Friday, April 18, 2008

Rapa Nui, Isla de Pascua, or Easter Island-Nov 2005

All these names are for the same place. A Dutch navigator discovered its presence in April 1772 on Easter, hence the English name. I think it is unfortunate that it’s called that by most of the world, because it certainly has nothing to do with Easter or Christianity. If it was known as Rapa Nui perhaps it would conjure up an image of a more exotic place and give respect to the native people who live there. They are proud Polynesians descendents and it is Rapa Nui to them. The island is part of Chile and they could have changed the name when they took claim to it, but instead they call it Isla de Pascua, which means Easter Island.

The island lays 2500 miles off the Chilean coast and the nearest place where there are other inhabitants is Pitcairn Island (where the Bounty mutineers found a home) and it is 1800 miles away. It is the most remote place in the world. I don’t know when I learned of Easter Island and its big statues, but it was a long time ago. (I have been continually shocked to find people that never heard of Easter Island.) It was always described as a place of mystery because at the time many things were unknown about the statues (called Moias) and how they got there etc. etc. In reading about the place, some authors still seem to think there are many mysteries, but after our adventure there, everything seems pretty straight forward and logical. We owe our knowledge to our outstanding guide, Bill, an Aussie, who is married to Rapanuian, Edith, who owns the hotel we stayed at. Of course many things are speculations and extrapulations from sometimes meager evidence, but what Bill told us seemed reasonable and logical. I have read about other theories, so its not exactly a narrowness of scope, that I have satisfied my beliefs.

The map below shows the area considered to be a National Park in grey and the dots, mostly along the coast, are where the most of the moais were constructed. And to clear up on thing right away, the moais face inward, overlooking what used to be villages and not out to the sea. There is one bunch of moai that looks seaward, but there was a village between the moai and the sea, so it overlooked a village, like the rest of them.

An ancient village called Orongo lies a top the extinct volcano on the left side of the island's triangle. More about that latter.

The two parallel red lines in the same area is the airport which brings in two plane loads per week. The airport was upgraded by the U.S. to accomodate an emergency landing of the astronauts, so now larger planes can land there. The planes do use the entire runway to take off.

The only village is Tanga Roa, population about 2500.

Edith met us at the airport, gave us each a lei and about 10 minutes later we were in our room.
Rapa Nui, is a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific. Formed by a series of massive volcanic eruptions, the island was only inhabited by sea birds and dragonflies for millions of years.

Science, through DNA analysis of skeletons, has confirmed that the natives are Polynesians and not South Americans as explorer Thor Heyerdahl postulated.

We quickly explored Tanga Roa and came upon our first Moai which was placed there as a monument. This is the water front of Tanga Roa. Out of the picture to the right are a small marina and a couple of restaurants. And we found out later, good places to eat. There were some surfers riding the waves.
This is a view of Tanga Roa from the road on our first tour day.
The platform or altar on which the moais stand is called an ahu. This ahu has been restored by a Japanese millionaire. The moai second from the right has a top knot on top which is made from red rock found in a different part of the island. The ocean is only a couple hundred yards behind. The island was hit by a tidal wave in 1965 which knocked over what was here.
It is unclear why the Rapnuians turned to statue construction on such a massive scale. Their obsession with it ultimately brought about their downfall as they depleted more and more of the forests for use in the process of moving the giant Moai. While the why is a mystery, where it happened and to a large degree how it happened is fairly clear. Each Moai was born from the massive caldera of Rano Raraku. Small dots on the left hand slope are partially buried moai. Some of them were left there by the tidal wave. The soft volcanic tuff was perfect material for statue carving. Using harder volcanic rock implements they were able to first sketch out the Moai's outline in the rock wall and then systematically chip away at it until the Moai was held in place by a thin "keel".

The moai carvers were master craftsmen that had rose through the ranks of a "carver's guild". The production of the statues was most likely through conscripted labour with many rituals and ceremonies performed throughout the process. The stone carvers were ingenious in making the most out of sections of rock. Moai can be seen carved in all directions in the cliff face. If a defect would appear in the rock the statue would be abandoned and they moved on to another area. They took advantage of fissures in the volcanic walls and also variations in colors. In short they were true artists.

Finally when a statue was finished, it was broken off its keel and slid carefully down the slope using ropes tied to giant palm trunks which were sunk in specially prepared holes in rim of the crater. At the base of the crater they were raised up and final decorations were carved into its torso and back.
These two moai are probably the most photographed by tourist and travel magazines.

