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

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.]

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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:

Suseita-Hippos
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.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 6: The Fall of the Moai

Something went wrong on Rapa Nui. And something caused the moai to fall.

[This is part 6 of a series; see the others here.]

1722: Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen went ashore for a single day after “discovering” (and naming for Europeans) Easter Island. He and his crew observed numerous moai standing on platforms, investigated them briefly and wrongly concluded they were cast rather than carved. Roggeveen did not report seeing any fallen moai, nor did he or any subsequent visitor report any activity of creating, transporting, or erecting them. Most infer that moai construction had ceased by this time. Roggeveen found the natives to be quite friendly and unafraid, until a misunderstanding resulting in a shooting incident in which several Rapanui were killed. Nevertheless, contact was reestablished and the Dutch “left like good friends.”1

1770: Spanish captain Gonzalez led a slightly more lengthy visit. The Spanish rightly judged the statues to be carved and again only saw standing moai.

1774: The famous British Captain Cook saw standing moai, and his expedition artist made the first known depiction of the same.

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“A View of the Monuments of Easter Island [Rapanui],” William Hodges (circa 1776) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London; http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/13275.html
But Cook also reported many statues were toppled, ahu were apparently used for burials, and skeletal material was seen scattered about on moai sites.

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Drawing by William Hodges from Cook, Voyage around the South Pole; note standing and ruined moai and skeletal material in this romanticized rendering

1804: Russian visitors saw only 20 standing moai.

1830: British sailors on HMS Serigapatam saw only eight moai standing.

1838: the last report of a single standing moai was made by French Commander Abel Aubert Dupetit Thouars; apparently Paro the tallest ever erected on an ahu.

Te Piro Kura: Paro
Paro, the tallest moai ever erected on an ahu, in its final fallen face-down state at Te Piro Kura on the northeast coast of Rapa Nui (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

1868: J Linton Palmer, British naval surgeon aboard the HMS Topaze could find no standing moai on Easter Island. Paro had fallen, along with the rest.

From the data above, moai creation and erection had ceased before the European discovery of Easter Island. But it was only in the 140 years after European contact that all of the impressive monuments were destroyed. What caused cessation of carving and what caused the statues to fall? And are those questions intertwined or unrelated?

The major tourist sites on Easter Island have moai re-erected on restored ahu, and these are the majestic scenes familiar to the public—along with the iconic “heads” of partly-buried statues at the Rano Raraku quarry. However, I find the unrestored sites with their toppled moai and scattered pukao much more evocative. 

One Makhi
Ahu One Makhi (photo by Felicia J Browning; © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Many studies note that most moai were found lying prone, apparently intentionally felled onto strategically placed large stones so as to break the neck. By breaking the neck and planting the image face down, the reasoning goes, the mana (divine power) of the moai was thus voided.

Vaihu
Moai fallen in a prone position at Vaihu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Akahanga
Moai fallen in a prone position at Akahanga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But, in fact, moai can be found fallen in both prone and supine positions, sometimes mixed on a single destroyed ahu. Potential explanations abound.

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Fallen moai and pukao at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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Supine fallen moai with broken neck at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

I’ll turn to the questions posed above in the next post.

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1Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 51.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 5: Hats Make the Moai?

Until now, this series of posts on Easter Island has not considered embellishments to moai, of which the most obvious are the addition of so-called “top knots.” As promised, this brief note takes up the topic. In case you want to review, previous posts have reviewed: 1) Easter Island (Rapa Nui) itself; 2) basics on moai and ahu; 3) how/where moai were made; and 4) moai transport via roads to their ahu.

I have already noted the clear development of moai over time, especially in terms of increasing height and weight, but also in style. Another major feature of some later moai is the addition of “top knots,” as they are conventionally called.

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai, sporting a pukao “top knot” and (reproduction) eyes at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Many, but not all, late moai (standing when Europeans first came to Easter Island) sported a large cylindrical “top knot” atop their heads, called pukao by the native Rapanui. Invariably these were made from red scoria, a much more porous and harder volcanic stone than the tuff from which the vast majority of moai were carved. All known pukao were produced from the distinctive red scoria found at Puna Pau, a quarry on the central west side of the island—quite distant from Rano Raraku, where the statues were made.

