Pic of the Day 2018-10-03: Sela and “The Rock”

A brief mention of “wondrous” landscapes in my graduate Geography seminar last night and tonight’s episode of a daring Bible study series at University Baptist Church have inspired me to return to my recently neglected blog with this Pic of the Day (actually several pics) installment; which also clearly rates cross-listing as a You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour post!   

Brett Harris, new co-pastor at UBC, is leading a study of “Overlooked and Avoided Scriptures,” with frank discussion on seeking the good news in neglected or troubling passages. Tonight was the whole (1 chapter) book of Obadiah, frequently described as a song of hatred against Edom. Edom was a brother nation to Israel/Judah (descended from Esau, older twin of Jacob/Israel) with which Judah had an ugly sibling rivalry. During the study I looked with interest at the translation of Obadiah 3 which makes reference to Edom living in the “clefts of the rock (from which the LORD will bring them down in v. 4). “Rock” renders the Hebrew Sela‘, which also designates a place by that name. I also grabbed a copy of The Good News Bible, a translation known for its line-drawing illustrations, curious to see how it handled Obadiah. It included this illustration:

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The Good News Bible got it right. The site of Sela is still called today (in Arabic) es-Sela. The place was rightly called “The Rock” by its inhabitants: 

Sela:
Sela, at left-center and center, is a deceptively large, rugged, and isolated massif in the mountains of Edom, today southern Jordan; for scale, the end of a paved road might be made out at right center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

The path up, from about two thirds of the way there (You definitely Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour):

Sela: Katy Bynum, Shane McInnis, Gabe May, Jana Barkley
Sela: the entrance path (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela:
Remains of the entry gate of the plateau at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

What passes for a plateau is a jumble of deep crevices, higher peaks, and dome-shaped rocks incised with hints of the structures once built onto, under, and atop them.

Sela: Shane McInnis
One of  Sela’s many rock-cut structures (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela: Katy Bynum
Sela: hints of former grandeur (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

It is truly a “wondrous” landscape, with no other human beings in sight, which practically forces you to contemplate what once was there and what happened.

Sela: Stacey Figueiredo
Wonder(ing) woman at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)
Sela: Shane McInnis
Wondering man at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

The site is unexcavated but surface finds indicate its most intense occupation was during the Iron II period, the time of the Israelite kingdoms and Obadiah. Sela also appears in 2 Kings 14:7 and 2 Chronicles 25:12 (often translated “a rock), where ten thousand Edomites were thrown from the top by the Judean king Amaziah.

Sela:
View from near the top of Sela; there is that road again, and just below the end of the road (at center) stands my lovely wife, wondering what possessed us to climb “The Rock” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

Did Obadiah’s prediction of doom for Edom and Sela literally occur? Ironically, it may have been by the hand of the same enemy that vanquished Judah and occasioned the prophet’s railing against the “brother” nation for not rendering aid. The enigmatic last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (555–539 BC), is known to have campaigned near Edom. An unreadable monumental inscription in Babylonian style, surely commemorating a conquest, can be seen on the lower slopes of the Sela massif. 

Sela: Nabonidus Inscription
An inscription, in the rectangular frame on the stone face at top center, features a Babylonian king (almost certainly Nabonidus), symbols of Babylonian deities, and an illegible cuneiform text (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

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The Lost Derelict Aircraft

As I noted in my last Derelict Warplanes I have Known post, some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. And some serendipitous ones have surprises.

It was 9 July 2004, during a family vacation to Hawai‘i. Earlier in the day we had climbed Diamond Head, the extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki Beach, and explored some World War II bunkers. Then we decided to go as far as possible around the North Shore of Oahu. No one else was around as we reached the end of the paved road at Mokule’ia Beach. Not far beyond, we topped a small rise and were shocked to see debris from an apparent plane crash—and no small plane; it was a major wide-body commercial jet! A large jet engine (most of it) was just out toward the beach from us, a few airliner seats were sitting about, and a pile of broken bits were collected as if for sorting.

