Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. This summer’s (Rapa Nui winter) trip to this isolated island unexpectedly provoked a variety of thoughts on several topics.
This is the last post in the series “This Trip to Easter Island Really Got Me Thinking.” The trip was great as evidenced by the prior posts listed below. However, putting on paper the thoughts that got me thinking has been difficult. This post has been holding up other posts I want to get to. So without further adieu, here are some of the random, unprofound thoughts I recall running through my mind on Easter Island.
The Easter Island series so far:
Random Thoughts About Rapa Nui
The geography of Rapa Nui played a big part in the life of the Polynesian settlers. The island is a speck of volcanic rock barely 63 square miles in size.
Start with the fact that Rapa Nui is located in the middle of nowhere – surrounded for thousands of miles by only the desolate surface of the South Pacific Ocean.
Rapa Nui is considered to be the world’s most remote inhabited island by some standards. Lying about 2,200 miles off the South American coast, Rapa Nui is a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile or a slightly longer flight from Papeete, Tahiti.
On the flight from Santiago, after going “feet wet” at the coast of Chile, Rapa Nui is the first land you’ll see. A feeling of remoteness is almost palpable on the island. The isolation and confused history of the island is probably what got me thinking.
Discovery and Settlement
The people who settled Rapa Nui must have been fantastic navigators and incredibly brave. Oral tradition states that conflict with a neighboring chief who defeated him in battle several times motivated chief Hotu Matu’a to find a new home for his people. The location of Hotu Matu’a’s original island is unknown. Experts believe he probably came from the Gambier Islands, about 1,600 miles away, or the Marquesas Islands, nearly 2,000 miles distant.
Tiring of the getting his blank kicked by the local bully, Hotu Matu’a dispatched scouts to find a new land for his people. A scout canoe or canoes found Rapa Nui then returned to notify the chief. Seven scouts remained on the island to prepare for the arrival of Hotu Matu’a and his people.
Ahu Akivi is one of the few inland ahus. Moai facing the ocean is also unusual. This ahu may represent the seven scouts who remained on Rapa Nui preparing for the chief’s arrival. .
Moai at Ahu Akivi are oriented to identify the Spring Equinox and Fall Equinox. So we know the Rapa Nui understood a few things about astronomy. We do not know Rapa Nui concepts on the shape and size of the earth.
Rapa Nui was settled sometime between 300 A. D. and 1200 A. D. At that time, the conventional wisdom in Europe was that the earth was flat. European sailors (Vikings being a possible exception) feared falling off the edge of the earth or being devoured by sea monsters if they sailed too far from land. Rapa Nui seemed to have no such fears?
Had medieval Europeans been as intrepid as their contemporaries in Polynesia, colonies in North America might have been established centuries earlier than they were. Contemplate potential ramifications of that for a minute.
There may have never been an American Revolution. Or if a revolution in the New World had occurred say in the 1500s, would it have been based on the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution? The possibilities for world history are staggering.
Te Pito O Te Henua
Te Pita Kura is a clue to Rapa Nui views of the world and their place in it. This site consists of an ahu with the biggest moai ever erected and a large stone believed to possess mana (magical powers).
Hotu Matu’a allegedly brought the large ovoid-shaped stone to Rapa Nui. High iron content causes this stone to feel warmer than others and produces false compass readings. The stone is believed to enhance female fertility. This stone has several names including Te Pito Kura (navel of light) and Te Pito O Te Henua (navel of the world) or even (navel of the universe). Like most civilizations, the Rapa Nui had a self-centered view of the world and the cosmos.
Surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, it is easy to understand the Rapa Nui’s belief that the island was the center of everything.
Experts are divided as to whether an apocalypse occured on Rapa Nui. Some say that the island experienced rapid population growth and a prolonged period of civil conflict that resulted in the breakdown of the social structure, lawlessness, and rule by a warrior class (thugs). Things got so bad that islanders allegedly resorted to cannibalism.
(Coincidentally, last night during a TV break from writing this post, I stumbled upon an episode of Blue Planet: South Pacific on BBC America that dealt with the difficulties of colonizing remote islands in the South Pacific. The show totally bought into the man-made apocalypse theory as if it were proven fact.)
