Easter Island, the navel of the world?
This exhibition offers a different outlook on the civilization and the biodiversity of Eastern Island.
Resulting from a translation mistake, this expression maintains the reputation of Easter Island. An island lost in the Pacific Ocean to which a continuous reputation of mystery has been attached since the XVIIIth century, as both the history and the know-how of its inhabitants are exceptional. Yet, mysteries are first used to hide a lack of knowledge.
This exhibition offers a different outlook on the civilization of Eastern Island whose originality is due to the initiatives of the successive generations that shaped it. Populated almost 1,000 years ago by Polynesians with an already long history, the island carries on its destiny, now anchored in the Global World. Far from being the navel of the world, the place is first and foremost unique and fascinating.
Easter Island is marked with mystery. This is partly due to a misunderstanding of the islanders during the first meetings in the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries. But this reputation is also greatly due to mystery-lovers who foster the idea of a peculiar people whose know-how enabled the set up od incredible monuments. Yet noting is out of the ordinary on Easter Island except a uniqueness specific to any civilization. The means of construction and the chronology of the monuments, for example, are well - known and nothing but the genius of the Polynesians who live on this remote island can be discovered.
The monuments of Easter Island are often said to have fabulous dimensions, out of the reach of human possibilities, particularly given the technical means of the time (no wheels, no metal). But who would dare to claim that gothic cathedrals were inconceivable? Yet, sometimes the keystones of the cathedrals weigh much more than the statues (moai) and are placed in a state of equilibrium at amazing heights. It is now obvious that erecting a few blocks weighing a few tons on the ground is a rather common operation commonplace around the world.
In the 1920’s, the British writer James Churchward created the mystification of the sunken continent of Mu. The most basic argument against this preposterous theory is supported by geology. The Pacific Islands are formed by submarine volcanoes as a result we do not witness the disappearance of continents but rather the development of new lands all those islands are the eroded by the waves over millions of years. So there is no room for cataclysms or the sudden disappearance of huge territories in this dynamics.
A few monuments of the Easter Island are intriguing because of the perfection of the seals between the blocks of stone. Some immediately saw the influence of the Incas’ way of building. But the Easter Islanders’ altars were built between the XIIth and XVIIth centuries while the Incas developed their empire during the XVth century and were exterminated by the conquistadors in 1532. So the model starts later and ends before its alleged replica. Anyway, the Polynesians’ languages, tools and economy are not Incan either?
In the 1930’s, an amateur linguist proposed a comparison between the signs engraved on the wooden tablets of Easter island (the rongorongo) and the ideograms of an ancient civilization from the valley of Indus in Pakistan. Franco-Belgium expedition was even set up in 1934 to check this bold hypothesis. Yet the comparison works for a few signs only while several millennials separate the two productions. Finally, there is no geographic link between the Indus and Easter Island.
Few territories have simulated western public imagination so much by their unfathomable aura and impenetrable secrets. The artistic world soon captured the mysterious atmosphere of Easter Island and kept it going through movies and literary productions staging the most far-fetched theories.
Eastern Island is a volcanic land which started several million years ago. It belongs to the Nazca Plate that is moving towards South America at a sustained rhythm a few centimeters a year.
Roughly a thousand years ago some of the most famous seafarers of all times, the Polynesians reached the island. They had sail from the North-West part of the Pacific to conquer the vast ocean sometime near 1200 A.D.
Little-by-little they colonized a great number of islands, from Hawaï to New Zealand, from the Fidjis to Easter Island via Tonga, Samoa, Cook Island, the Society Islands, the Marquises Island, the Southern Islands of the Tuamoto Islands.
Polynesians used to set up reconnaissance explorations in order to settle on new islands. Drawing on their nautical, astronomic, technical and horticultural knowledge they could sail on huge wooden canoes. Men, women and children made up the crew, with all necessary equipment to survive on board and establish their future settlement.
Polynesians come from a cultural universe whose roots are implanted in South Easter Asia. They are the only ones in the world who could specialize in colonizing islands. So they quickly adapted to navigating on the high seas. Conquering the Pacific Ocean took several thousand years. A unique adventure, all the more exceptional as some of their ancestors also undertook the journey across the Indian Ocean all the way to Madagascar.