Puna Pau
Completed pukao of red scoria, abandoned before transport at the Puna Pau quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Pukao themselves were quite large and heavy. For transport, it is assumed (without much debate) that they were simply rolled to various ahu for finishing and installation (that is a somewhat more difficult problem) on standing moai. They appear on moai with varying styles and always seem to project precariously forward over the brow. Not all ahu featured statues with top knots, but it is interesting that only ahu with pukao-crowned moai also frequently featured bands of red scoria facing on their front face.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach, with red scoria panel facing and pukao on its moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

So, you should be wondering by now: what did the pukao represent? There are three main options (not involving aliens). The designation “top knot” represents the idea that pukao represent tied-up hair, the red color because of the practice of using red dye. A second possibility is that pukao represent hats of some kind, bolstered by the mania for (and constant theft of) the hats of early European explorers by native Rapanui. Another, and in my mind most convincing, suggestion is that pukao represent the rare red-feather headdresses worn by chiefs throughout Polynesia.

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Detail of Moai with different pukao on Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 Pukao, along with the increased size of moai, seem to represent one-upmanship in which clans or chiefs attempted to outdo each other in the constructions on their respective ahu. Was this competition a prelude to the impending collapse of Rapa Nui culture? Some conclude that “Easter Island chiefs . . . acted so as to accelerate deforestation rather than to prevent it: their status depended on their putting up bigger statues or monuments than their rivals. They were trapped in a competitive spiral, such that any chief or king who put up smaller statues or monuments to spare the forests would have been scorned and lost his job. That’s a regular problem with competitions for prestige, which are judged on a short time frame.”1  Stay tuned for more on this issue a couple of posts from now . . .2

Anakena: Ahu Nau Nau
Moai with loin cloth belt and tattoo indications at Anakena (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Another form of embellishment appears on moai in the form of decorations that represent loincloth cords and perhaps the tattoos of the depicted departed chiefs. Since most moai are severely weathered, it is not clear how extensive this practice was. It is only clearly preserved on some mostly-buried statues at Rano Raraku and at Anakena Beach, where fallen moai lay in preserving sand instead of exposed to the elements.

Indeed, all the moai on Easter Island were eventually toppled and their pukao strewn about like hats tossed at a graduation. I will turn to the fall of the moai in the next installment . . .

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1 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 431.
2As a preview, Diamond posits an ecological disaster on Easter Island as the cause for the collapse of the moai-building culture there, following John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 4: the Mystery of Moai Moving

One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is the question of how the large statues, called moai, were transported from the one quarry where they were made to their points of display upon the ceremonial platforms, or ahu, all around the island. This series has already explored some basics on: the physical nature of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the ahu and moai; and the carving of moai in the Rano Raruku quarry. We turn now to the moving of moai.

Rapa_Nui-Ahu_Moai
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

How Easter Islanders could effectively move hundreds of huge monolithic creations without modern conveyance is a long-debated topic. Lacking metals when Europeans arrived, the Rapanui (native Easter Islanders) were a Stone Age culture—that is not a denigration, but the reality of isolated life in that remote volcanic place.

Rano Raraku
Waiting on the Bus: completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, ever vainly awaiting transport to ahu (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Data which made the original transport problem and proposed solutions more vexing: some 300 ahu are found all around the island, at distances up to nine miles from the Rana Raraku quarry. The largest moai transported to ahu were nearly 10 meters (almost 33 ft) tall and weighed around 75 metric (82 US) tons. The calculated “Statistically Average Moai” (dubbed SAM by Jo Ann Van Tilburg and her Easter Island Statue Project)1 is 4.05 m (13.2 ft) tall and weighs in at 12.5 metric (13.78 US) tons. Easter Island was devoid of trees of any significant size (for use as levers or rollers) when first seen by European explorers. There is no evidence the wheel was known or utilized by Rapanui in prehistory. They also did not have draft animals (nor any native land mammals at all).

Rano Raraku
More completed moai stand in pits at Rano Raraku, with a transport road barely discernible in a meandering path roughly from the statues towards the left face of the Rano Kau crater in the far background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

 To make it more interesting, the collected cultural memory (ethnography) is unanimous that the moai—imbued with the mana of the deceased ariki (chiefs) they represented—actually “walked” from the quarry to their ahu. All of this is fuel for the “Ancient Aliens” people and one does not have to look far online to find extraterrestrial origin theories for the moai. But such theories only develop and take root because of a widespread assumption: that ancient people lacked the capacity to solve problems we find daunting. Our inability, from a modern perspective, to conceive of working solutions for ancient problems encourages a disbelief which, coupled with cultural elitism, is a recipe for latent racism in which “primitive” becomes “savage” or even worse.

