What happened on Easter Island and why should anyone care? It is appropriate first for me to answer a slightly different question pair: what caused me to care enough to dig into the story of the island, and why did I bother to make this series of blog posts about Rapa Nui’s story?

[This is part 7 of a series; see the others (but in reverse order) here.]

The origin of my interest in Easter Island: Yours truly in 1966 (age 9) at Jungle Land, an amazingly kitschy attraction featuring a pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme in Panama City Beach, on Florida’s “Miracle Strip;”; its “perilous Journey to the Center of the Earth” (led by bikini-clad “jungle girls”) included a large moai head, and I bought a ceramic wood-grained one in the gift shop that day which stayed on my desk as a pencil-holder through my college days (current whereabouts unknown—I blame my brother-in-law Bruce for its disappearance) (photo by the original Daniel C Browning Jr; © Daniel C Browning Jr [Jr])
I wanted to visit Easter Island since my youth—the same was true for my wife—and we had an opportunity to do so this past Spring. I excitedly dove into reading about Rapa Nui’s monuments, history, and “mysteries.” As I came to the academic literature with minimal specific knowledge, but with archaeological and historical experience in other areas, I found the history of interpretations of Easter Island particularly fascinating. Looking at the data without an agenda, I was struck by the similarity of issues in scholarly reconstructions to problems in my own fields. For me, Easter Island became a case-study of how traditional material and interpretation of physical remains can be used (and abused) in historical reconstruction.

It also happens that I developed an interest in the collapses of civilizations and “ends of the world as we knew it,” such as the end of the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world (about 1200 BC). Easter Island provides an opportunity to study (and for many to opine upon!) a collapse of a completely isolated culture (at least before 1722). As for why anyone else should care, it turns out that many have interpreted the collapse of Rapa Nui’s impressive moai culture as a warning for the world at large—something of a pre-apocalyptic preview, as it were.

Tongariki from Rano Raraku
The largest ahu on Easter Island, Tongariki, viewed from from Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Before taking on the collapse of Rapa Nui statue culture (in the next installment), I turn to whether the fall of the moai is directly related to the cessation of their construction. In other words, did the forces that brought an end to moai making, moving, and erection on ahu also cause them to be toppled?

Ethnological legends gathered by early 20th century researchers spoke of a major conflict between Rapanui groups called the Hanau Momoko and Hanau ‘E‘epe, long translated (wrongly) “short ears” and “long ears” respectively. The former, according to the account, rose up against the latter and eradicated them. As moai generally have elongated ear lobes, it was often assumed that  “long ears” represent chiefs of the privileged elite or dominant clans.

Rano Raraku
Moai at Rano Raraku quarry; note the extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Early interpreters could not resist assuming that the conflict remembered in the legends was a memory of a rebellion of the less-privileged group (“short ears”) against the elite (“long ears”). But it turns out that the terms probably have nothing to do with ears and should be translated “thin people” and “stocky people.” If the “thin people” are assumed to be the workers who labored to make statues for the elite “stocky people,” it is a short jump to connect intentional felling of the statues with a class rebellion. This is the view (but with the old translation) assumed in the rather historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Head of a moai on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena with extended ear lobes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Also, as noted in my previous post, all statues were noted standing by European explorers who first came to Rapa Nui in 1722—although moai making had apparently ceased before that time. By 1868, however, all the moai had fallen. It is tempting to relate the toppling of statues with internecine conflict; i.e., victorious groups felling monuments of rival clans. But the ethnology preserves only a single account of a moai pulled down by people (apparently the largest erected one, called Paro). On the other hand, legends also tell of priestly curses and moai falling in a nocturnal conflict between the gods. These memories suggest non-human causes for the toppling of many moai. Indeed, despite unsupported assertions to the contrary,1 the ethnology and physical evidence at fallen moai sites is consistent with consequences expected from earthquakes.2

Vinapu: Ahu Vinapu
A row of moai fallen in the same direction at Ahu Vinapu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island’s many rows of moai fallen in the same direction is is quite like so many lines of fallen columns toppled by earthquakes in Late Antique sites of the eastern Mediterranean—my usual stomping grounds. A good example is the major earthquake in the Sea of Galilee region in 749:

Church ruins at Hippos above the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; note the columns lying fallen in the same direction, a result of the earthquake of 749 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So the fall of the moai may well be unrelated to the cessation of their creation. Nevertheless, the collapse of the cultural system on Rapa Nui that created the moai and its causes are the main show in terms of why we should care about what happened there. To that I will turn in my final post in this series.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 64.
2Edmundo Edwards, Raul Marchetti, Leopoldo Dominichelti, and Oscar Gonzales-Ferran, “When the Earth Trembled, the Statues Fell,” Rapa Nui Journal 10.1 (March 1996): 1-15.

3 thoughts on “The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?

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