Easter Island (Rapa Nui)
How Pacific Islanders arrived at Easter Island (Rapa Nui), one of the world's most remote inhabited islands, is no less an enigma than how their descendants could design and sculpt hundreds of colossal moai from hard volcanic tuff, transport these tall and heavy statues great distances from quarry to coast and erect them on great stone ahu (platforms).
Residents and visitors have applied various names to this small, isolated volcanic land-mass. Polynesian settlers named it Rapa Nui, but the view of the seemingly infinite sea from the summit of Terevaka, the island's highest point, reveals why they also called it Te Pito o Te Henua - the Navel (Centre) of the World. From Easter Island, a vessel can sail more than 1900km in any direction without sighting inhabited land. Dutch mariner Jacob Roggeveen, the first European to sight the island, named it Easter Island, after the date of his discovery; the Spaniards first called it San Carlos (after King Carlos III). Other mariners dubbed it Davis's Land after confusing it with territory identified by the 17th-century English pirate Edward Davis. Roggeveen's legacy survived among Europeans. English speakers call it Easter Island. Spanish speakers refer to Isla de Pascua, Germans to Osterinsel.
A further word on terminology: What exactly to call the island in inhabitants and their language has been a topic of hair-splitting contention. Some people argue that the two-word term 'Rapa Nui' is an imperial imposition that the single word 'Rapanui' more closely approximates usage in other Polynesian languages. For purposes of convenience, this Web site uses 'Rapa Nui' to refer to the island as a geographical entity and Rapanui to refer to the people and their language.
In archaeology and the study of antiquity, Rapa Nui raises issues totally disproportionate to its size (only 117 sq km) and population (about 3000 according to recent estimates with another thousand scattered worldwide). The nearest populated landmass, 1900km west, is even tinier Pitcairn Island of HMS bounty fame, and the next nearest inhabited 'neighbours' are the Mangarevas (Gambier) Islands, 2500km west, and the Marquesas, 3200km to the east. Yet Rapa Nui is central to some very big questions.
The most obvious questions are where the original islanders came from, how they arrived at such an unlikely destination, what inspired them to build the imposing statues for which Rapa Nui is so famous and how the islanders transported those statues from quarry to site. Even larger questions deal with the existence and frequency of trans-pacific contacts and cultural exchanges between peoples for whom the world's greatest ocean ought to have been an insurmountable barrier.
Five centuries ago, encounters between Europe and the Americas marked the beginning of a global transformation that no one cold have anticipated when Columbus, thinking he had reached Japan, set foot in the Bahamas. Everyone knows. of course, that Europeans crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus, but their transient presence made little impact upon North-America. could transpacific crossings have been more significant? There is a broad consensus that the first Americans were Asiatic peoples who crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska via a land bridge, which disappeared as the sea level rose with the melting of the continental ice sheets at the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago. Exact dates are in dispute (some argue that crossings took place during even earlier glacial epochs), but no one doubts that such migrations ceased with the rising oceans. These immigrants reached the southernmost extremes of South America and created the great civilisations of Mexico and Peru. For millennia they were isolated from their Asiatic origins.
But how isolated, and for how long? Among scholars of prehistory, there is a long-running debate between two major schools of thought: Partisans of 'independent invention' argue that New World civilizations evolved in geographical isolation until the voyages of Columbus, and 'diffusionists' post contacts and cultural exchanges across the Pacific long before 1492. Economically important plants, such as the coconut, appear to have been present in both he Eastern and Western Hemispheres when Europeans first came to the New World, and the sweet potato, a New World domesticate, was also a widely diffused Polynesian staple. Patterns of navigation and settlement in the Pacific are central to the 'diffusionists' arguments, and Rapa Nui is a key piece in a complex puzzle, the last possible stopover on eastbound voyages to South America and the first on westbound ones to Polynesia.
At the time of the Spanish invasion, the inhabitants of Peru knew of distant Pacific islands, there is evidence of long coastal voyages to Mexico and, centuries before, their ancestors may have sailed to Rapa Nui. In 1947 Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl proved that such voyages were feasible when he sailed his balsa raft Kon Tiki, built like early Pacific watercraft, from South America to Raroia, in Polynesia's Tuamotu Archipelago. After sailing past Rapa Nui on a voyage from Chile, an early-19th-century European mariner described a strong southern branch of the Humboldt (or Peru) Current that, he said, could speed vessels from northern Chile and southern Peru toward this island, even with contrary winds. He strongly advised that all sailing ships follow this route to the South Sea Islands.
