EASTER ISLAND'S 'MYSTERIES'
Easter Island has probably been the subject of more hyperbole and speculation in proportion to its size than any other prehistoric place on Earth. Conjecture and bunkum might have been less significant but for the catastrophic end to the life of its people and the deliberate destruction of their culture which almost completely eradicated the memory of their own past.
Rapa Nui is the most isolated place of inhabited land in the world, located in the South Pacific. Separated by some 3,200 km from the nearest continent of South America, it was re-discovered in 1722 on Easter Day (hence its name) by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. At the time, the island was inhabited by a population of Polynesian origin who had arrived on Easter Island many centuries earlier. Due to the island's extreme remoteness (2,000 km separate it from the nearest inhabited island), the inhabitants depended on the island's endowment of natural and marine resources.
Diamond's historical reconstruction is based largely on fallacious mythologies and legends. He claims that Easter Island's civilisation had collapsed and the building From genocide to ecocide: the rape of Rapa Nui of its famous statues ceased long before 1722, and that a catastrophic civil war and population crash toppled its culture shortly before Europeans discovered Easter Island.
It is generally agreed that Rapa Nui's oral traditions are untrustworthy and of relatively late origin; they are extremely contradictory and historically unreliable. As Bellwood (1978) emphasises: "By the time detailed observations were made in the 1880s, the old culture was virtually dead [...] It is my own suspicion that none [of the traditions] are valid." Most of the information was "gleaned from a few surviving natives from the late nineteenth century onwards, by then decimated, demoralised and culturally impoverished population which had lost most of the collective cultural-historical memory" (Flenley and Bahn, 2003).
In spite of this widely-held consensus among researchers, Diamond insists that these highly questionable records are reliable. In his view, "those traditions contain much evidently reliable information about life on Easter in the century or so before European arrival" (Diamond, 2005:88). Without his confidence in the reliance on mythology and concocted folklore, Diamond would lack any evidence for pre-European civil wars, cannibalism and societal collapse. After all, there is no compelling archaeological evidence for any of the key claims of societal dissolution and breakdown before the 18th century (Rainbird, 2002). Only by relying on incongruous myths and contradictory tales can Diamond weave a superficially coherent reconstruction of Rapa Nui's prehistory.
To understand how Diamond arrived at the premise of Easter Island's environmental self-destruction, we need to examine the foundations of his theory and that of his precursors. Diamond is not the first to suggest that environmental degradation rather than European complicity destroyed Easter Island's civilisation. The scientific hypothesis of ecological breakdown goes back to the beginnings of the environmental movement and was originally developed in the 1970s and '80s. The historical roots of the problems that underline this idea, however, go back to the 18th century. Some of the island's most conspicuous "riddles" and "mysteries" were noticed by the first European visitors. How could 'naked savages' living on an ostensibly treeless island ever build, transport and erect giant stone sculptures? Who destroyed them and why? These and other questions have obsessed generations of adventurers.
The biggest problem faced by researchers who have attempted to answer these questions is the fact that the information written down by European discoverers and early visitors is extremely limited in content and reliability. Most of the early visitors only stayed for a few days. They never inspected the entire island, let alone study in detail the social infrastructure or the cultural and religious behaviour of its indigenous population. The accounts and reports that cover the period between Easter's discovery in 1722 and the extermination of its culture 150 years later are fundamentally inconsistent and contradictory. When, at the start of the 20th century, the first archaeological expeditions tried to reconstruct the island's history, they stumbled upon an exhausted terrain: the indigenous population had been almost completely annihilated, its culture and natural habitat destroyed as a result of physical, cultural and environmental obliteration.
The Moai statues of Rapa Nui
One of the world's most famous yet least visited archaeological sites, Easter Island is a small, hilly, now treeless island of volcanic origin. Located in the Pacific Ocean at 27 degrees south of the equator and some 2200 miles (3600 kilometers) off the coast of Chile, it is considered to be the world’s most remote inhabited island. Sixty-three square miles in size and with three extinct volcanoes (the tallest rising to 1674 feet), the island is, technically speaking, a single massive volcano rising over ten thousand feet from the Pacific Ocean floor. The oldest known traditional name of the island is Te Pito o Te Henua, meaning ‘The Center (or Navel) of the World.’ In the 1860’s Tahitian sailors gave the island the name Rapa Nui, meaning ‘Great Rapa,’ due to its resemblance to another island in Polynesia called Rapa Iti, meaning ‘Little Rapa’. The island received its most well known current name, Easter Island, from the Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen who became the first European to visit Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722.