One thing is certain – the population of Rapa Nui had to survive solely on the limited resources of their tiny and incredibly remote island. Failure to properly husband the resources could easily lead to catastrophe. In that respect Rapa Nui can be viewed as a microcosm of Earth.
For whatever reason or reasons, today, there are no forests on Rapa Nui. That wasn’t the case when Hotu Matu’a arrived.
The population on Rapa Nui may have become too large to sustain with its limited resources. Might Earth follow suit? Earth’s resources are also finite. The current world population is about 7.8 billion according to UN estimates. It is conservatively expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100.
Rapa Nui can also be viewed as a microcosm of Earth in another respect. Rapa Nui is isolated by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Earth is isolated by the vastness of space, the cosmic ocean.
The Rapa Nui were no doubt shocked and surprised when the first Europeans, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, paid a visit on Easter Sunday April 5, 1722. Roggeveen reported that 12 Rapa Nui were killed in an altercation with the his men. The revelation of the existence of a technologically if not morally superior society must have exacerbated any issues of overpopulation and breakdown in social order that the island was may have been experiencing. It would have further shaken the belief in their religion and the power of the moai.
All moai were upright when Roggeveen arrived and in 1770 when two Spanish ships visited. In 1774, however, James Cook reported that some moai had been toppled. The last report of standing statues was in 1838.
Whatever problems the Rapa Nui were going through, contact with Europeans sealed their fate. In the 1860s a series of events caused the death or removal of nearly the entire population. Peruvians forcibly removed about half of the population of 3,000 to serve as slaves in South America. Many other Rapa Nui were shipped to other islands in Polynesia so a French businessman could turn the island into a sheep ranch. Tuberculosis and smallpox from whalers and missionaries ravaged the remaining population. By the 1870s, only 111 people lived on Rapa Nui.
Much of the history and culture of Rapa Nui was lost as a result because the few islanders who could decipher the rongorongo scripts (Rapa Nui proto writing) were dead or no longer on the island.
In Earth history, technologically superior civilizations always abuse technologically inferior ones when they come in contact with. Among other things, the supposedly superior civilization confiscates property, takes control of resources, enslaves or otherwise exploits labor, and tries to convert the population to its religion.
Does Rapa Nui provide a lesson for the rest of us on that point? Maybe.
Learning about the disastrous results for the Rapa Nui made me recall a brief conversation back in the mid 1970s with Carl Sagan at the college I was attending. Prof. Sagan delivered a fascinating guest lecture on the Voyager 1 and 2 space missions.
Both Voyager spacecrafts carry a greeting and message on a gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Sagan chaired the NASA committee that selected the images, natural sounds, musical selections, and spoken greetings in 55 languages contained on the disk. The disk also displays information Earth’s location.
Prof. Sagan stayed after the lecture and talked briefly with a few people who went up to the stage. I respectfully expressed concern about revealing the location of Earth to what would undoubtedly be a technologically far superior civilization that detected and retrieved a Voyager craft that he explained would be wandering forever in interstellar space.
Of course Sagan had a good answer for my safety concern. Television signals have been radiating into space at light speed since the first TV broadcasts. We have already exposed our position and comparative technological weakness. That explanation satisfied my concern. But it also established that the golden record was just a costly publicity stunt since any nosy aliens would know all about us from I Love Lucy.
The prevailing wisdom is that there is little to worry about in the event of an alien encounter because a civilization with the capability of interstellar travel would be mature enough to refrain from behaving like humans. With due respect to Carl Sagan and others, I’m not so sure. It is a big risk for the technologically inferior civilization. Even a technologically advanced civilization likely has problems to deal with. Those problems and solutions for them might even be why they engage in a costly, resource-intensive venture like space flight.
Even if the advanced civilization was not belligerent, alien contact might have a similar effect on the stability of our society as European contact had for the Rapa Nui. Aliens might even feel obliged to do us a favor and convert us to their religion or lack thereof.
Easter Island is a unique experience. The remote location and mystery about the history of the island and its people provoked a good deal of thought. The lessons of Rapa Nui seem relevant to modern times since potential overpopulation and ecological apocalypse are matters that the planet faces today. As a non expert on population growth, the environment, or encounters between vastly asymmetric civilizations, I find these thoughts about Rapa Nui and the lessons it may hold for the present and future to be mind boggling but fascinating.
In the comments below, please share your thoughts on Rapa Nui, this post, or the topics it raises.