Tuesday, November 25, 2014

One Last Easter Island Mystery

And that mystery is of course, where does the time go?  It has been a pretty amazing trip.  I got to look at a lot of lithic debitage, and meet a lot of interesting people.  I'm looking forward to getting home, but it is sad to leave the island.

But I'm pretty sure I'll be back.
This is the Refugio Arquelogico where I stayed

Jose Miguel, my Chilean counterpart while I was herfe, and Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the Boss.  I am very thankful to Jo Anne for giving me the opportunity to come out her and work

And a beautiful Rapa Nui sunset

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Easter Island Mysteries: What happened to the trees?

Anakena, the main beach on the Island.  Quite pretty, there are actually only two small beaches on the island
So what happened to the trees?  This is actually quite the mystery.  No one knows for sure when the last tree died.  No one even knows what trees originally grew on the island.  Were they all palms?  Were there other trees?

The traditional narrative is that the trees were all cut down to make statues.  But even the latest dates for the removal of all the trees on the island (the 1600's is about as late as the guesses get) don't go all the way to the end of the statue making period.  The biggest statues were actually made AFTER the trees were gone.

There is a recent paper that suggests that the trees were all killed by rats.  Most all the archaeologists I've spoken to here don't buy it.  I personally think that a combination of human usage and rat destruction probably accelerated the deforestation, but that only applies to certain palm species.  If there were other kinds of trees then it pretty much has to be human agency that deforested the island.

I heard over dinner the other night that there is potentially some late date wood from a non-palm tree. The stuff is still being studied, but it could actually push the date for deforestation closer to the historic era and indicate other local species besides palms.  The people I've talked to seem convinced that there were multiple species of trees on the island.

So what happened to the trees?  The honest answer is that no one knows for sure, we don't know how many or what kind of trees there were.  It's a mystery.

I jokingly refer to this as my legally mandated photo op

The real mystery, why?  If you look at the side of the mountain you can see little notches and caves, all of those are places where a statue was carved.  Clear up the side of the mountain, and even on top.  The grassy slopes are actually meters deep deposits of stone chips from making the statues.  There are entire statues completely buried under the detritus.  No one knows how many.  Sounds like a job for GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to me.

I was just proud of this photo of Tongariki I took from Rano Raraku
As an update on my work here, I am enjoying being in the lab.  UNESCO and the Japanese government built a nice fully modern lab at the museum.  I'm doing science and it's fun.  I'm washing and analyzing lots of rocks.  It's pretty fun for me, though maybe not everyone's cup of tea.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

More Mysteries!

I was pretty proud of this picture I took of the Moai on Ahu Tongariki
So today I actually learned about a real mystery, but the mystery was really just a different way of looking at things.  Today I got to know my Chilean counterpart here on the island.  His name is Jose Miguel and he has been doing archaeology and working on the island for decades, he is currently a professor at the University of Valparaiso.  He pointed out that in his opinion the greatest mystery of the island is not how the statues were transported or carved, that stuff is pretty easy to explain, it's pretty much just mechanics.  What is really mysterious is why they carved the statues completely on the sides and top of a mountain, and then took the finished statues to their destination instead of moving less fragile blocks of rock into place and carving them there.  It would have been much easier and safer.

After all, Michelangelo didn't carve statues at the quarry, he carved them in a studio, where it is easier and safer.  A lot of Rapanui died in order to carve the statues in place, and then a lot of the finished statues broke during the transportation process.  It doesn't make much sense.  There must have been a very important reason that they would do all of the work on the mountain except for the eyes before they transported the statues.  Then they took the statues to their ahus, and only then carved out the eyes to give the statues Mana, supernatural power.

Here is me next to one of the wings of Ahu Tongariki for scale.  The thing is huge.  The platform the statues are on in the middle of the Ahu is the length of a football field by itself.