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Parts of a jet engine on Mokule’ia Beach; Oahu, HawaiʻiHawaiʻi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Confused by the expected sight, it took me a few moments to realize something was not right. Not that I am an expert on crashes, but the debris field was too compact and too recognizable. There was no sign of fire. The wreckage was apparently that of a Lockheed L-1011. That didn’t make much sense because major air carriers had phased the L-1011 out by 2001, and it was only used by third-world airlines by 2004. A partial airline name and logo were visible on the aft fuselage (the forward part of the airframe was nowhere in sight).

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Aft fuselage with partial airline name and logo on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A crane was attached to the to the aft fuselage as though cleaning up the site. But I had heard nothing of a crash. Had we really been so absorbed in our Hawaii vacation not to have seen such news? Also, there were no NTSB people with clipboards around. In fact, no one seemed to be there . . . until we noticed a lone guy nearly asleep in a fold-up chair in the shade.

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Assorted plane crash debris, apparently collected, on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The man was a guard. Having disturbed him, our access to the debris was limited (darn it). But he also confirmed my growing suspicion: this was a film set. He said it was for a “movie” called Lost. I managed to get a few pictures seen here (they are not great—I had finally retired my old 35mm film camera and digital photography was still iffy).

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Inverted aft fuselage of Lockheed L-1011 on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

That fall, ABC debuted its hit TV series Lost. The whole family became fervent fans and reveled in our recognition of the early episode scenes. In the end (if you watched the whole series, you know what I mean), we had mixed feelings about Lost, but it was a great ride we might have missed if not for the derelict plane . . . that wasn’t really.

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As close as I got to the engine on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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The Aftereffects of Storms

Some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. This post’s subject is such a case. It was during a research trip in Turkey in late May of 2011. My former student and then colleague Mark Nicovich and I had been dogged by a nasty Anatolian spring thunderstorm all day. The storm caught us on the unprotected plateau of “Midas City” and, apparently making up for an earlier near miss, hit us with an unmerciful downpour and then pelted us with hail for about 20 minutes. The glories of the site (a future post, no doubt) made the assault quite worth it, even though the Canon SLR I borrowed from my daughter Rachel, was killed by the soaking.

Midas city:
With the assailant moving away to the Northeast; Mark Nicovich stands drenched and battered on the acropolis plateau of Midas City, a Phrygian site named for the most famous Phrygian king (late morning of 28 May 2011; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

We returned to our rental Skoda and headed along a parallel path with the storm, intent on beating it to Gordion, the ancient Phrygian capital, some distance away. After a brief stop at Amorium, we were driving rather speedily northward when I spied two planes off to the right, near a major interchange: an old biplane of some kind and an unmistakable F-4E Phantom jet. Despite the race with the storm, the unidentified biplane dictated a stop. We took the ramp of the interchange, pulled over on the side of the highway, got out, and crossed the access road by foot to what now was obviously a monument display. Thankfully, I had my small backup Sony camera in my pocket.

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Roadside Sivrihisar Uçağı monument in Eskişehir Province, Turkey, featuring a Breguet 14 (replica) and (incongruously) an F-4E Phantom; both Turkish Air Force veterans (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane of interest (nothing against the F-4E, but they are common) proved to be a Breguet 14, a World War I French bomber/scout plane mounted on concrete pedestals! A century-old largely wood and fabric airframe would never be appropriate to mount on an all-weather permanent display, so I was not surprised (but a little sad) to find that the Breguet 14 was a replica (but a well-done one, and thus deemed fit for this series). 

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument; and the edge of the lurking thunderstorm (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Breguet 14 was a French designed and built World War I workhorse, operating as a two-seat scout plane and bomber. Its incorporation of comparatively large amounts of metal in the airframe was innovative and made it one of the most durable planes of the war. Consequently, it continued in production after the war and was used in a number of airforces into the 1930s. That included Turkey. Which brings us to this particular memorialized plane.

Translation of the signage reveals that during the Turkish War of Independence the people of the Sivrihisar district of Eskişehir Province (where the monument is located) raised money and bought the plane for the nascent Turkish Air Force as a contribution to the war effort. In gratitude for the patriotic act, the Breguet was named Sivrihisar Uçağı, meaning “Sivrihisar aircraft.

