The statues of Easter Island are some of the least explicable wonders of the world: a thousand of these large stone Moai cover this relatively small island, with stylised faces bearing little resemblance to the inhabitants; some weigh up to 100 tons. Standing on stone platforms called Ahus, some face out to sea, others inland. They have tremendous sculptural and spiritual presence. And yet we know little about why or when they were built, or even by who.
The usual tools of archaeology have not got far on Easter Island: it is difficult to carbon-date stone, so estimates for the construction of the statues runs from anything from 500 AD to the time of the island’s discovery by the outside world in the 18th century; the hieroglyphic language in which details of the inhabitants’ history may or may not have been recorded – a script called rongo-rongo – has yet to be deciphered and may never be, given that no Rosetta stone exists in a parallel language and that many of the rongo-rongo tablets were destroyed by over-zealous missionaries; moreover, as a language it seems to have evolved sui generis, without outside influence of any sort, at a time when the civilisations of the South American mainland had yet to acquire a comparable writing system.
Nor is there certainty as to where the inhabitants came from. While sea-faring Polynesians may have reached the islands from the west around 500 AD, there is some suggestion of a connection with the South American coast in the form of the statues (which resemble those of Tiahuanaco in modern-day Bolivia); the celebrated Kon-Tiki expedition of Thor Heyerdahl set out in 1947 to show that the South Pacific islands could have been reached from the mainland on a raft of the sort used by pre-Columbian civilisations. The scholarly dispute over the genetic and cultural origins of Easter Island is part of a wider argument over the populating of South America and Polynesian migration that has yet to be settled.
What does seem clear is that there were different races living on the island at the time of the island’s discovery by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722: he described some inhabitants as unusually pale, with red hair, while others were darker in the more Polynesian way. It also seems that in the following period before Captain Cook arrived in the 1770s some internecine warfare took place, with the population being much reduced. Other predations followed, including the deplorable kidnapping of much of the island’s population to work in the guano mines of Peru, all of which have resulted in the loss of folk memories and any oral tradition which could help explain the origin of the statues.
But at least one can see the quarry from which they came, beside the volcano of Rano Raraku: the volcano provides the tuff, the compressed volcanic ash, from which the statues were carved so well, as witnessed by the three hundred or so Moai left there while still incomplete; indeed one of the puzzles of Easter Island is why so many of the statues – the majority of them – were never finished, but were still being either carved or transported to their final positions when they were abandoned.
One proposition that has been put forward is that production of the statues caused some sort of ecological meltdown – that the few trees on the island were cut to provide transport for the statues, the topsoil was subsequently eroded, fishing boats could not be made and famine followed, causing either sort of revolt against the priests who had instigated the carving of the statues (if such priests existed) or more simply a concentration on elemental survival with diminishing resources. Certainly it seems as if many of the statues were deliberately toppled from their positions, their eyes ripped out and the curious pukaos, their ‘topknots’, removed.
Just prior to this meltdown, production of the statues may have reached a crescendo as a way of appeasing hostile gods. There is a danger that this too neatly prefigures our own sense of environmental apocalypse – and the author Jared Diamond used it in just such a way in his book Collapse – but it would also mirror how we know some South American civilisations reacted to climatic disasters.
When Thor Heyerdahl came to the island in 1955, eight years after his earlier Kon-Tiki raft expedition, he helped restore one of the Maoi to an upright position and inculcated a new pride in the statues. Heyerdahl succeeded in putting the statues on the map, and while some of his theories as to their provenance have since been questioned, he undoubtedly brought the issue to the world’s attention.
It is certainly true that some aspects of the statues – the facility with monumental stone, the ability to cut and lay the stone blocks on which the Maoi stood without mortar, certain facial characteristics – bear similarity with the ancient Tiahuanaco culture of Bolivia and their later Colla descendants.
But in a way we should perhaps use the complete absence of archaeological and anthropological evidence to our advantage, and appreciate the statues simply as consummate works of art. The expressive angularity of the faces is precisely of the sort that was later to attract modernist artists such as Picasso. The hooded eyes, aquiline noses and strong jaws give a feeling of watchful purposefulness. Many of the torsos of the statues had subsided into the ground, and excavation has now revealed their full bodies.
The statues have helped revive the fortunes of the islanders: there are now some 3500 in the population; while this is thought to be still much lower than at the time of the statues’ construction, the tourism brought by the statues’ fame has been substantial. For that they have the visionary Thor Heyerdahl to thank – and the extraordinary skill of the original sculptors.
(c) Hugh Thomson 2009