Sunday, December 11

Easter Island

Easter Island. James Cook.
Voyage towards the South Pole. 1777
(Click to enlarge or download)

Easter Island based on Captain James Cook and  Jean-François de la Pérouse's engravings.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui, Spanish: Isla de Pascua) is a volcanic island consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world but 1200 years ago a double-hulled canoe filled with seafarers from a distant culture landed upon its shores, the legends say King Hoto Matua and his family landed in Anakena beach, thus beginning the occupation of Easter Island. Over the centuries that followed a remarkable society developed in isolation on the island. For reasons still unknown they began carving giant statues out of volcanic rock and at present Easter Island is best known for its 887 giant stone monoliths, known as Moai, that dot the coastline.
Canoe Easter Island.
Atlas du voyage de la Pérouse. 1797
(Click to enlarge or download)

The early settlers called the island "Te Pito O Te Henua" (Navel of The World). Admiral Roggeveen, who came upon the island on Easter Day in 1722, named it Easter Island. Today, the land, people and language are all referred to locally as Rapa Nui.

Today is the most famous example of societies that overtook their ecological limits and collapsed as a result. Easter Island has become, for many, a metaphor for ecological disaster.
The first islanders found a lush island, filled with giant palms which they used to build boats and housing. The plants they brought with them did well in the rich volcanic soil and by AD 1550 population on the island hit a high of between 7000 and 9000, far exceeding the capabilities of the small island's ecosystem. Resources became scarce, and the once lush palm forests were destroyed - cleared for agriculture and moving the massive stone Moai. It is not certain, but the moai appear to have been built as part of status competition between the various tribus on the island, with bigger moai demonstrating greater power. The early seventeenth century was probably the pinnacle of Easter Island culture, when the biggest moai were built. However, moai construction consumed a lot of resources, particularly wood, for transport and energy and by 1650, the last tree had been felled. 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 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.

This way the island suffered from heavy soil erosion, it was a wasteland, the eroded soil just barely producing enough food for the meager population to survive. It was under these conditions that the Birdman Cult arose.This process of erosion seems to have been gradual and may have been aggravated by sheet farming throughout most of the 20th century.
By the time Europeans arrived on the island’s shores in 1722, the number of easter Islanders had fallen dramatically, and they had been reduced to war and cannibalism.
It is nevertheless true that the world Jacob Roggeveen first observed when arriving on Rapa Nui was a land exceptionally fertile "Fowls are the only animals they keep. They cultivate bananas, sugar cane, and above all sweet potatoes.

In 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island; he reported that some statues had fallen over.
Atlas du voyage de la Pérouse. 1797
(Click to enlarge or download)
  In 1786 Jean-François de la Pérouse visited Easter Island and his gardener declared that "three days' work a year" would be enough to support the population.
Rollin, a major in the Pérouse expedition, wrote, "Instead of meeting with men exhausted by famine... I found, on the contrary, a considerable population, with more beauty and grace than I afterwards met in any other island; and a soil, which, with very little labor, furnished excellent provisions, and in an abundance more than sufficient for the consumption of the inhabitants.
The British ship HMS Blossom arrived in 1825 and reported seeing no standing statues. Easter Island was approached many times during the 19th century, but by then the islanders had become openly hostile to any attempt to land, and very little new information was reported before the 1860s.


Moai. Easter Island.
James Cook. Voyage towards the South Pole. 1777
(Click to enlarge or download)
"Moai" are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered. Although often identified as "Easter Island heads", the statues are actually torsos, with most of them ending at the top of the thighs. The islanders call them "moai," and they have puzzled ethnographers, archaeologists, and visitors to the island since the first European explorers arrived here in 1722. In their isolation, why did the early Easter Islanders undertake this colossal statue-building effort? Unfortunately, there is no written record (and the oral history is scant) to help tell the story of this remote land, its people, and the significance of the nearly 900 giant moai that punctuate Easter Island's barren landscape.
They stand with their backs to the sea and are believed by most archaeologists to represent the spirits of ancestors, chiefs, or other high-ranking males who held important positions in the history of Rapa Nui. The statues may have been created in the image of various paramount chiefs. They were not individualized portrait sculptures, but standardized representations of powerful individuals. The moai may also hold a sacred role in the life of the Rapa Nui, acting as ceremonial conduits for communication with the gods.
 Almost all (95%) moai were carved out of distinctive, compressed, easily worked solidified volcanic ash found at a single site inside the extinct volcano Rano Raraku. 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."
Monuments, L'Ille de Pâque, details.
Atlas du vogage de la Pérouse. 1797
(Click to enlarge or download)
The moai carvers were master craftsmen, they 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. Coral and obsidian eyes were placed in as a final touch, although some suggest these were only placed in the statues on special occasions. Preparation was then made for transport across the island to various ahu. The ahu were the ceremonial platforms built to support collections of moai.

We can see the history of Easter Island is rich and controversial. Its inhabitants have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids, colonialism, and near deforestation; its population declined precipitously more than once.
Contacts with western “civilization” proved being even more disastrous for the island population through slavery and disease. 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 scene 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 ruins it did not take long to convert the population to Christianity. First to go was the islanders style of dress, or lack thereof. Tattooing and use of body paint were 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 were 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 Rapa Nui blood died out. Annexation with
 Chile in 1888 brought new influences and population has risen to more than 2,000 and today there are only a few individuals left with ties to the original population.