All those migrations spread Malayo-Polynesian languages from Tananarive to Easter Island.
- 1722 : Jakob Roggeveen’s expedition (Holland)
- 1770: Felipe Gonzalez e Haedo’s expedition (Spain). Islanders signed the annexion treaty by the Spanish Crown
- 1774: James’s Cook expedition (England)
- 1785: Jean-François de Galaud de Lapérouse’s expedition (France)
- 1805: Slave raids by HMS “Nancy” (USA)
- 1816: Otto von Kotzebue’s expedition(Russia)
- 1825: F.W. Beechy’s expedition arrival
- 1838: Abel Aubert du Petit-Thouars’s expedition (France)
- 1862-63: Peruvian slave raids. Hundreds of Rapa Nui, including the aristocraty were subject to deportation.
- 1864: Missionary Eugène Eyraud’s arrival.
- 1866: Missionary Hippolyte Roussel’s arrival
- 1868: Removal of the moai Hoa Hakananai’a by HMS Topaez (England). The statue still bears traces of paint.
Arrival of French adventurer J.B. Dutrou Bornier. He declared himself King of the Island, developed intensive farming, stood up against the missionaries and removed part of population to Tahiti for his plantations.
- 1869: First study of the rongorongo writing by Mgr Jaussen the Bishop of Tahiti.
- 1872 : Pierre Loti’s expedition (France) this drawing by Pierre Loti is stamped with romantism and shows a declining civilization.
- 1877: Alphonse Pinart’s expedition (France). Only 111 natives left.
- 1882: W. Geiseler’s ethnographic expedition (Germany)
- 1888: Integration of the island to Chile. Atamu Takena, the King of the island, signs the agreement with Policarpo Toro the representative of Chilean authorities.
- 1889: William Thomson’s scientific expedition (France)
- 1903:The island is rented by the Williamson-Balfour company over 40.000 sheep will graze on the island while the population is confined in the Hanga Roa Village.
- 1914: Katherine Routhledge’s scientific expedition (England).
- 1934: Scientific expedition : Alfred Metraux and Henri Lavachery (France, Belgium)
- 1935: Rapa Nui archaeological park is created.
Missionary Sebastien Englert’s arrival.
- 1944-1958: Prisoners on their own island, some Rapa Nui flee towards Tahiti on makeshift rafts.
- 1955: Thor Heyerdahl’s scientific expedition (Norway)
- 1960: The remaining parts of the Ahu Tongariki are destroyed by a tsunami. Statues scattered by the tsunami due to the earthquake south of Chili.
- 1960: restoration of Ahee Aklvi
W. Mulloy’s scientific mission
- 1961: first commercial flight to Easter Island.
- 1965: Alphonso Rapu, the first mayor of Hanga Roa following an uprising.
- 1966: Easter islanders are granted Chilean Nationality.
- 1970: NASA extends the airport runway in case of emergency landing of the space shuttle.
- 1971: Opening of a regular airline between the island and Tahiti.
- 1974: Restoration of the ceremonial complexes of Tahaï and of the village of Orongo. William Mulloy’s scientific mission.
- 1975: First Tapati Rapa Nui cultural Festival dancing, singing or sports competitions mark the cultural revival of the island every year.
Creation of the rapamicyn from a bacteria found in the soil of the island. This medicine is an anti-rejection drug processed by a Canadian team.
- 1978: Discovery of the eye of a moai by archeologists Sergio Rapu and Sonia Haoa. This specimen was rebuilt during the excavations of ahu Nau Nau.
- 1984: Nomination of Sergio Rapu as first native governor of the island.
- 1993: Partial restoration of ahu Tongariki. Tadano, a Japanese crane manufacturer contributed to the restoration project.
Indigenous Act recognizing special rights to Easter Islanders.
- 1995: Rapa Nui National Park is registered in the Unesco World Heritage.
- 2006: Asteroid 221465 is called Rapa Nui.