In the early 1950s, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (famous for his Kon-Tiki and Ra raft voyages across the oceans) popularized the idea that the island had been originally settled by advanced societies of Indians from the coast of South America. Extensive archaeological, ethnographic and linguistic research has conclusively shown this hypothesis to be inaccurate. It is now recognized that the original inhabitants of Easter Island are of Polynesian stock (DNA extracts from skeletons have confirmed this), that they most probably came from the Marquesas or Society islands, and that they arrived as early as 318 AD (carbon dating of reeds from a grave confirms this). It is estimated that the original colonists, who may have been lost at sea, arrived in only a few canoes and numbered fewer than 100. At the time of their arrival, much of the island was forested, was teeming with land birds, and was perhaps the most productive breeding site for seabirds in the Polynesia region. Because of the plentiful bird, fish and plant food sources, the human population grew and gave rise to a rich religious and artistic culture.
That culture's most famous features are its enormous stone statues called moai, at least 288 of which once stood upon massive stone platforms called ahu. There are some 250 of these ahu platforms spaced approximately one half mile apart and creating an almost unbroken line around the perimeter of the island. Another 600 moai statues, in various stages of completion, are scattered around the island, either in quarries or along ancient roads between the quarries and the coastal areas where the statues were most often erected. Nearly all the moai are carved from the tough stone of the Rano Raraku volcano. The average statue is 14 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 14 tons. Some moai were as large as 33 feet and weighed more than 80 tons (one statue only partially quarried from the bedrock was 65 feet long and would have weighed an estimated 270 tons). Depending upon the size of the statues, it has been estimated that between 50 and 150 people were needed to drag them across the countryside on sleds and rollers made from the island's trees.
The Paschalococos disperta and the Saphora toromiro were once the island’s most bountiful trees and sediment samples dating from 200 AD indicate an abundance of pollen from both trees in the island biota at that time. The Paschalococos disperta bear a striking resemblance to the still-surviving Jubaea chilensis, the Chilean wine palm, which grows up eighty feet tall and six feet in diameter. Thus the Paschalococos disperta palm tree trunks are the most probable candidates for the solution to the transportation of the enormous moai from their carving location at the Rano Raraku volcano to the many locations where they were erected around the island. These trees were also important to the islanders for fuel and for the construction of houses and ocean-fishing canoes.
The moai and ahu were in use as early as AD 500, the majority were carved and erected between AD 1000 and 1650, and they were still standing when Jacob Roggeveen visited the island in 1722. Recent research has shown that certain statue sites, particularly the most important ones with great ahu platforms, were periodically ritually dismantled and reassembled with ever-larger statues. A small number of the moai were once capped with ‘crowns’ or ‘hats’ of red volcanic stone. The meaning and purpose of these capstones is not known, but archaeologists have suggested that the moai thus marked were of pan-island ritual significance or perhaps sacred to a particular clan.
Scholars are unable to definitively explain the function and use of the moai statues. It is assumed that their carving and erection derived from an idea rooted in similar practices found elsewhere in Polynesia but which evolved in a unique way on Easter Island. Archaeological and iconographic analysis indicates that the statue cult was based on an ideology of male, lineage-based authority incorporating anthropomorphic symbolism. The statues were thus symbols of authority and power, both religious and political. But they were not only symbols. To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called mana. The ahu platforms of Easter Island were the sanctuaries of the people of Rapa Nui, and the moai statues were the ritually charged sacred objects of those sanctuaries. While the statues have been toppled and re-erected over the centuries, the mana or spiritual presence of Rapa Nui is still strongly present at the ahu sites and atop the sacred volcanoes.
Mystery surrounds the purpose of the ahu platforms and moai statues but even more perplexing mysteries have begun to surface from the research of scholars outside the boundaries of conventional archaeology. As previously mentioned, orthodox archaeologists believe that Easter Island was initially settled sometime around 318 AD by a small group of Polynesians lost on the open sea. Other scholars, however, have suggested that the tiny island may have once been part of far larger island and that the original discovery and use of the site may be many thousands of years earlier in time (it is known, for example, that Melanesians were journeying around the Pacific in boats as early as 5500 BC).
