Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Easter Island

Photo by timmah

Easter Island, with its carved birdmen and its rows of huge statues on platforms beside the sea, is an extraordinary case of a human civilization that was born and died in almost complete isolation. When the first Europeans visited the island during the 18th century, they wondered at the purpose of the hundreds of altar platforms around its shores. What beliefs inspired the islanders to sculpt the giant carvings and drag them from their hillside quarries to the coast? Why did each rank of stone heads face inland from their long altars, as if they had just landed from the sea? And why was there a taboo, or tapu, on the area surrounding some altars, but not others?

By 1860 the culture of Easter Island had almost disappeared after a protracted civil war had all but wiped out the inhabitants while the survivors were taken by slavers. So even today questions remain unanswered, though scholars and archaeologists have pieced together some bits of the puzzle.

Legend says the island was given its present form when Uoke, a supernatural giant, ranged across the Pacific Ocean. He levered up the islands with a vast pole, it is said, and pitched them inot the deep. But when he came to Te Pito o Te henua--the island at the center of the world--he found that one part of it was of a rock too hard for his pole. So this triangular land formed by three volcanoes was left at the remotest eastern end of the Polynesian Islands, 1200 miles beyond Pitcairn and 2500 miles from Peru.

Uoke is perhaps an expression of the destructive forces--typhoons, tidal waves and erupting volcanoes--which beset the Polynesian people. The god who made the people themselves in the first place, known as Makemake in Easter Island, was a more benevolent but surprisingly fallible deity. Makemake is said to have created man because he was lonely. He saw his own reflection in water and thought how handsome he looked. A bird perched on his shoulder and Makemake was pleased by the combination, so kept his reflection and the bird together. Then he thought he would like to be able to talk to another creature more similar to himself. First of all he fertilized a stone with his semen, but that was unproductive. Then he fertilized water, but the result was fishes. At last he fertilized the earth and was delighted when mankind was the progeny of the union.

Makemake is probably the Easter Island equivalent of a more widespread Polynesian god called Tane, though their characteristics are not exactly the same. This remoteness from the rest of Polynesian culture is typical of Easter Island, for it seems that the community was the result of one settlement by boats in the years between A.D. 400 and 500, and perhaps a second around 1200, with only very occasional hints of outside influence after that.

There are two main theories about the origins of the Easter islanders. The holder of one was part Polynesian himself--from the largest of the scattered islands, New Zealand. In his Maori persona, named Te Rangi Hiroa, he was a dedicated scholar and advocate of Polynesian culture. As Sir Peter Buck--his father was Irish--he was a distinguished Member of Parliament and doctor of medicine. Later he gave up his career in New Zealand and devoted himself to Polynesian studies, holding the directorship of a museum in Honolulu until his death in 1951.

Buck's views about the origin of the Polynesians are still generally accepted. He believed that they were a Caucasian people who moved through the broad-faced people of negroid type who inhabit Melanesia and much of Australia. Moder archeology suggest that the Polynesian migrations from the west into the central Pacific began around 2000 BC. Later arrivals of Mongol colonists from Asia brought about the mixture which can be seen in the typical Polynesian face today, most numerous in Hawaii, Samoa and Tonga.

The other important theory has been propagated by one of the most remarkable men of our time, Thor Heyerdahl--a Norwegian scholar and explorer gifted with insight and sweeping imagination. In 1936, soon after they were married, Heyerdahl and his wife lived for a year with the Polynesians in the Marquesas Islands, over 2000 miles west of Easter Island. He was told the legend of how the first inhabitants hand come from the east, from the direction of the American continent, with a king called Tiki. Later, in Peru, Heyerdahl heard of a pre-Inca legend there about a prince called Kon Tiki who was expelled from his domain near Lake Titicaca and sailed westwards with his people across the Pacific on a great raft. Soon after the end of World War II, Heyerdahl built a raft of the Peruvian type of sailed to the Polynesian Islands. The voyage and his book--Kon Tiki--made Heyerdahl famous, but he was careful to point out that it only proved that emigrations could have been made that way.

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  1. The Easter Island statues are truly amazing. I've only been able to see in person the one in the British Museum though.

  2. Hi MSB, that is more than I have seen. I would love to go to Easter Island, (or even the British Museum, for that matter). I don't get out much. LOL!


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