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument with explanatory signage . . . and our surprisingly fast and durable rental Skoda (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A little extra research revealed that the donation was raised by Sivrihisar residents after their occupation and then liberation in the Battle of Sakarya, one of the pivotal campaigns of the Turkish War of Independence. During that battle, a Greek Air Force Breguet was captured by forced landing, put into service by Turkey, and named Sakarya Uçağı (see here for that info in Turkish). I surmise that the utility of that plane was the inspiration for the purchase of the Sivrihisar Uçağı, and it provided the precedent for naming the latter. So the storm of conflict brought out Turkish resolve.

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The Sivrihisar Uçağı Breguet 14, captured from the Greeks (pic from www.HAVACIYIZ.com)

Speaking of Turkish resolve . . . immediately after our visit to the monument and pulling back on the highway, we were flagged down by a waiting Turkish policeman. Unlike many before him on our journey, he spoke excellent English and explained that we were speeding. As we had not even gotten up to speed when he pulled me over, I protested briefly. He calmly explained that he had detected our speed from the other side of the other highway before we had exited. He thought we had tried to avoid apprehension by doing so and was waiting for us, but I explained that we saw the biplane and turned to investigate. He understood and we had a nice talk about the history of the airplane. Then he issued my summons and gave friendly instructions on how to pay. We parted as friends, Mark and I admiring his Turkish sense of duty and patriotism, and the officer appreciative of our interest in his history.

In the end, we beat the storm (barely) to Gordion, where we had a nice visit and another reminder of the good things that can emerge from storms:

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Tumuli (tombs) and corn poppies (of a decidedly Turkish red) that emerge after spring rains at Gordion (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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Derelict Aircraft I have Known, number Zero

My piece on a derelict Soviet MiG 17 jet fighter aircraft in Texas was something of a departure from the usual Ancient Dan fare, to be sure. To continue that theme as a series of occasional posts will permit me to do several things: 1) indulge my interest in old historical aircraft; 2) share a bit of my own background; 3) conduct a little research on claims or appearances; and 4) show pictures of old ruined stuff. This entry attempts to do all four (not necessarily in that order).

I inherited a love of airplanes from my Dad, who—as confirmed by his own mother—apparently announced at the age of five that he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. He did that, graduating in Aeronautical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology in 1955.

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My Dad, Daniel C Browning Jr (yes, we have EXACTLY the same name), checking the propeller of his first aircraft; about 1935

While in college Dad became aware of a WWII Japanese Zero sitting in the small back lot of the privately-owned Atlanta Museum on the edge of downtown, within walking distance from Georgia Tech. He would occasionally trot over there to see the derelict plane, a rare example of a famous type that made its appearance to U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor and outperformed all American aircraft at the beginning of the war (only a decade before Dad’s matriculation at The Institute). 

When I was quite young, Dad showed me the Zero during one of many trips to Atlanta to attend Tech football games. After I enrolled at The Institute in 1974 (as an Aerospace Engineering major) I would also go and visit the Zero from time to time. I will admit now that I never paid for admission to the museum itself, because one could simply drive to the street behind the building and access the ungated lot after hours! It was “Ground Zero” for my appreciation of derelict historical aircraft.

Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Remains of a WWII Japanese Naval fighter aircraft, Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, Allied codename “Zeke,” but popularly known as “Zero,” behind the Atlanta Museum in March 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note the sign in the background]
I showed the Zero to numerous friends, who may have appreciated the historical significance of the famed fighter aircraft but usually did not share my fascination with the sad remains. Most of the pictures here are from a visit in March 1978, with several Huntsville buddies in tow, made with a Kodak Instamatic 126-film camera I kept in my 1967 VW Beetle.