Under these conditions it's conceivable that south American Indians reached Rapa Nui by pre-Columbian rather than by chance drifting with the winds and currents. given that drifters would probably not have survived a voyage for which they were unprepared it seems unlikely they would have found Rapa Nui by chance. It is more probable that Polynesians settled the island from the west. These peoples managed to disperse over a myriad of islands within a gigantic triangle whose apexes were at New Zealand, Hawaii and Rapa Nui, plus a handful of islands deep in Melanesia. Orthodox academic opinion currently favours an Asiatic origin for the Polynesian peoples who, apparently, built the Rapa Nui monuments. Details vary, but there is general agreement that migration into the Pacific region began 50,000 years ago, when ancestors of the Australian Aboriginals and New Guinea highlanders first crossed the sea in search of new homelands. Papuan-speaking peoples settled the islands of New Britain, New Ireland and perhaps the Solomons no later than 10,000 years ago - possibly much earlier.
Malay-Polynesian speakers who had colonized the western islands of Micronesia, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga by about 1000 BC, achieved the settlement of the Pacific beyond the Solomons. A distinctive Polynesian culture may have developed on Samoa and Tonga; the final migrations probably started from Samoa and Tonga early in the first millennium AD. Large double canoes capable of carrying the food and domestic animals that would have been required for colonization sailed eastward to settle the Marquesas around 300 AD, or perhaps two centuries earlier. From the Marquesas, migrants settled Rapa Nui and Hawaii by about 800 AD (perhaps earlier) and New Zealand by 900 AD.
Both Polynesians and South American Indians appear to have launched voyages of exploration into the Pacific, establishing the position of the islands they discovered, recording that information, and passing it on to others. Intriguingly, Rapa Nui legends describe the arrival of two different peoples - the Hanau Eepe from the east and the Hanau Momoko from the west. These names, which Heyerdahl mistranslated as 'long ears' and 'short ears' because of the custom of earlobe elongation, would be more accurately rendered as 'corpulent people' and 'thin people.'
Legend of Hotu Matua
By oral tradition, Rapa Nui's history falls into three district periods. First came the arrival of King Hotu Matua and his followers, the initial settlers. There followed a period of rivalry between the Hanau Eepe and Hanau Momoko, ending with the extermination of the latter. Lastly, there was a more recent tribal war between the peoples of the Tuu and Hotu-iti regions. According to legend Hotu Matua came from the cast and landed at Anakena on the island's north coast (matua is a Polynesian word for 'ancestor' and means 'father' on Rapa Nui). Some 57 generations of kings followed him. From this account, some experts estimate that Hotu Matua arrived around 450 AD, though the earliest archaeological evidence of people dates from around 800 AD. A second group of immigrants supposedly arrived later, from the west, led by Tuo-ko-ihu.
By the early 20th century, however, European visitors had recorded confused and contradictory versions of this legend, in which Hotu Matua's voyage had a number of starting points; the Galapagos Islands to the northeast, the Tuamotu Archipelago to the northwest, Rapa Iti to the west and the Marquesas to the northwest. Some versions even have Tua-ko-ihu arriving on Hotu Matua's boats. Trying to date events using genealogies is difficult and imprecise: researchers have collected a number of different lists of kings descended from Hoto Matua. One, estimating 20 to 30 generations descended from Hotu Matua until the last native king died after a slave raid in 1862, concluded that Hotu Matua arrived at Rapa Nui as late as the 16th century.
Clan Warfare & the Toppling of the Moai
In local oral tradition, a gap exists between the arrival of Hotu Matua and the division of islanders into clans. The terms 'corpulent people' and 'thin people', however, suggest a resource conflict in which the dominant Miru clan may have controlled the better soils and superior fishing grounds at the expense of the other. At this distance in time, the difference between the two class is largely speculative, but there appears to have been sustained clan warfare, resulting in damage or destruction of many of Rapa Nui's stone monuments.
What explains warfare on Rapa Nui and the destruction of the moai? Recent research suggests a demographic explanation islanders were few when Hotu Matua first landed at Anakena, but over the centuries the population grew, first slowly and then rapidly, so that sheer numbers threatened the resource base. Once intensively cultivated gardens yielded an agricultural surplus sufficient to support a priestly class, the artisans and laborers who produced the moai and their ahu, and even a warrior class. There were limits to this intensification, however. Irrigation, for instance, was difficult or impossible in an environment that lacked surface streams. Forest resources, probably used for timber to move the moai to their ahu, declined greatly, a situation exacerbated by the use of fire for military purposes. Marine food resources were too few and dispersed to provide more than a supplement to agriculture.