One part of the transport solution has been known since 1914, when Katherine Routledge recognized the traces of several tracks radiating from Rano Raraku quarry and deduced they were for moai. Indeed, excavation has confirmed they were built as roads with a standard surface design. Moai can be found lying about along those paths, apparently abandoned when they broke—or fell—during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
A fallen moai on the road (called Te Ara O Te Moai) leading SW from Rano Raraku quarry, where statue heads can be seen on the left slope of the crater in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Several “experimental archaeology” efforts have attempted to show how the moai were moved.2 Some of these have assumed the statues were transported horizontally—laying down—with both supine (face up) and prone (face down) positions posited. But abandoned statues lie (none were found standing) along the moai roads in both prone and supine positions. Further, many moai on roads are not broken, suggesting they were abandoned because they fell from a vertical position during transport.

Te Ara O Te Moai
Unbroken fallen prone moai on the Te Ara O Te Moai road (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most recent, and in my mind most convincing, reconstruction of moai transport on Easter Island proposes a system not requiring huge amounts of timber, manageable by a relatively small number of workers, and even satisfies the oral tradition of “walking” moai.3 Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo noted that moai have a low center of gravity, a significant forward lean (in examples at the quarry or in transport), appear to be slimmed down in the final finishing at their ahu, and have a D-shaped footprint with the straight side at the back. Based on this they proposed a system of rocking and stabilization by three teams pulling on ropes attached to the head or neck of the moai.

 

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Rocking to one side on the D-shaped base will cause the opposite side to pivot forward. The low center of gravity and guy-ropes held from behind keep the statute from falling over. When it rocks back past vertical in the opposite direction, the moai will pivot forward on the other side. In this way, the statue can be “walked” forward with coordinated rather than brute effort. See the results (preceded by a review of other theories) in this clever National Geographic video

Next in this series: embellishments of moai.

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1Jo Ann Van Tilburg, Easter Island: Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
2A review of attempts up to 1998 is conviniently summarized by PBS’ Nova series here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/move/past.html.
3With details summarized in Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).

 

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 3: the Making of a Moai

Following an initial physical introduction to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and an overview of the moai (statues) and ahu (ritual platforms), this is the third installment of the series on Easter Island. If you “skipped those classes,” you should do the remedial readings (part 1 and part 2) and I won’t have to redefine terms and catch you up! While I am waxing professorial, let me add that you should always read the footnotes.1

While the word moai is combined in the names of certain wooden statues—notably the emaciated male figures called moai kavakava—term used alone applies particularly to the monolithic statues of Easter Island. “Monolithic” means consisting of a single stone and in archaeological contexts usually implies significant size.

Ahu Huri A Urenga
Felicia’s favorite Moai at Ahu Huri A Urenga (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Dating of megalithic monuments is fraught with difficulty, but it seems that the moai were carved, moved, and installed on ahu over a lengthy period sometime between 1100 and 1680 (a generation before the arrival of Europeans). Most researchers posit a somewhat shorter range within those extreme dates.2 While the most famous statues appear nearly identical in widely circulated pictures, there is a clear development of moai style and size over the period of their construction. Old moai reused as fill in later ahu construction or expansion demonstrate as much.

Tongariki: older Moai fragments from Ahu platform
Older and smaller moai fragments from Ahu Tongariki’s platform show a variety of styles (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Volcanic rock—the only stone available on Easter—comes in many forms with varying qualities. A few statues are made from hard basalt (hard, fine-grained lava) or red scoria (dense, highly pitted lava) stone, but the vast majority of moai (and all that clearly stood on ahu) were carved from tuff. Tuff is compacted and consolodated volcanic ash. It is usually easily carved but the surface hardens with exposure to air. An excellent source of pinkish-gray tuff is found in and around the rim of the crater called Rano Raraku. The quarry there is the very near exclusive source of moai associated with ahu on Easter Island, and nearly half of known and cataloged moai are still found at Rano Raraku. This can be seen by the concentration of red moai symbols in my map:3

Rapa_Nui-Ahu_Moai
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Rano Raraku is the “place with all the heads” and the source of most recognizable photos of moai. This is because hundreds of statues were created there and still awaited transport for placement on ahu when that whole process ceased (a “mystery” to be covered in a subsequent post). Moai left in upright positions in pits were gradually buried by erosion to various heights, most often with only the head exposed. The effect today is that of an abandoned sales lot, like some bizarre version of those concrete statue places found outside cities in seemingly every part of the world today—and oddly similar to a statue “factory” about which I have posted in Turkey.