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Bygone warbird and 70’s “Free Bird” hair: buddy Glenn Wills with remains of a Japanese Zero behind the Atlanta Museum in 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Wing of Mitsubishi Zero fighter, behind Atlanta Museum; note damage from removal of cannon armament and faintly visible U.S. white star insignia under repainted Japanese red sun marking (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Now for the nerdy and research stuff. Many sites provide good histories of warplanes, including the Japanese Zero, so I will not rehearse that here. But the now-defunct Atlanta Museum advertised its Zero, the one I frequently visited, as the first one captured by U.S. forces in WWII (a claim documented here). The story of the first recovery of an intact Zero (by U.S. Navy in the Aleutian Islands campaign of 1942; (see Wikipedia’s excellent review) is fascinating and the specific plane was significant for American intelligence and strategy for countering the superior-performing Japanese fighter.

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The “Akutan Zero,” recovered on Akutan Island in the Aleutians in 1942; the damaged plane was intentionally crash-landed with the intent of rescue by a Japanese submarine stationed for that purpose, but the landing gear stuck in the bog and flipped the Zero, killing the pilot (photo: U.S. Navy); Note the carburetor intake and exhaust ports under the nose of this A6M2 model 21 Zero

The specific Zero captured on Akutan Island in the Aleutians was an A6M2 model 21, the early type used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But, already in the 1970s, I could see (as an obviously nerdy type) that the Zero I knew so well was a later A6M5 model 52. The giveaway was the later larger engine with carburetor intake at the top and exhaust manifolds distributed along the side of the (missing) cowling instead of a pair underneath the nose. The Atlanta Museum Zero could not be the same plane as the Akutan Zero! [I think I warned that this was the nerdy research part—but it does combine my loves of warplanes and historical research.] The relevant bits can be seen in my first Zero photo above and in this one: 

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Mitsubishi A6M5 model 52 Zero owned by the Atlanta Musuem in 1978; note late model carb intake on top of engine and side exhaust ports (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note to those who would appreciate it: the “Blue Thing with Teeth” was edited out.]
Some digging has revealed that despite the Atlanta Museum’s claim, their Zero was captured later in the war, apparently with several others on Saipan, and shipped to the U.S. for evaluation—according to the Warbirds Directory. That source, however, still identifies the former Atlanta Museum plane as an A6M2 model 21 (listing here in pdf form, [see third entry]), which it clearly is not. In any case, the Atlanta Museum closed in 1993 and the Zero was eventually procured by the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington, where it is displayed in unrestored condition.

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The Atlanta Museum Zero in the Flying Heritage & (photo courtesy Randy Malmstrom)

An excellent album of pictures of the Zero in its new home (source of the one above) can be seen here on Facebook, including a good history properly identifying it as an A6M5 type 52. 

I have not yet visited the Zero in the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum. Dad would have loved to see it.

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Adada

With the conflict between Turkey and POTUS in the news this week, I felt prompted to feature an unusual and unappreciated site in the former, long on my list of potential “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” and/or “Pic of the Day” posts.

Adada (lat/long = 37.572972, 30.984000): the city has an unusual but melodic name, probably Pisidian in origin (modern uses of the term, however applicable to my thoughts below, may not be fit for a family-oriented post). The name first appears in the now lost writings of the geographer Artimidorus of Ephesus (2nd century BC), quoted by the later geographer Strabo (Strabo 12. 570). 

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The “Acropolis” at Adada, from the Agora (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The site of Adada in the mountainous region Pisidia of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) is an underappreciated delight where encountering other human beings is a rarity. There is a nicely paved agora/Roman forum and adjacent Acropolis reached by well-preserved steps.

Adada: Acropolis and Roman Forum
Adada: Roman Forum from Acropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Looking NNE from the acropolis, the remains of several buildings preserved to roof height can be discerned between the scattered oak trees a few hundred meters away.

Adada: Bouleuterion from Acropolis
Adada: View NNE from the Acropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The closest building is the Bouleuterion (city council house), but I am more fascinated with the three between it and the small theater. They are ruins of temples dedicated to the Roman Emperor Trajan, the Roman Emperors (presumably collectively), and the Emperors in conjunction with Zeus-Serapis. 

Adada: Temple of Emperor Trajan
Adada: Temple of Emperor Trajan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Of the former, there is not much left aside from a single wall. The Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors is better preserved, but with the roof and entrance scattered about on the surrounding ground.