- 2007: The island is given the status of “special territories”. The flag pf the Rapanui People represents a Reimiro pectoral
- 2009: Easter islanders rally against important immigration.
- 2017: Agreements for the creation of a vast marine reservation around the island. This 720.000 km2 large protected area will be a sanctuary for biodiversity.
- The concession contract of the administration of the National Park is transfered to the Rapanui Community through the Mau Henua Body for 50 years.
- 2018: Nearly 80.000 tourist visit Easter Island. Growing tourism boosts the economic development of the island but creates new problems.
Easter island is now deeply-rooted in today’s world. The 6000 inhabitants, among whom many are the direct descendants of the Polynesians who erected the big statues, take advantage of the assets and drawbacks of our current society.
Today tourism has become the first economic activity. The new challenge lies in enjoying this new era while preserving their inheritance. The problem is by no means easy but not unbridgeable either. Preserving the environment, the language, the heritage and cultural particularities is not incompatible with modern living. Different local bodies ensure this heritage is safeguarded.
Like everywhere else in the world, the population on easter island isnow a combination of natives and emigrants. Besides, since 1888 the island has been a Chilean Province : South american tradition was added to polynesian tradition. Finally, the wounds of a more recent past, notably the abuses of the XIXth century are still very strong in this early XXIe. The future lies in the hands in the new generation who will have to learn with this complex situation and sustain awareness about this heritage.
There is always the problem of bringing new diseases when meeting with the outside world. Thus Easter Island had to undergo several terrible epidemic during the XXIth century. The first major one was due to the repatriated slaves from Peru, and unfortunately were carriers of smallpox and syphilis. Then leprosy was devastating. The leper colony where the sick died without treatment, was only closed in the mid XXth century.
In the mid XIXth century, Easter Island paid a heavy toll to slave raiders. 1.200 men and women are estimated to have been captured. Only about ten were repatriated. Then a French adventurer Jean Baptiste Onésime Dutrou-Bornier moved a few hundred easter islanders to work on his farms in Tahiti and made the present missionaries leave for the Gambier Islands with the remaining survivors thus creating a new diaspora condemned by the Bishop in Tahiti.
Sheep were introduced on the island as soon as 1879 by a tahiyi-based company. But it is essentially when the Williamson & Balfour Company took over this Pactivity that 40 to 60.000 sheep were brought on the island dramatically completing the devastation of the landscape. The Rapa Nui suffered the aftermath. They were confined in the Hanha Roa Village without any means of support. Sheep were only banned from the island in 1953 and land return even later.
*The use of manava (stone enclosures) the spreading of stones in the fields enabled to keep the morning dew and slow down erosion.
*Like all Polynesians, Easter Islanders ere farmers. They regularly used slash and burn techniques to clear necessary land for their plantations. Gaps in the forest were also necessary to set up villages. Finally wood was exploited to build houses, keep ovens and fireplaces going, build boats and build sledges to move the statues.
The combined analysis of climate observation data ( 1982 -2015), paleolitic indicators (1500 – 200), digital models (850 – 1850) seems to suggest that climate-related anomalies associated with the Niña couldgenerate substantial rainfall deficits likely to bring about important changes in the flora of the island.
Human-made and climate-related factors must the be studied together to understand this environmental disaster better.
We can’t figure out if polynesian rats were deliberately introduced on Easter Island but in any case their population quickly grew for lack of predators.
Archaelogists found many nuts from extinct palm-trees eaten by those rodents. This may have contributed to a certain extent, to the low renewal of this plant whose seeds took a long time to germinate.
If a “cultural suicide” following an environmental disaster on Easter Island has often been suggested, we know today this is not the case. On the contrary the consequences of the meeting with the Europeans were fateful : diseases among with smallpox, against which the islanders immune system was not ready, salve-trade, take-overs by explorers… The XIX th century was a dreadful time when the Easter Islanders were literally on the verge of extinction. In 1877 only 111 inhabitants were left.