Three researchers in particular, Graham Hancock, Colin Wilson and Rand Flem-Ath, believe that Easter Island was an important node in a global grid of sacred geography that predates the great floods of archaic times. Easter Island, writes Graham Hancock, is
"part of a massive subterranean escarpment called the East Pacific Rise, which reaches almost to the surface at several points. Twelve thousand years ago, when the great ice caps of the last glaciation were still largely unmelted, and sea-level was 100 meters lower than it is today, the Rise would have formed a chain of steep and narrow antediluvian islands, as long as the Andes mountain range."
At that time, the land we now call Easter Island would simply have been the highest peak of a much larger island. The fascinating question posed by Hancock, Wilson and Flem-Ath is whether this much larger island had been found and settled long before the ‘318 AD discovery’ date assumed by orthodox archaeology? (In reference to the notion of a so-called ‘Ice Age,’ it is important to mention that scientists from a variety of disciplines including geology, climatology, zoology, paleoanthropology, oceanography, geophysics and mythology have begun to question the hypothesis of an ice age and glacial coverage that was first proposed by Charles Lyell and Louis Agassiz in the early 1800’s. Readers interested in learning more about the possible non-existence of the Ice Age and its glacier coverage will enjoy the book Cataclysm: Compelling Evidence of a Cosmic Catastrophe in 9500 BC, by Allan & Delair.)
Besides its more well known name of Rapa Nui, Easter Island is also known as Te-Pito-O-Te-Henua, meaning ‘The Navel of the World’, and as Mata-Ki-Te-Rani, meaning ‘Eyes Looking at Heaven’. These ancient names, and a host of mythological details ignored by mainstream archaeologists, point to the possibility that the remote island may once have been a geodetic marker and the site of an astronomical observatory of a long forgotten civilization. Speculations about this shadowy antediluvian culture include the notion that its mariners had charted the world’s oceans, that its astronomers had sophisticated knowledge of long-term astronomical cycles such as precession and cometary orbits, and that its historians had records of previous global cataclysms and the destruction they caused of even more ancient civilizations.
In his book, Heaven’s Mirror, Hancock suggests that Easter Island may once have been a significant scientific outpost of this antediluvian civilization and that its location had extreme importance in a planet-spanning, mathematically precise grid of sacred sites. He writes,
"The very existence of such an ancient world grid has been staunchly resisted by mainstream archaeologists and historians – as, of course, have all attempts to relate known sites to it. Nevertheless, the definite traces of lost astronomical knowledge that are to be seen on Easter Island, and the recurrent echoes of ancient Egyptian spiritual and cosmological themes, cast doubt on the scholarly explanation that the odd name ‘Navel of the World’ was adopted for purely ‘poetic and descriptive’ reasons. We suspect that Te-Pito-O-Te-Henua may originally have been selected for settlement, and given its name, entirely because of its geodetic location." "What we are suggesting therefore is that Easter Island might have originally have been settled in order to serve as a sort of geodetic beacon, or marker – fulfilling some as yet unguessed at function in an ancient global system of sky-ground co-ordinates that linked many so-called ‘world navels’".
Two other alternative scholars, Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, have extensively studied the location and possible function of these geodetic markers. In their fascinating book, Uriel’s Machine, they suggest that one purpose of the geodetic markers was as part of global network of sophisticated astronomical observatories dedicated to predicting and preparing for future cometary impacts and crustal displacement cataclysms. The great floods of archaic myths did not result from the melting of the ice caps between 13,000 and 8000 BC (an event which may not have actually occurred) but rather from two great cataclysms that were caused by cosmic and cometary objects affecting the entire planet. These cataclysms were 1) the pass-by of a cosmic object and an ensuing planet-wide crustal displacement in 9600 BC, and 2) the seven cometary impacts of 7640 BC which resulted in the massive waves (3-5 miles high, traveling at over 400 miles per hour for distances of more than 2000 miles), volcanic activity and other terrestrial and climatological events recorded in myths all across the planet. Prior to these cataclysmic events however, in what is commonly called the late Paleolithic era, a maritime civilization may have existed with cities situated along coastlines that are now submerged beneath the seas.
In the latter years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century various writers and scientists have advanced theories regarding the rapid decline of Easter Island’s magnificent civilization around the time of the first European contact. Principal among these theories, and now shown to be inaccurate, is that postulated by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.