Adada: Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors
Adada: Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Temple of the Emperors is the most photogenic, with entrance door frame standing, two walls fully intact, and the part of the rear cornice in place.

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Adada: Temple of the Emperors Taken at Latitude/Longitude:37.575976/30.985520. km (Map link)
Adada: Temple of the Emperors
Adada: Backside of the Temple of the Emperors (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Aside from the aesthetic quality of Adada’s remains (I love good ruins in deserted locations!), the site evokes thoughts on the nature of Roman Emperor worship. Why did the ancients occasionally deify their rulers and, in the case of Rome, build temples to them? Was it genuine conviction that the rulers were gods, or was it mere political expediency? Or (as I rather suspect) was it a fair dose of the latter, carried forward by the human nature to adore heroes, align ourselves to alpha-leaders, and idolize celebrities (of all kinds) who make perceived contributions to our lives while ignoring their foibles (especially after their death)? 

Emperor Worship was a tool of the Imperial Roman government since (before?) its inception. Asia Minor (modern Turkey) led the way in institutionalizing this practice—no doubt initially for political ends. Perhaps to encourage local acceptance of the practice, or maybe as a natural religious evolution—both possibilities are disturbing—in many places Emperors were identified with popular local cults; particularly as Zeus who was equated with pre-Roman (and even pre-Hellenistic) local deities.

Adada’s temples provide us with a spectrum of this phenomena. It may not be too far-fetched to suggest that the same dynamics of politics, religion, and human nature can be seen in our own times. It might be worth noting that refusing to give the Emperor the honors due him, in the eyes of Rome or its local agents, was tantamount to rebellion (as for the Jews of Jerusalem in AD 66) or disloyalty (as for early Christians that refused to worship him). Perhaps the lesson is this: there is a potential cost for attempting to rise above humanity’s baser instincts. 

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Ancient Dan on the ruins of the Temple of the Emperors at Adada (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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A Relic of the Forgotten and Cold Wars (that now seem less forgotten and cold)

A MiG 17! I had seen it in the 1980s and was immediately interested. But I never had time to stop and my usual route changed. But things changed again (as they often do), it was still there I noticed, and finally I recently stopped to take a gander.

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MiG 17 nose and cockpit (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The MiG (Mikoyan-Gurevich) 17 was a development of (and visually difficult to distinguish from) the MiG 15, which was the first Soviet-built operational swept-wing fighter jet. The MiG 15’s combat debut in the Korean War stunned the United States Air Force, brought American daytime bombing raids to a halt, and signalled increased Russian interference in the Korean War (see that very interesting story here). Seventy years on, we are still having angst over North Korean acquisition of advanced military technology and getting evidence of Russian nefarious interference . . .

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MiG 17 alongside US 80 In Forney, TX (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Produced in the U.S.S.R., and by contract in China and Poland, the MiG 17 (and variant designations) was a mainstay of Soviet Bloc and other communist countries’ air forces for much of the Cold War period. It did not achieve operational status during the Korean War, but was used in large numbers by the North Korean air force for years and is still in service there. The MiG 17 was operated by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and scored several stunning victories over technically superior USAF fighters.

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MiG 17 on an antique row in Forney, TX; note the square painted-over emblems under the red star insignia (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Back to the specific plane that occasioned this piece. It has greeted observant drivers since at least the mid-1980s alongside US 80 east of Dallas, among a stretch of antique dealers in Forney, Texas. The Mig is parked in front of De Ridder Antiques, which I found in June of 2018 with signs proclaiming “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.”