In islands away from any other land, there is almost no fauna except marine animals and migratory birds. In contrast (however) light seeds can withstand long air journeys. So, at the beginning, Easter Island was covered with a diversified forest. Its isolate allowed the emergence of unique varieties like the Sophora Toromino, a thick-wooded tree used by carvers. Polynesians added further elements like their own plants and animals (bananas, sweet potatoe, yam, sugarcane, taro, chicken, Polynesian rats).
1000-1650 : Colonization of the island by Polynesians
- Ahu-Moaï era
- Exploitation of Rano Raraku as a quarry for statues
- Local deforestation (agriculture, villages, monuments)
1650-1700 : Deforestation climax
- closing of the Rano Raraku quarries (establishment of a taboo)
- transformation of Ahu-Moaïs into necropolis
- beginning of the cult of God Makemake and birdman ceremonials.
1804-1872 : Establishment of the first missionaries
- end of the birdman ceremonials
- conversion of the Rapanui to Roman Catholicism
1903-1593 : Intensive sheep breeding
- confinement of the Rapanui in the village of Hanga roa
1966-2018 : Beginning of cultural and economic independence
- the island is gradually returned to the Easter-Islanders.
There numerous theories to account for the deforestation of Easter Island and its consequences. There are two indisputable facts: - Deforestation reached a climax in the XVII th century but was not followed by a collapse of the nature culture.
On the contrary, circumstances urged the islanders to be inventive at an economic level as well as at a religious or social level. Yet it doesn’t mean it was an easy and non-violent process above all if you recall the tendancy of early Polynesians to resort to violence.
There is no society where cultural or religious beliefs have been kept intact through generations. Easter Island is no exception. The cult to the ancestors slowly gave away to “creating Gods”. The main consequence of this evolution was to move from a split-up society where each and everyone was guided by their own ancestors to a more global society coming under the influence of Gods who by nature transcend lineage.
One Moaï in Eastern Island had a particular fate. It was brought to London in 1869 and identified as Hoa Hakananai’a. (Master wave breaker) by the Eastern-Islanders who couldn’t believe such a giant could sail the seas.
Its backs is covered wit figurative cravings and comes from orongo which is the place associated with the island birdman cult (Makemake). It was most probalbly erected on a ceremonial platform, then integrated into the cult of Makemake by endowing it with lavish decorations where the birdman the God’s assistant appears.
-Female patterns (vulva) : Komari
-Sooty tern : Manutara
-ceremonial dance paddle : Ao rapa
-birdmen : Tangaka manu
Easter Island is a vast steppe today. Yet when the first polynesians settlers arrived, it was covered with a dense forest of palm-trees. Human beings and the climate contributed to the deforestation which was completed in the early XX th century when the Scottish settlers introduced thousands of sheeps. The transformation of the landscape was also slow and the Easter Islanders adapted by changing their farming techniques slowly which revels their resilience.
From the XVII th century the cult of Makemake, one of the gods of the pantheon slowly replaced the workship of ancestors. The latter had a representation on the island, the Tangata Manu (the birdman) the winner of a yearly competition in the ceremonial village Orongo. We don’t know much about this competition except competitors had to find and bring back the first manutora egg of the year (the manutara is a migratory bird). The exact role of the Tangata Manu has faded from memory but many taboos are said to have been associated to this legend.
The only witness to the Birdman competition was the French missionary Eugéne Eyraud who attended the meeting of the Easter Islanders at Mataveri before they left for Orongo at the top of the Rano Kau volcano.
Rongorongo tablets are wooden artifacts covered with glyphs showing outlines of human beings or animals or symbols. It was thus believed that early Eastern Islanders had a specific writing. There is no denying that there is definitely a form of writing system that makes sense-yet multiple deciphering endeavours show that it is not a form of writing in the current sense of the word. Rongorongo were charged with mana (a spiritual strength) and were most probably used by story-tellers to support legends. In which a case they would be the symbolic transcript of the whole oral tradition.
There are many carved stones on Easter Island. Some designs must have had a practical role like bringing a watering place to attention. On other natural rocks, drawings of marine animals or now inexplicable signs can been seen, probably messages with a symbolic nature.
