Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, was discovered on Easter Sunday in 1722 and named after the day of its discovery. Today, this secluded piece of land in the middle of the Pacific, which belongs to Chile, used to be home to a community whose societal development, writing system and stone carving skills classify it as one of the most advanced societies among “primitive” civilizations; it should be noted that “primitive” was a term Europeans used to refer to all non-European civilizations, their art and culture (that they eventually converted to Christianity) considering their heritage underdeveloped and baffling to the “civilized” European man.
The discovery of Easter Island
The discovery of Easter Island called into question European prejudices about primitive savages due to their gigantic megalith sculptures the island is known for today. Indigenous people call them moai and to this day, in spite of numerous expeditions and archaeological excavations, they remain a mystery that never ceases to intrigue both experts and wider public. Made of volcanic rocks – the island itself being a result of volcanic activity – the monuments are speculated to have been made during the time of conflicts on the island to represent ancestors belonging to different social groupings. Most of around 1000 monumental figures was erected somewhere between 1000 i 1600 AD.
Moai are not the only rock art that adorn Rapa Nui: the island prides itself on an enviable collection of petroglyphs, petrographic descriptions, and drawings on the rocks, created by methods that indicate extraordinary mastery of rock art. Drawings on volcanic rocks were not simply engraved; in the process of their making, the superfluous rock was removed, resulting in a sort of relief. The diversity of methods also points to the variety of tools that were used. Motifs are also numerous: mostly nature and island life, but there are also presentations of European colonial ships, indicating that this kind of art continued even after the encounter with European conquerors. The drawings also reveal that the natives worshiped the Birdman cult, typical of the territory belonging to the Polynesian islands, since presentations of this figure are found only on Rapa Nui. It is believed the cult developed after 1500 as a substitute to the cult of ancestors, that is, erecting the monumental statues.
The island, called by its inhabitants „The Navel of the World“, became the focal point of scientific thought, not so much for their impressive level of development, but for the theories that link the disappearance of Rapa Nui civilization with ecological catastrophe. According to this theory, which has been the subject of a heated debate in scientific circles, the natives’ advanced societal level did not prevent them from destroying the island’s ecosystem and causing depletion of fauna. The theory argues it happened during the course of several centuries: between the early 13th century when the island was inhabited and its discovery in 18th century when European mariners assessed its vegetation as scarce. Archaeological research did reveal changes in burial method, rituals and cults, cannibalism and abrupt decrease of the population, but researchers’ opinions differ in chronological marking of these disastrous events. While some place it in the period between 1500 and 1600 – that is, before the contact of the indigenous island people with Europeans – the other attribute them to small pox, syphilis, tuberculosis and slave trade that was practiced during colonialism. What thwarts the efforts to understand the true cause of the civilization’s disappearance is a rather sporadic contact between Europeans and the natives in the period from the island’s discovery, in 1722, until 1860 when Jesuit missionaries came to settle the island. Whatever the cause for the scarcity of Easter Island’s fauna and flora of only 48 plant species may be, it is certain that the prognosis of ecosystem’s recovery is rather pessimistic and the island itself has become a model of possible catastrophic scenario for the global ecosystem.
Both scenarios, the one indicating that the inhabitants overexploited their own resources and the other blaming the European savage for exploiting the indigenous people, imply that human’s violation of the nature is guilty of the island’s demise.
I wish you a very happy Easter in the coziness of your own “Easter islands”, and may the fact that these days we can see stars in the Belgrade sky give us at least some comfort, despite limitations of available space.
Lee, Georgia, and Jo Anne Van Tilburg. “Rock Art on Easter Island.” Archaeology, vol. 35, no. 6, 1982, pp. 58–60., www.jstor.org/stable/41728601. Accessed 14 2020.
Van Tilburg, Jo Anne. “Moving the Moai.” Archaeology, vol. 48, no. 1, 1995, pp. 34–43., www.jstor.org/stable/41766544. Accessed 14 2020.
Van Tilburg, JoAnne. “Symbolic Archaeology on Easter Island.” Archaeology, vol. 40, no. 2, 1987, pp. 26–33., www.jstor.org/stable/41731857. Accessed 14 2020.
Hunt, Terry L. “Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island: New Evidence Points to an Alternative Explanation for a Civilization’s Collapse.” American Scientist, vol. 94, no. 5, 2006, pp. 412–419., www.jstor.org/stable/27858833. Accessed 14 2020.
Peiser, Benny. “FROM GENOCIDE TO ECOCIDE: THE RAPE OF ‘RAPA NUI.’” Energy & Environment, vol. 16, no. 3/4, 2005, pp. 513–539., www.jstor.org/stable/43735687. Accessed 14 2020.