Basically these theories state that a few centuries after Easter Island’s initial colonization the resource needs of the growing population had begun to outpace the island's capacity to renew itself ecologically. By the 1400s the forests had been entirely cut, the rich ground cover had eroded away, the springs had dried up, and the vast flocks of birds coming to roost on the island had disappeared. With no logs to build canoes for offshore fishing, with depleted bird and wildlife food sources, and with declining crop yields because of the erosion of good soil, the nutritional intake of the people plummeted. First famine, then cannibalism, set in. Because the island could no longer feed the chiefs, bureaucrats and priests who kept the complex society running, the resulting chaos triggered a social and cultural collapse. By 1700 the population dropped to between one-quarter and one-tenth of its former number, and many of the statues were toppled during supposed "clan wars" of the 1600 and 1700’s.
The faulty notions presented in these theories began with the racist assumptions of Thor Heyerdahl and have been perpetuated by writers, such as Jared Diamond, who do not have sufficient archaeological and historical understanding of the actual events which occurred on Easter Island. The real truth regarding the tremendous social devastation which occurred on Easter Island is that it was a direct consequence of the inhumane behavior of many of the first European visitors, particularly the slavers who raped and murdered the islanders, introduced small pox and other diseases, and brutally removed the natives to mainland South America. Readers interested in more detailed information regarding the inaccurate historical interpretations concerning the causes of Easter Island’s ecological devastation, its so-called civil war, and the genocide caused by European slavers will appreciate the following article written by Benny Peiser.
T he tablets of Easter Island have never been deciphered. There are so few left that they may never be. Scholars do not even agree about the nature of the writing on them. Some even say that it is not writing at all.
Rongorongo Tablets Some time later, Bishop Florentin Jaussen of Tahiti attempted to translate the texts. A young Easter Islander named Metero claimed to be able to read Rongorongo, and for fifteen days the bishop kept a record while the boy dictated from the inscriptions. Bishop Jaussen gave up the effort when he realized that Metero was a fraud; the boy had assigned several meanings to the same symbol.
In 1886 Paymaster William Thompson of the ship USS Mohican became interested in the pictographic system during a journey to collect artifacts for the National Museum in Washington. He had obtained two rare tablets engraved with the script and was curious about their meaning. He asked eighty-three-year-old islander Ure Va’e Iko for assistance in translation because his age made him more likely to have knowledge of the language. The man reluctantly admitted to knowing what the tablets said, but did not wish to break the orders of the missionaries. As a result, Ure Va’e Iko refused to touch the tablets, let alone decipher them.
Thompson was determined, however, and decided that Ure Va’e Iko might be more forthcoming under the influence of alcohol. After having a few drinks kindly provided by Thompson, the Easter Islander looked at the tablets once again. The old man burst into song, singing a fertility chant which described the mating of gods and goddesses. William Thompson and his companions quickly took down his words. This was potentially a big breakthrough, but Thomson struggled with assigning words to the pictographs. Furthermore, he couldn’t find another Islander who was willing to confirm the accuracy of this translation. While Thompson was ultimately unable to read Rongorongo, the translation that Iko provided has remained one of the most valuable clues on how to decipher the tablets.
This led Fischer to believe that all Rongorongo texts have a structure steeped in counts of three, or triads. He has also studied Ure Va’e Iko’s fertility chant, which lent additional support to the concept. Iko had always named a god first, his goddess mate second, and their offspring third. Fischer has also tried to make the claim that all Rongorongo texts relate creation myths. Looking at another text, he has suggested that a sentence with a symbol of a bird, a fish, and a sun reads "All the birds copulated with fish: there issued forth the sun." While this could be the translation, it bears little resemblance to Ure Va’e Iko’s chant about the matings of gods and goddesses.
Rongorongo naturally commands a great deal of interest from linguists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. Only twenty-five texts are know to have survived. Should anyone find a workable translation for Rongorongo, the knowledge stored on the remaining tablets might explain the mysterious statues of Easter Island, the sudden appearance of the written language, and the island’s history and customs as whole. However, much like the statues which have so captivated popular imagination, Rongorongo has so far defied all attempts at explanation.
Easter Island remains a place of great mystery and intrigue and may never reveal it's true secrets.
Written by Stephanie Benson on 26 December 2006
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