Conflict over land and resources erupted in warfare by the late 17th century, only shortly before the European arrival, accounts by later European visitors provide snapshots of the results of what must have been a protracted struggle in which population declined even before slave raids in the mid-19th century. Alfred Metraux estimated a populated of up to 4000 for the early 19th century. Katherine Routledge speculated on a maximum population of about 7000, but other informed guesses range up to 20,000. Dissension between different families or clans led to bloody wars and cannibalism, and many moai were toppled from their ahu. According to one account, tribes or clans were highly territorial and proud of their moai. Enemy groups would topple the moai to insult and anger the statues' owners. Natural disasters - earthquakes and tsunamis - may have contributed to the damage. The only moai standing today have been restored during the last century.
Arrival of the Dutch
Spanish vessels entered the Pacific from South America in the early 16th century, but in April 1722 a Dutch expedition under Admiral Jacob Roggeveen became the first European to set foot on Rapa Nui. Roggeveen recorded his observations in the ship's log, and another crew member, Carl Behrens, published an account of the voyage. Since they landed on Easter Sunday, by common European custom Rapa Nui acquired the name Easter Island. The Dutch found the islanders who subsisted primarily on produce from intensively cultivated gardens and secondarily on the limited wealth of the sea, very friendly. The great moai, though, baffled the Dutch, despite obvious religious significance. According to Roggeveen:
The Spanish Expedition
Not until 1770 did Europeans again visit Rapa Nui, when a Spanish party from Peru under Don Felipe Gonzalez de Haedo claimed the island for Spain and renamed it San Carlos. The Spanish recorded that male islanders generally went unclothed, wearing only plumes on their heads, although a few were a sort of coloured poncho or cloak. Women wore hats made of rushes, a short cloak around the breasts and another wrap from the waist down. Most islanders inhabited caves but others lived in elliptical boat-shaped houses, probably the type seen earlier by the Dutch. The islanders' only weapons were sharp obsidian knives. The absence of goods and metal implements suggested no commerce with the outside world, but gardens with sugarcane, sweet potatoes, taro and yams provided a healthy subsistence. An expedition officer recorded that the islanders' appearance
(did) not resemble that of the Indians of the Continent of Chile, Peru or New Spain in anything, these islanders being in colour between white, swarthy and reddish, not thick-lipped nor flat nosed, the hair chestnut coloured and limp, some have it black, and others tending to red or a cinnamon tint. They are tall, well built and proportional in all their limbs, and there are no halt, maimed, bent, crooked, luxated, deformed or bow legged among them, their appearance being thoroughly pleasing, and tallying with Europeans more than with Indians.
In 1774, the celebrated Englishman Captain James Cook led the next European expedition to land on Rapa Nui. Cook, familiar with the Society Islands, Tonga and New Zealand, concluded that the inhabitants of Rapa Nui belonged to the same general lineage. Later accounts concurred on their Polynesian origins; in 1864 Eugene Eyraud, the first European missionary on the island commented on the islanders appearance:
These savages are tall, strong, and well built. Their features resemble far more the European type than those of the other islanders of Oceania. Among all the Polynesians the Marquesans are those to which they display the greatest resemblance. Their complexion, although a little copper-coloured, does neither differ much from the line of the European, and a great number are even completely white.
Cook conjectured that islanders no longer regarded the most as idols and thought them monuments to former kings; the ahu appeared to be burial sites. His account is the first to mention that, though some moai still stood and carried their topknots, others had fallen and their ahu were damaged. Cook found the islanders poor and distressed, describing them as lean, timid and miserable. It seems probable, then that conflict had raged since the Spanish visit in 1770 reducing the population to misery and destroying some of the moai. Another theory is that the islanders, wary of foreigners, hid in caves from Cook's crew, but this contradicts Roggeveen's account of friendly islanders. It's possible that a number of moai had been toppled even before the Spanish and "Dutch visits but that those sailors did not visit the same sites as Cook.
Only one other 18th-century European, the Frenchman La Perouse, visited Rapa Nui. After his two ships crossed from Chile in 1786, he found the population calm and prosperous, suggesting a quick recovery from any catastrophe. In 1804, a Russian visitor reported more than 20 moai still standing, including some at the southern coastal site of Vinapu. Existing accounts from ensuing years suggest another period of destruction, so that perhaps only a handful of moai stood a decade later.
Whether or not the people of Rapa Nui experienced a period of self-inflicted havoc, their discovery by the outside world nearly resulted in their annihilation. After the European and North American entrepreneurs saw the Pacific as an unexpected resource frontier. First came the whalers - many of them North American - who ranged the Pacific from Chile to Australia. Then came planters who set out to satisfy an increasing European demand for tropical commodities like rubber, sugar, copra and coffee. This often resulted in indigenous peoples becoming slaves or wage laborers on their own lands, or in the importation of foreign labour where local labor proved insufficient, inefficient or difficult to control.