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MiG 17 in front of De Ridder Antiques, which has other oddities, including the “South Park” schoolbus with characters in the windows, a giant gorilla, and (inside) a very large architectural model of the Ulm Cathedral (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane sports the red star insignia of the U.S.S.R., visible from the highway. But on closer inspection, I saw that the red stars were painted over square patches of silver paint, covering other symbols. I surmised that the MiG 17 had once belonged to the Polish air force, which used a square insignia. My suspicion was heightened by a Polish word on one of the service covers under the fuselage and then confirmed by the proprietress of the adjacent store, who I take to have been Willie de Ridder. Sadly, my inquiry as to whether the MiG 17 was for sale was met with word that it was already sold. Whether the MiG stays alongside US 80 remains to be seen. I do hope it remains to be seen, as a reminder of past conflict and a warning against going there again.
While something of a departure from my usual musings, I may do more with “derelict warplanes I have known” if there is sufficient interest.
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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 8: A Warning to Us All

This is the end (for now, at least) of my series of posts on Easter Island (sorry it has gotten so long; I got really interested). Having covered the remoteness of moai makers, the meaning of moai, moai manufacture, moai moving, moai mania, moai mysteries, and moai myths, it is now time to give my Rapa Nui wrap-up.

In a nutshell, a culture in complete isolation on a marginal island in the south Pacific managed to create unexpectedly large statues (moai) on equally impressive platforms (ahu) with stone age technology and limited resources. The organization and innovation required (unless one goes with ancient aliens) implies an advanced and flourishing society. But, when Europeans arrived, the great construction projects had ceased and the Rapanui people were living in poverty on a nearly barren island. Within another 140 years, every moai had crashed to the ground and the once impressive ahu lay in total ruin, the sites of makeshift tombs.

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From Order . . . (re erected moai at Ahu Akivi; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Repeating the question of my previous post: What happened; and why should we care? In other words, what caused the cultural collapse on Rapa Nui, and is it a warning to greater modern society? Is Easter Island a post-apocalyptic preview?

Akahanga
. . . to Chaos (Broken moai head among ruins at Akahanga; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The first question (what happened?) is the most difficult to answer, but the history of interpretation provides some instruction in itself. Archaeologists and historians inevitably tend to view data through the lens of their own times and experience, and this can be seen in theories about Easter Island. My admittedly over-simplified review of academic reconstructions follows.

Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his Kon-Tiki adventure and book, organized and led an expedition to Easter Island in 1955. He theorized that the “Long Ears” were the original settlers of the island from South America and responsible for the monumental building, but were nearly eradicated by a rebellion of later settlers of Polynesian origin, the “Short Ears.”1 There is an implied ethnic/racial bias in Heyerdahl’s view, especially since he preferred to think of the South American settlers as ultimately hailing from Europe. It was a theory of the times; now definitively disproven by genetic and other data which show Easter Island was settled only by Polynesians. Nevertheless, how can ethnic bias and violence—seemingly on the rise in our times—not be a warning to us all?

New data emerged in the 1980s-90s demonstrating that the treeless Easter Island found by 18th century Europeans was once heavily forested with tall palm trees, akin to Wine Palms found in Chile. Further, the palms’ decline and extinction occurred during the time span of human occupation and seems to have preceded the end of moai erection. Significant data supports ecological disaster, with deforestation as a major component, as the cause for societal collapse and starvation.2 

Anakena
Palms at Anakena today are not native; indeed, the average temperature of Easter Island would not have permitted coconut palms like these, if transplanted by the settling Polynesians, to fruit; today however, because of global warming, they do bear coconuts! The palms that once heavily forested Easter Island were similar to Wine Palms of Chile (the largest of all palms) but are now extinct through deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One view is that deforestation was caused by cutting trees for moai transport and erection and that depletion of the trees brought that activity to an end.3  More likely, the forests were cut to create farmland for an increasing population and to provide cooking fuel. In any case, deforestation occasioned many other problems, such as soil erosion, loss of groundwater retention and thus habitat for taro and other crops, depletion of building material and fuel, and a lack of wood to make boats for deep-water fishing. The loss of deep-water protein and other food sources would precipitate a spiraling shortage and result in social chaos.

Papa Vaka: Tuna and Shark petroglyphs
Petroglyphs at Papa Vaka of tuna and shark, deep-water species reachable only with large canoes, which were unavailable after deforestation on Easter Island (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Things apparently got very bad.

