Saturday, February 23, 2013

Easter Island and its Statues, Part 3

The concluding part of the post on Easter Island statues:


Torsos and excavations: 
  • Although commonly thought of as being only heads, they have torsos down to the thighs. Some have a total body and there is one statue that is kneeling. The impression that they consist only of heads is that from the invention of photography until the 1950’s, only heads have been photographed as visible above the ground. 
  • In 1919 pictures of the first excavations by the Mana Expedition to Easter Island revealed that some statues were full sized. The discovery was confirmed in 1955 by the explorer Thor Heyerdahl when his Norwegian Archaeological Expedition excavated a statue. Over subsequent decades the discoveries were gradually forgotten, known by archaeologists but not by tourists, who began visiting the island when flights between Santiago and Tahiti, via Easter Island, began in the 1990s. 
  • Since 1990, the Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) has been undertaking an archaeological survey on Easter Island, aiming to create a full and complete, island-wide inventory for each statue. As part of the project, two seven metre tall, full-size statures, estimated to weigh about 20 tonnes, have been excavated in the Rano Raraku quarry. 



Ahu, Walls and carvings: 
  • The Rapa Nui also made stone platforms, referred to as ahu, on Easter Island. Of the 313 known ahu on the island, 125 were used as platforms for moai, The ahu also had a paved area in front. 


  • The Rapa Nui also made walls that are reminiscent of Inca walls and the walls at Machu Pichu: 


  • There are over 4,000 petroglyphs on Easter Island, pictures carved into rock, making Easter Island one of the richest sites for such carvings in Polynesia. Designs and images were carved out of rock for a variety of reasons: to create totems, to mark territory or to memorialize a person or event. 





Statues and History: 
  • The population of Easter Island was divided into clans, ruled by a single chief. The rival clans produced the moai as part of a cult of “mana” that included ancestor worship. The belief was that benefits – power, prosperity, prestige – were gifted to, and vested in, the clans from ancestors and that the transmission was through the moai, which represented the ancestors and forebears of the clans. According to mana, the ancestors provided the benefits for the living, the moai ensured a better deal for the ancestors in the spirit world. Any adverse circumstances such as crop failure necessitated more statues and bigger statues. Inter clan rivalry on respect of the production of moai was fierce. 
  • As has been already noted, the moai were produced between 1250 and 1500 AD, ceasing when the island became overpopulated and the resources diminished or were depleted and eventually exhausted. Such circumstances saw warriors, known as matatoa, gain increasing power and eventually control. The cult of mana was supplanted by the cult of the Bird Man, a mythical half man, half bird, the emblem of the matatoa. 
The Bird Man motif


As depicted in petroglyphs, even on the back of moai.
  • The Bird Man and mana cults both held that ancestors provided for the living but whereas mana held that this was achieved through ancestor worship and moai, the Bird Man cult believed the ancestors looked after the living through selected living humans. These humans were chosen through a competition. 
  • The Bird Man concept is not unique to Easter Island, it appears in other places and cultures in Polynesia, including Hawaii. What is unique to Easter Island is the selection of the persons by competition through whom the ancestors bestowed power. 
  • As depicted in the film Rapa Nui, the competition consisted of descent of sheer cliffs at a place called Orongo, a swim to an island known as Moto Nui where competitors awaited the birds that visited the island seasonally and then a swim back with an egg. 
Birdman petroglyphs at the site of Orongo, with Moyo Nui in the background 
  • The Bird Man competitions started around 1760, after the arrival of the first Europeans, and ended in 1878, with the construction of the first church by Roman Catholic missionaries who formally arrived in 1864. 
  • The accounts of the Europeans who visited Easter Island in 1722 and 1770 describe statues as standing erect. Cook described observing various statues lying face down during his visit in 1774. By 1868 there were no statues standing upright, apart from those buried. Various causes have been attributed to the statue toppling, notably earthquakes and internal war. It appears that at least some of the statues were deliberately toppled, leading to hypotheses that internal conflict generated by conflict between the ancestor worshippers and the Bird Man followers led to war and deliberate statue destruction, somewhat like the Taliban destroying statues. 
  • Ron Fisher in his work Easter Island Brooding Sentinels of Stone, advances one explanation for the statue toppling that is adopted by the movie Rapa Nui. Fisher suggests that there were two groups of people on the island, the-so-called Long Ears and the Short Ears. The Short Ears were slaves of the Long Ears, who forced the Short Ears to carve the moai. After many generations and during a rebellion, the Short Ears surprised the Long Ears and killed them all, which explains the abrupt end of the statue-carving. As against this, there have been few human remains found (although interestingly there has been evidence of cannibalism when loss of resources reduced the food supply in a drastic manner). 
Note that the statues are constructed with long ears. 
  • 55 moai have been re-erected and preservation and restoration work continues. Easter Island is now a protected, world heritage site. 

The Message: 

The Bradshaw Foundation is a private, non-profit organisation based in Geneva that focuses on archaeology, anthropology and genetic research. 

The Foundation’s website has a section on Easter Island and makes some overall observations, similar comments being made by Diamond in his fascinating book Collapse

From the Bradshaw Foundation website at: 

Stories concerning the collapse of past civilizations due to the overuse of natural resources and overpopulation are well-known. From the early civilizations in the 'fertile crescent' of the Near East to small island nations, history tells us how man has trashed his land and, in most cases, left for greener pastures when desert replaced cropland and orchards.  
But on Easter Island, once the trees were cut down, the islanders no longer could build a canoe and sail onward, looking for another island in the sea. They were trapped in a degraded environment, and then further impacted by European explorers who brought disease and, in many cases, outright death.  
Easter Island is so small that it can be seen in its entirety from its highest mountain; whomever cut down the last tree on the island had to know that it WAS the last tree. But he cut it down anyway.
 
The history of Rapa Nui was played out on a small island and it serves well as a metaphor for our earth today. It is hard to comprehend a mentality that ignores such things as bulldozing rainforests in the Amazon - for short-term gain, and seas that are being over-harvested. Mankind has learned very little from the past. The island called Easter has become a metaphor for our time. Only by understanding the past and altering present behavior can "earth island" avoid the dreadful fate of Rapa Nui. 



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