry." This books is more specialized than Kirch's "Feathered Gods and Fishhooks," which surveyed Hawaiian archaeology, but no more so than "Anahulu," a pathbreaking study that Kirch published with Marshall Sahlins in 1991.
The ore in all Kirch's books assays out at a high content of bright metal. There is much here about farming, village life, something about religion, a little about colonization, something more about sexual division of labor (why women worked the fields in East Maui but not in West Maui, for example) and even something about the weather.