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A kavakava statue, the emaciatied depictions of which support the starvation and desperation recounted in ethnological memory; from the Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

There are even claims of cannibalism in the ethnological record, although unconfirmed by archaeology (see caption of pic below). As a further consequence, destruction of Rapa Nui’s environment by deforestation also trapped the inhabitants on the island, as boats sufficient for escape could no longer be built! Easter Island, with a population unable to leave their isolated home and resources depleted by their own overuse, seems a microcosm for the Earth itself and a warning for its inhabitants wantonly exploiting its bounty.

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Ana Kai Tangata, often translated “Eat Man Cave” and thus cited as evidence for cannibalism; however the name can also as easily render “Man Eat Cave” (meaning a cave where man eats)—ironically, this very cave was used for a scene in the 1994 film Rapa Nui in which the protagonists escape the island in a boat after the last tree was felled and chaos erupted (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Not everyone is comfortable with the notion that Easter Islanders caused an ecological disaster of their home; and, perhaps more to the point, many resist the idea that we all may be doing the same. Consequently, there has been some push back and presentation of mitigating evidence. As we have seen in this series, the moai were demonstrably transported without extensive timber requirements, so deforestation cannot be blamed on monumental moai mania. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Polynesian Rats feasted on the small nuts of the Easter Island Palm and prevented regrowth of trees, so man was not the only agent of deforestation. And, it is rightly pointed out, the Rapanui were marvelously innovative in the face of environmental change, evidenced by their resourceful use of lithic mulch to salvage marginal crop areas and development of sheltered crop enclosures to conserve moisture.5 

Ahu Te Peu
The northwest coast of Rapa Nui from the area of Ahu Te Peu, showing the treeless landscape strewn with stones used as lithic mulch, an ingenious method of preserving some soil productivity after deforestation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Still, evidence is irrefutable that islanders cut down the old growth (and slow regrowth) forests. If Polynesian Rats prevented regrowth, it is only because they were brought there by the Polynesian settlers themselves! In effect, the rats turned a theoretically renewable resource into a non-renewable one. They also helped the settlers in irradiating the once-extensive bird population of Easter Island. It is a clear case in the microcosm of catastrophic introduction of an invasive species—like so many examples in the larger world. There is no cultural condemnation here. The Rapanui did not intentionally overpopulate, overfish, introduce invasive species, and deforest with bad intention. But they did do those things and the unforeseen consequences ruined their world.

Surely we are smarter than Easter Islanders that lived a stone-age existence, and surely we can overcome the problems we create with our superior technology. Really? Recall that the famous “mysteries” of Easter Island involved how they manged to build the fantastic monuments—such that we still do not know definitively, and many are willing to chalk it up to aliens! No; these were amazing and innovative people who attempted and accomplished great things . . . and who still ruined their environment beyond repair. We all should take heed. 

Perhaps you, the reader, are not convinced that ecological disaster even occurred on Easter Island or, more likely, that it is relevant to the rest of us. Fair enough. There is something here for everyone. Above I recounted theories that attribute collapse of the microcosm to racial or ethnic conflict and social class rebellion. To these must be added others not discussed for lack of space: tribal warfare, failure of the religious system, epidemic disease introduced by visitors, materialistic culture, disruptive foreign influence, and innate human nature. None of these are lacking in our wider world, but the last one frightens me the most.

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

Proponents of deforestation as the key to ecological collapse like to speculate on the thoughts of the Easter Islander(s) that cut down the last remaining tree. Jared Diamond wonders, “Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research . . .’.”6 While this speculative monologue has rhetorical value for Diamond’s points (with which I agree), I rather think the real thoughts were more disturbing for humanity. If not “acting under orders,” I suspect the last hewer was thinking, “I’m going to get this wood before someone else does!”

Thanks for looking—and hopefully thinking! cropped-adicon_square.png


1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
2The data is stated most definitively in John Flenly and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford: University Press, 2002).
3A violent class struggle between the poor workers and the well-fed elite is easily imagined;as in the historically-convoluted 1994 motion picture Rapa Nui.
4The view of Easter Island as a microcosm of the future of human society in the face of resource destruction is taken up by Jared Diamond in his excellent (and sobering) book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), chapter 2 and throughout the later discussion.
5See Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).
6Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005), 114.