But there is no river on Rapa Nui. Indeed, Easter Island has no perennial watercourse of any kind. Perhaps there were streams prior to deforestation but, by any estimation, water resources were and are a major issue for inhabitants of this small remote island with irregular rainfall. That and other environmental limitations make the erection of the famous statues (moai) on their even larger platforms (ahu) all the more impressive and mysterious.
An interesting new study highlighted by CNN in this linked story claims to have solved “the mystery” of why Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s ahu and moai were built where they were. In the technical article (online version here for the academically interested), a team of scholars concludes that the island’s famous structures were built at locations where fresh water was available. In some ways this seems like an obvious solution, but the study employs GIS and statistics to solidify the case. The authors include Terry Lipo and Carl Hunt, who acknowledge the environmental stress and deforestation realities but rightly emphasize the ingenuity of the Rapanui people in their excellent 2011 book.
As an archaeologist with a desire to see everything everywhere, I naturally sought to visit as many of the 200-300 ahu as possible on a 5-day visit to Rapa Nui. Most tourists and bus tours concentrate on the well-known sites with restored ahu and re-erected moai, or the half-buried “heads” of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. We saw those, but I dragged my long-suffering wife to many other ruins that appear to be “piles of rocks.”
At the relatively unimpressive and little-visited Ahu Hanga Tetenga on the SE coast, I noticed a fenced cattle pasture across the road as I turned down the trail to the site. Exiting our rental “jeep” (a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny) I anoticed a pronounced droning noise mixed with the sound of the surf. But attracted by the ruins, I ignored all this and headed for the pile of rocks that once was a proud ahu with two toppled and broken moai.
I gawked and photographed as Felicia admired the South Pacific. Suddenly the droning noise ceased and, within a minute, a lone motor scooter careened down the slope from the cattle yard above and beyond the road — headed straight for my wife! The rider dismounted as I walked swiftly and warily that direction. He passed Felicia without a word and bounded down the short cliff to the water, where I was able to crane and see a gas-powered water pump that had quit. He retrieved a hidden gas can, added fuel, and restarted it. Passing us without comment, he jumped on the scooter and bounced away over the rocky landscape to tend his cattle. Unbelievably, it did not occur to me to photograph the pump system or the rancher who was there less than two minutes. His water pipe is faintly visible here:
I remembered commenting to Felicia as we turned down the path, “I wonder how they get enough water for those cattle in this desolate place?” Now we knew. The rancher was pumping from a “seep,” where the fresh water aquifer of the island invisibly spills out of the submerged rocks into the ocean. Such seeps are common and long-utilized on Rapa Nui. The location of Ahu Hanga Tetenga, just above this source, vividly demonstrates the study’s conclusions.
The article, just published last week (10 January 2019) not only presents a reasonable and well-defended case, but it is also a model of “open access” publishing (meaning that it is available to anyone without subscription). The authors even provide links to shapefiles (GIS data) used in the research. I happily downloaded and incorporated them to improve my own data and map of Rapa Nui (above). Now I have a need to go back to get a pic of that pump . . .
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.
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?
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
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.3More 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.4
Things apparently got very bad.
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.
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
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.
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!
1Implicit throughout Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku(Chicago: Rand McNally, 1958).
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
But Cook also reported many statues were toppled, ahu were apparently used for burials, and skeletal material was seen scattered about on moai sites.
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.
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.
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.
But, in fact, moai can be found fallen in both prone and supine positions, sometimes mixed on a single destroyed ahu. Potential explanations abound.
I’ll turn to the questions posed above in the next post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 . . .
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).