Rano Raraku
A typical view of partly-buried standing moai at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

But Rano Raraku features moai in every stage of completion, from just laid out, to shaped but not separated from the rock, to standing and awaiting final details, and ready for transport. Statues were carved in a horizontal position and mostly completed while still attached to the natural rock by a backbone ridge.

Rano Raraku
Roughed out but unfinished moai still attached to natural rock at Rano Raraku (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The connecting ridge was broken away and the freed moai slid downhill into a pit wherein it would stand vertical for finishing and details. Unfinished and finished examples stand adjacent in this pic:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the more-distant one at center right completed, but the one in the foreground with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

And also in this view of the same statues from the other side:

Rano Raraku
Similar moai at Rano Raraku; the near one completed; the one in the left background with a straight, unfinished back (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The most impressive unfinished moai is also the largest ever attempted, at 21 meters (69 ft) tall, over twice the height of the tallest one ever erected on an ahu. It would have weighed about 250 metric tons (275 US tons) if completed! 

 

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That this giant could be successfully moved for display is reasonably doubted. Still, the largest moai ever successfully installed on an ahu stood 10 meters (about 32 ft) and weighed 74 metric tons (about 82 US tons)! As this was no small feat, transport of these these behemoths is another “mystery” of Easter Island, to which we’ll turn in the next post.

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1Yes, you should. Your reward for looking at the footnotes: moai jokes.
2Scholars tend to argue about such things; for an overview, see Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011), 9-18 (and throughout the book).
3An excellent online database/map, which also shows the incredible concentration of moai at Rano Raraku is provided by B. Shepardson, “Moai database–Rapa Nui,” 2007; http://www.terevaka.net/moai.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu

Fulfilling a promise in my first post of this series, this bit takes up the well-known “heads”—more accurately, statues—of Easter Island. Properly called moai, they are the iconic images of the island, recognized my almost everyone, but generally without context.

The moai were indeed made as nearly full statues, complete with torsos but no legs. Nearly 1,000 examples are known on the 164 square-kilometer island. The famous images everyone recognizes of the “heads” are the better-preserved and more photogenic examples that remained upright in the quarry where they were produced. These were buried by scree and soil to various levels and present an eerie scene. Some 397 moai remain in the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all moai were carved. The map below shows the concentration of known moai in and around the quarry.

Rano Raraku
Moai buried to different extents on the outer slope of Rano Raraku quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Moai were made for display on large megalithic platforms called ahu.1 Ahu were constructed for ritual/ceremonial use and are similar to religious platforms on other Polynesian islands, the most familiar examples being the heiau of Hawai’i. Easter Island is literally ringed by over 300 ahu along its rocky coast, about half of those once featuring moai.

Rapa_Nui-Ahu_Moai
Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Today, a number of ahu are restored with their toppled moai re-erected. Modern cranes were used for the restorations, which naturally begs the question of how the prehistoric period Rapanui (natives of the island) managed to do it. Thus we have one of the so-called “mysteries” of Easter Island. Another is how they were moved (as much as 9 miles). More on these things later, but . . .  << SPOILER ALERT >> . . . it was not Ancient Aliens!

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, with its seven restored moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

While the focus for observers is naturally the moai, the ahu themselves were impressive undertakings involving moving hundreds of tons of volcanic rock. Many “image ahu” (the ones with moai) featured “wings” extending the platform area significantly beyond the statues (perhaps for rituals displaced by the moai?).

Akivi
Ahu Akivi, from the side, showing the wing extensions and platform construction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One more quick fact: the moai are often erroneously said to be looking out to sea. In fact, on coastal ahu they always look inland; embodying the mana (divine power) of deceased chiefs as sentinels over the adjacent settlements. One of the most photographed ahu and moai is at Tahai, on the edge of Hanga Roa, the lone town on Rapa Nui:

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Are those eyes and a headdress? In a future installment, we’ll look at details and embellishments of moai . . . , but next in Part 3: how were they made?

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[Updated 2 July 2018: better map!]


1Moai and ahu are both singular and plural.

The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World

Since my last post,* I was able to take my wife on a trip that we have both desired to make for most of our lives: a trek to Easter Island. As I have just completed teaching a brief series of classes on the subject for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi (more affectionately: OLLI), I’ll offer a few summary posts here.