Then came slavers who either kidnapped Polynesians or - to give the trade a veneer of legitimacy - compelled or induced them to sign contracts to work in mines and plantations in lands as remote as Australia and Peru. Many islanders died from the rigors of hard labour, poor diet, disease and maltreatment. Christian missionaries, undermining and degrading local customs, also entered the region. Events on Rapa Nui in the 19th century closely followed this pattern. Villent encounters had occurred between Europeans and islanders ever since Roggeveen's landing, but in 1862, catastrophe occurred when Peruvian slavers made a vicious and ruthless raid on Rapa Nui. The slavers abducted about a thousand islanders (including the king and nearly all the maori or 'learned men') and took them to work the guano deposits on Peru's Chincha Islands. After bishop Jaussen of Tahiti protested to the French representative at Lima, Peruvian authorities ordered the return of the islanders to their homeland but disease and hard labor had already killed about 90% of them. On the return voyage smallpox killed most of the rest, and the handful who survived brought an epidemic that decimated the remaining inhabitants of the island, leaving perhaps only a few hundred.
One Rapa Nui artefact that, until recently, resisted explanation was the Rongo-Rongo script. Eugene Eyraud, the first European to record its existence, noted that every house on the island contained wooden tablets covered in some form of writing or hieroglyphics. he could find no islander who could or would explain the meaning of these symbols. The complete name of the tablets was ko hau motu mo rongorongo, literally meaning 'lines of script for recitation.' According to oral tradition, Hotu Matua brought these tablets, along with learned men who knew the art of writing and reciting the inscriptions. Most of the tablet are irregular, flat wooden boards with rounded edges, each about 30cm to 50cm long and covered in tidy rows of tiny symbols including birds, animals, possibly plants and celestial objects and geometric forms. The hundreds of different signs are too numerous to suggest a form of alphabet. Only a few such tablets, carved of toromiro wood, survive.
Oral tradition describes three classes of tablets. one class recorded hums in honour of the native deity Makemake or other divinities, another recorded crimes or other deeds of individuals, and the third commemorated those fallen in war or other conflicts. Tablets recording genealogies ma also have existed. Bishop Jaussen attempted to translate the script in 1866, with assistance from an islander said to be able to read the symbols, but this and other attempts failed, informants, appeared to be either reciting memorized texts or merely describing the figures, rather than actually reading them. The last truly literate islanders had died, either as a result of 1862's slave raid or the subsequent smallpox epidemic.
Researchers have proposed various theories, most of them fanciful, of the nature of the script. One researcher suggested that Rongo-Rongo was not readable text at all, but rather a series of cues for reciting memorized verse, and another claimed that the characters were ideographs like Chinese script. Another researcher even suggested a connection between Rongo-Rongo script and a similar script from antiquity in the Indus River valley, in modern Pakistan.
In his exhaustive Rongorongo, the Ester island Script History, Text, Traditions, Polynesian linguistics expert Steven Fischer argues that surviving Rongo-Rongo tablets are religious chants, in the form of 120 different pictograms, elaborating a series of copulatory creation myths. The volume is scholarly, technical and phenomenally expensive (US$175). Fischer's Glyphbreaker is a more accessible - both in language and economically - account of his decipherment of Rongo-Rongo and an earlier Minoan script.
The Birdman Cult
Makemake, the birdman cult's supreme deity, is said to have create the earth, sun, moon, stars and people, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, and expressing his anger in thunder. In times of trouble, he required the sacrifice of a child. Makemake is also credited with bringing the birds and presumably the bird cult to Rapa Nui, although Haua, another deity, aided him in this venture.
No complete record of the cult's ceremonies exists, and there are conflicting accounts with respect to schedules and duration. At a given time, worshipers would move up to Orongo, where they lived in stone houses, recited prayers, made offerings, held rites to appease the gods and participated in fertility dances.
The climax of the ceremonies was a competition to obtain the first egg of the sooty term (Sterna fuscata), which bred on the tiny islets of Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kao Kao, just off Cabo Te Manga. Each contestant or his hopu (stand-in would descend the cliff face from Orongo and, with the aid of a small reed pora (craft), swim out to the islands. He who found the first egg became 'birdman' for the ensuing year. If a hopu found the egg, he called out his master's name to a man in a cave in the cliffs below Orongo. The fortunate master's head, eyebrows and eyelashes were then shaved. His face was painted red and black, and he became birdman and was sequestered in a special house. The reasons for the birdman's celebrity are vague, but whoever found the first egg certainly won the favour of Makemake and great status in the community. The last ceremonies took place at Orongo in 1866 or 1867, a few years after the Peruvian slave raid that decimated the native community in 1862.
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