Here is a moai almost ready to be cut out and moved.
Preparation was then made for transport across the island to various Ahu. Moving the moai was difficult and many can be seen along the paths of ancient roadways where they broke along the way and were abandoned.

It is believed that the statues were commissioned commemorative images of lineage heads. However, the moai are not portraits of specific individuals although some may have inscriptions or other markings that linked them with specific chiefs. Why they chose the stylize design of the angular face and long phallus shaped bodies is unclear and remains a mystery. While there are some other stone sculptures made by Polynesians none is similar to the moai.

Recent computer simulations indicate that to position the Moai in a horizontal position on two large logs and then roll the whole unit, along on other logs placed perpendicular to it would be the easiest way to transport them. Using this method calculations show that an average moai could have been moved from the quarry to a distant Ahu in less than 5 days, using approximately 70 men. These theories were recently put to the test in a successful experiment to move a moai replica on Rapanui.
The stone used for the top knots were carved out from a different area. The photo below was taken at the top of the quarry. Our van can be seen as well as top knots abandoned along the path. When the first settlers came to Rapanui, the island was covered with trees. The deforestation that took place played a big part in the downfall of the entire society leading to the end of the moai construction.
Although they were an incredible engineering feat, most of the ahu build were less than elegant constructions. At one site however, you can see the incredible precision in the stone fittings. It was this precision, so similar to the stonework done by the Incas, that gave Thor Heyerdahl the idea that the Easter Islanders had come from South America in reed boats on the prevailing currents. Stonework of this complexity had not been seen in Polynesia, but it was common in Peru. It's impossible to look at that site and not think of the exact type of stone fitting which is so common in sites like Machu Picchu. Most archaeologists consider the similarities a coincidence. If so it is a remarkable one.

Soon ahu with erected moai were installed on all corners of the island. Over one thousand moai had been carved. For years the competition to build the biggest and the best Moai went on. The population of the island continued to grow. Different ahu, each belonging to a different clan, formed an almost unbroken line along the coast of Easter Island.

The trees were cut for lumber for housing, wood for fires, and eventually for the rollers and lever-like devices used to move and erect the Moai.

As the deforestation continued the Moai building competition turned into an obsession. The quarry was producing Moai at sizes that probably could never have been moved very far ( one unfinished Moai in the quarry is 70 feet tall). With the loss of the forests, the land began to erode. The small amount of topsoil quickly washed into the sea. The crops began to fail and the clans turned on one another in a battle for the scarce resources. The symbols of the islanders' power and success, the Moai, were toppled.

Eyes were smashed out of the moai and often rocks were placed where the statues neck would fall so it would decapitate the Moai. The violence grew worse and worse. It was said that the victors would eat their dead enemies to gain strength. Bones found on the island show evidence of this cannibalism. Bill talks about this at one ahu showing the fallen moai with top knot.

The Birdman Cult

It's possible that the Birdman practices has been going on during the reign of the statue cult, however, it eventually took over as the predominate religion on the island and was still in practice up till 1866-67.

High on the rim of the crater known as Rano Kau was the ceremonial village of Orongo. Built to worship the god of fertility - Makemake, it became the site of a grueling competition.
Each year leadership of the island was determined by the individual who could scale down the vertical slopes, swim out to one of three small islets in shark infested waters, and bring back the egg of the nesting Sooty Tern unbroken. The one who did this successfully was considered the Birdman of the year and was bestowed with special honors and privileges.

One of the most fascinating sights at Orongo are the hundreds of petroglyphs carved with birdman and Makemake images. Carved into solid basalt, they have resisted ages of harsh weather. It has been suggested that the images represent birdman competition winners. Over 480 birdman petroglyphs have been found on the island, mostly around Orongo.

Below is the crater of Rano Kau and the water contained is the water supply for Tanga Roa. From this vantage point you can see unending ocean in all directions, and as Bill pointed out, you can see curvature of the earth. Bill spent many days at this site when the movie Rapa Nui was made. (The date on the photo is not correct.)
This photo shows the homes at Orongo, circular in shape and built out of stone. The small entrances to the homes was below the surface making it difficult for intruders to enter.
Standing on the rim of Rono Kua you can see the earth's curvature.
The photo below show the islet that the birdman contestants would swim to and the rock on the right shows a birdman petroglyph. In 1862 wave after wave of slave traders landed on Easter Island and took away all healthy individuals. In the space of one year, a level of injury, death and disease was inflicted on the population leaving a broken people, bereft of leadership. As their culture lay in disarray a new force entered the seen whose actions would forever deny the world of a true understanding of the Rapa Nui culture.