Most folks have heard of Easter Island; but when it is mentioned have to think for a moment and then remember something like: “oh; that is the place with all the stone heads.” That’s it—sort of.

Rano Raraku
A couple of the famous heads at Rano Raraku quarry on Easter Island (photo ©Daniel C Browning Jr)

There is much more to the island than the heads—and the “heads” are really statues with full torsos (only the legs are not depicted). More about the statues, properly called moai, and other island wonders in a later post. For now, a couple of notes about the island itself and its situation . . .

Easter Island is so-called because it was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, by a Dutch expedition of three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch were looking for the legendary Terra Australis which had appeared on maps since antiquity.1

While its small size (a rough triangle of 16, 18, and 22 km; see map below) eliminates it as the fabled lost continent, Easter was (and is) an exceedingly hard to find place without modern navigational aids. Sometimes touted as “the most remote place on Earth,” it is actually the third-most remote-from-other-human-settlements permanently-inhabited island (but just barely).2 Easter Island lies in the South Pacific some 2,112 km (1,312 mi) east of Pitcairn Island (where mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled) and 3,680 km (2,287 mi) west of South America (see map inset).

Rapa_Nui-physical
Elevations and major physical features of Easter Island, with inset showing isolated location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes; in order of appearance: Poike, Rano Kau, and Maunga Terevaka, the last creating the most recent lava flows that bound the three pieces together. There is no coral reef, so the coastline (which ) consists of rocky shores and cliffs all around excepting one sandy beach at Anakena.

Poike from SE coast
The SE coast of Easter Island with Poike in the distance (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Its remoteness, lack of resources, and relatively poor fishing made it a marginal place for human habitation. Yet, when the Dutch and subsequent European explorers arrived, they found a native Polynesian population and impressive constructions. As Easter is the easternmost island of Polynesia, they seem to have arrived by a voyage of discovery and settlement from the west (exactly where is a subject of great debate). Their megalithic monuments, moai, and their apparent downfall impressed European visitors and fueled speculations about various “mysteries” (I’ll get to those in later posts).

About the name . . . Easter Island is obviously a European-imposed designation. What did the natives call it? Ethnological collections do not preserve a prehistoric (before European contact) name. But one was born during one of the most terrible periods in the island’s history. In the 1860s Blackbirders (really just slavers) kidnapped many natives from Easter and other Polynesian islands to work in guano mines and as house servants in Peru. A cheif’s son was taken but then freed on a subsequent stop at the island of Rapa, when natives there seized and liberated the ship. In comparing geographies of their islands, the young future leader realized that his home was a more appropriate Rapa, meaning “extremity,” than Rapa itself and coined the name Rapa Nui, “Greater Extremity” (Rapa is thus sometimes now called Rapa Iti, or “Lesser Extremity”). The name Rapa Nui is used for the island itself today, while the combined form Rapanui designates the indigenous people group and their language.3

The name Rapa Nui was somewhat incomprehensible to a people who spoke a different form of the language and formerly knew of no other landmass, so it was apparently translated into the language of Easter Island as Te Pito ‘o te Henua, the name given to later ethnographers (in the 19th and 20th centuries). The phrase has been translated “The Navel of the World.” It is a poignant expression of the Rapanui perspective in which they could see, from Maunga Terevaka, their island in its entirety and nothing else but ocean to the horizon in every direction.4

But Te Pito ‘o Henua can also be translated “The End of the World.” As it happens, that is an eerie summary of recent interpretations of Rapa Nui’s tragic history, which posit it as a preview and warning to all inhabitants of the World.

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A bad thing happened . . . typical fallen moai at Ahu One Makhi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Continue to Part 2: Click Here!

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*It has been an even two seasons since my last post, so it is time to get back into the habit.
1Terra Australis (sometimes Terra Australis Incognita, “unknown land of the south”) was an assumed undiscovered southern continent based in large part on the logic of even land-mass distribution between the hemispheres—and would be an interesting topic in its own right.
2Tristan da Cunha is the most remote at 2,400 km (1,500 mi) from both St. Helena and Africa; while St. Helena is 1,950 km (1,210 mi) from Africa. Given that Easter’s nearest neighboring populated place, Pitcairn Island, has only 50-60 inhabitants, an algorithm incorporating distance to quantity of population would rank Easter more “remote.”
3Steven Roger Fischer, Island at the End of the World (London: Reaktion, 2005), 91.
4See, for example, Sebastian Englert, Island at the Center of the World (New York: Scribners, 1970), 30-31.