From the XVII th century we can witness many representations of the face of God Makemake and his representation on the island : birdman (tangata Manu). These last themes are linked to a later change in the religion of the island.
There are lots of carved woods on the island. They are often anthropomorphic and represent spirits or gods whose exact identities have been forgotten.
Moai Kavakava (“the man whose ribs you can see”), Moai papa (female figure), moai tangata (male figure), moai tangata moko (lizard-like man), tahonga (egg-shaped pendant)… There are also emblems of power : ua and pao (a long or short twin-faced stick), ao and rapa (a big or small ceremonial paddle), reimiro (a crescent-shaped pectoral row the pattern of the island’s flag).
Each Polynesian island has developed their own styles for human figures, still a great variety of differences exist. So on Easter Island we can find a squalting moaï, another one showing traces of legs (broken today), the other ones have no legs. Most statues are made of tuff, some are made of red scoria or basalt stone. Sometimes the drawing of a loincloth can be seen. Elsewhere the outline of hands or ears is the only decoration. Finally a minority (60 moaï) were given a red scoria topknot.
-Four handed maoï
Moaï of Rano Raraku, partially buried to their shoulders have outstanding proportions. Their eyes were not hollowed out to receive coral-eyes. From the side, their faces are too thin to get a headdress and their backs aere sometimes covered with mysterious signs. Motionless because they are buried, blind, and base-headed, these statues have lost their traditional power and look like a compulsory taboo on the quarries.
The Statues sketched in the former quarries have often been mistaken with the rough outlines in the fabrication of the Moaï. In fact, they are works in their own right, deliberately left there. When observing the cutting face we can notice that the Easter Islanders tore off bocks of tuff, gave them an overall look and started the finishing stage once they had been transported only. They bush-hammered the tuff with picks (toki).
The most preposterous assumptions have been made concerning the transportation of Moaï. People have always thought the Easter Islanders carved them first, making them extremely fragile. But they only moved the first drafts so ropes and logs sledges were adequate. Experiences have shown that a 10-ton block pulled by 60 people on a wooden sledge could cover 15 km in a week. Now the biggest distance between the quarries and a monument is 25 km, I other words a fortnight’s work.
Rejected hypothesis : they all believed the Moaï was totally carved which can’t be proved today.
The details of the face and hands were probably completed when the moaï was set up on a platform. But the most important element was the creation of the eyes. Coral eyes with black obsidian or red scoria disks for the pupil were inlaid in the deep elliptical eye sockets. Were they placed for ever or just once in a while ? The statues were also most probably rubbed with dyes of vegetable origin. Production workshops have recently been discovered in the center of the island.
Most of the moaï were erected on platforms scattered all over the island to serve for domestic cult. These structures are made of a base of basalt stones, sometimes heavier than the moaï themselves. At the front a terrace literally extends outward the stage to form the “wings” of the “Ahu”. The moaï facing away from the ocean, looked at the villages to allow conversation with the living. From the XVIIth century the Ahu were turned onto necropolis.
Polynesia abounds with legends telling the achievements of the Gods, the creators of the Universe and in charge of the destiny of human beings.
For this reason, they are feared and benefit from taboos. But they are not always present. They travel across the world like the Polynesians across the Ocean. The deified forefathers represented by the bug statues (moaï) are also present from time to time according their own needs or those of the living. Beside the statues were erected their altars temporarily, for a few generations…
± 900 Moaï on the island
± 50 Isolated moaï
± 150 Re used fractions
± 400 Complete or sketched on the Rano Raraku
The term moaï defines all human representations from the basic wooden statuette to the stone giants. The average height of the latter is 1 to 6 meters, for a weight between 3 to 12 tons. Only one moaï moved on the island has outstanding dimensions (9, 7 m high, weighing over 50 tons).
But all the other giants (those over 10 meters high) have never been moved and stayed together in the quarry. The tallest (22 m) has been even been separated from the rock. Was it ever possible ?