The missionaries arrived on Easter when the people were at their most vulnerable. With their society in ruin it did not take long to convert the population to Christianity. First to go was the islanders style of dress, or lack of. Tattooing and use of body paint was banned. Destruction of Rapa Nui artworks, buildings, and sacred objects, including most of the Rongo Rongo Tablets - the key to understanding their history - was swift and complete. Islanders where forced off their ancestral lands and required to live in one small section of the island while the rest of the land was used for ranching.

Eventually all pure blood Rapa Nui died out. Annexation with Chile brought new influences and today there are only a few individuals left with ties to the original population.

Bill took some us into some caves along the coast, equipping us with some needed hard hats to wriggle our way to the entrance. I am bracing myself because it is a shear drop to the rocks and ocean below. If you peer to the left you can see the harbor of Tanga Rua. Natives would hide in these caves and could see when the slave traders ships would arrive.
There is a catholic church in town and I took this to show the influence of the bird man cult.

Hollywood made a movie called “Rapa Nui” which Kevin Costner helped produce. Bill first came to the island as part of the crew where he was head of construction.

This is where he met Edith. There is an interesting story about Edith father. At one time the island was a leaper colony and no one was allowed to leave. He was a young man and wanted to leave and he and 4 friends built a boat and left. Along the way, there was a storm and all provisions were lost. They were starving. They drew straws to decide which one the others would kill for food the next day so the others could live. (Cannibalism has a history on the island.) Edith’s father drew the short straw. The next morning they woke to find there small boat bumping up against another larger boat. They were saved. The father then had a dream where god spoke to him and the father promised never to leave the island again. God told him he would have many children. Edith is one of 22 children.

The movie “Rapa Nui” is shown on the island once a week and Bill says none of the part about the bird man contest is true. People didn’t throw their best friends of the cliffs and they raced down to the ocean to swim out to the rocks. It’s pure Hollywood B.S.
After two days with Bill and others in the tours we rented Bill’s dune buggy and drove around the island on our own.
The photo above was taken just outside the Rapa Nui museum. That is not a moai in the background. We drove to the beach where the original settlers were thought to have landed. The Polynesians were excellent sailors and built pontoon-like boats that skimmed over the water at a very fast pace. The beach was probably the only place such boats could have landed. There are only two beaches on the island.
There is a picnic grove here above the beach where some young palm trees provide some shade. And there are two canteens here where you can buy some food and drink. There is a nice ahu near the beach.
The ahu can be seen just to the left of my head. This was taken on my 70th birthday.

We did see Rapa Nui Cultural Ballet. It was an outstanding display of music and dancing. The dancing was more Tahitian than Hawaiian but had its own distinct style.

One thing of mention. Every society has a system of justice. The Rapa Nuians see to it that justice falls in their favor. “Consent of the governed” really applies here. People put in jail for minor law violations are let out on Friday for the weekend and come back Sunday night to serve more of their sentence. And they will not consent to have Chilean police officers come when domestic disputes arise. The Chilean police continuously got beat up. Now the Rapa Nuians have their own officers and they tell the disputants to settle things themselves, which is usually done with the help of neighbors or family.

One of the male descendants of the former king was growing marijuana openly and the police asked him nicely to not flaunt his activity in their faces, so they could look the other way. When he didn’t honor their request they arrested him. He came to trial and the judge sentenced him. The judge was then beat up severely.

We left after 3 ½ days not wanting to stay any longer, but happy we had this experience.

I am ending this post with some thoughts I found on the internet.
Lessons from the Past?
A jewel of an island floating in an endless sea. A seemingly never ending supply of raw materials. Technological advances. Population Growth. Depletion of resources. War. Collapse. Sound familiar.

The Easter Island story is a story for our times. We too are on an island floating on an endless sea. There are differences of course. You could say that Easter Island is tiny and that it was only a matter of time before the resources in such a closed system were used up. But, there are parallels between the islanders attitude towards their environment and our own, and this is the most frightening part of the story.

On an island as small as Easter, it was easy to see the effects of the deforestation as it was taking place. But, the inhabitants continued their destructive actions. They probably prayed to their gods to replenish the land so they could continue to rape it, but the gods didn't answer. And still the trees came down.

Whatever one did to alter that ecosystem, the results were reasonably predictable. One could stand on the summit and see almost every point on the island. The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. Nonetheless, he (or she) still felled it.

1 comment:

GETkristiLOVE said...

This is my favorite story so far and really makes me want to go to Easter Island. Hopefully, we will not suffer the same fate as the natives.

I had an art teacher that was a master carvesman. He would have set a pile of volacanic rock on my desk and say, "Now carve away everything that is not a moai."