From the smallest to the tallest
The smallest moaï : 1 m
The tallest moaï erected : 9, 7 m
The tallest: 22 m
According to their location the big moaï have different shapes. The staties erected on the platform (ahu) have empty sockets to be filled with incrustations and a thick head sometimes topped by a headdress in red volcanic scoria (pukao). The giants erected on the slopes of Raraku have thin faces that can’t wear a headdress, their eyes being only bevel-edged. Finally in the quarries and along the former old pathways, the moaï have free designs, except for the bevel-edged eyes.
The sometimes quite impressive dimensions of the statues have always generated more or less mythical stories considering that the mean of production and transportation were impossible even supernatural.
We must keep our heads: even if the exact techniques of yesteryear have long been forgotten, nothing is impossible or out of the ordinary. Besides the big moaï are made of tuff, a rock made of compact volcanic ashes, a relatively light material quite easy to work on.
Type: subtropical (hot and wet in summer, mild in winter)
Average temperatures : between 18 C° and 23 C°
Rain: heavy all year round (about 1100 mm / year)
Shores: steep (only 2 sand-beaches)
Land: hilly (extinct volcanic craters)
Indigenous plants: 65 -70 species (present our extinct)
Reptiles: 2 species
Arthropods: ? (1 specie of spiders)
Fishes: 160 species
Molluscs: 35 species
Shellfish / crustaceans: several dozen of species
Corals: abundant but not varied
Reptiles: many species of tortoise
Mammals: passing through occasionally
Marine: 22 species (present or extinct)
Terrestrial: 6 species (extinct)
The original flora of Easter Island – flowering plants, trees and bushes/shrubs – mainly comes from South-East Asia, scattered by winds, streams and sea-birds. But the iconic tree of the island, the Sophora Toromiro, probably comes from South America. The fruits travelling on wooden rafts would have reached this new environment producing a unique smaller breed through generations.
These yellowish small seeds are distinctive of the sophoras in the Pacific. Of oval shapes, smooth and hard they can float in sea-water many weeks and can still germinate decades later.
The altars with statues, the fame of Easter Island are typically Polynesian and were aimed at connecting with dead chiefs. But Polynesian patheons are also full of dozens of Gods who often let the forefathers run the world. As soon as the XVIIIth century , probably because of demographic pressure, Gods were called to take control. According to the islands, one God in particular was chosen, like Makemake on Eastern Island. This change brought about new architectures, among which the transformation of the manufacturing workshops of statues into one of the most spectacular Polynesian place of workship.
Today genetic, linguistic and archaeological data prove that Easter Islanders are of the Eastern Polynesian descent.
It is from this vast territory, as large as Europe, that a final journey was undertaken, most probably around year 1.000 that enabled them to colonize Easter Island. Where from exactly? It is difficult to say as Polynesians have covered their tracks by their round trips between the different islands : from the Marquises to the Southern Islands and Tahiti.
Hotu Matua, Easter Island’s first King
Since the end of the XIXth century, many researchers have recorded the story of the first Easter Islanders on Easter Island. According to these writings the settlement of Easter Island would be the due to King Hotu Matua thrown out of his native island (whose exact location we don’t know) because of a love dispute, a lost war or a natural disaster. He set sail with his family. Pepole following the pathfinders who discovered the land that the an who h d tattooed Hotu Matua when he was a child, had dreamt of
We must sail over 3,000 kms in any direction whatsoever to reach the nearest inhabited territories from Easter Island. Yet this isolate is quite relative even if it is the most important in the world regarding distances. It is probably easier to travel the seas than to go through thick and deep jungles. It takes about 20 days for a traditional boat to sail from Tahiti to Easter Island/ Nothing to stop Polynesians who have journeyed across the Pacific Seas for several thousand years.
When the Polynesians set foot on Easter Island arounf 1.000 AD they didn’t discover an island similar to what it is today. At that time it was civerd with a dense forest of thousand of trees, among which miscellaneous varieties of palm-trees. It was possible to recreate this landscape thanks to the pollen grains caught at the bottom of the lakes that still exist in some volcanic craters but also thanks to the analysis of charcoals of ancient domestic fireplaces. During recent excavations prints of thousand of roots of palm-trees have observed.