Here's my Moai impression in front of "the giant" this Moai was never completed, but is over twenty meters long

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Mysteries of Easter Island (Kind of)

Well, my reading thus far has revealed one true mystery about Easter Island so far, how many statues are there?  In the 40’s the first attempted count said that there were 600.  But then in the 50’s and 60’s Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition found dozens more than recorded just in the area of the quarry where the statues were made.  According to what I have read the current total stands at 887 of the moai (the big giant heads, that also have bodies underneath with long torsos and arms, with short legs).  But some statues are buried, and there is current work being done to catalog all of the statues.  You might think that it would be easy to count massive multi-ton statues that are taller than a man, but you would apparently be wrong.  The truth is that no one knows exactly how many statues were carved.  I think that’s pretty awesome.

In the area of the quarry, Rano Raraku, there are statues buried underneath the debris created by the making of other statues.  The prehistoric (just a reminder, in archaeology “prehistoric” just means before white people showed up, that’s actually all the word ever means, but it can be confusing.  In Europe and the Middle-East “prehistoric” means thousands of years ago, in North America Prehistoric” means 520 years ago, in Easter Island “prehistoric” means less than 300 years ago).  Rapanui were busy indeed.  It takes some work to bury giant statues under the rubble of other statues.  Especially with stone tools.  The Rapanui changed the shape of a mountain with stone tools and created so many giant statues out of solid rock that to this day nobody knows how many they made or how the mountain might have originally appeared.

A lot of the other mysteries boil down to the twin mysteries of smallpox and slavery.  After contact many of the Easter Islanders succumbed to smallpox.  There were also cases of black-birding, which is what the taking of Polynesians as slaves by European ships was called.  There is debate on how much black-birding there actually was on Easter Island, so it is unclear how much the Pacific slave trade affected population numbers.  But if you have ever wondered what happened to the people that built the statues, smallpox happened.  Having one’s population collapse, and then having survivors stolen by slavers is pretty rough on cultural continuity.  A lot of knowledge was lost shortly after first contact and before anyone decided to study the island.  So a lot of the mysteries come from that gap.

It’s a lot like the mystery of the “Lost Mound Builders” of the American Midwest.  The first person to conduct a serious excavation of a mound, Thomas Jefferson, was able to establish right there that the mound had been built by Indians (Thomas Jefferson excavated the mound that was where he decided to build his house).  Plus early explorers actually met with Indians that lived on and built mounds.  But that didn’t matter to people who were intent on finding out what mysterious people built the mounds.  One popular hypothesis was that it was the Lost Tribes of Israel.  It was important to the early American expansion mythology that the Indians have been capable of nothing noteworthy, and it would have been especially nice if they could have discovered that someone with lighter skin had been living in the US first, so that removing the Indians would have been more like reclaiming land stolen by the savages.  You might not have heard of the Lost Mound Builders, but that might be because as it became absolutely incontrovertibly obvious that they were built by Indians for Indians they seemed to become less amazing and mysterious to the general public.

When pondering the mysteries of lost civilizations there are a few things that should be kept in mind.  First, the term “civilization” is itself actually kind of racist.  Civilization refers to sedentary city building farming societies, but even then what societies are called civilizations seems pretty arbitrary.  The Iroquois were city building farmers whose federation of tribes inspired the design of the United States of America, but they usually aren’t usually called a civilization.  In the Americas the term civilization is usually reserved for polities that are no longer around, like the Aztecs, Mayans, Incans, or Anasazi.  But even then the descendants of those cultures are still around, but they aren’t living in their old big structures, so they are “lost.”  In the case of the Anasazi, even the name is an attempt to separate the big ruins from their descendants who are still around and still living in pueblos in some cases.  The correct name these days is Ancestral Pueblo.  So when you hear about “lost civilizations” just bear in mind that the term basically refers to non-modern people who were not of European descent doing something that colonial powers didn’t want to admit could have been done by the natives.  The second thing to remember is that in most cases there are still people around who are related to the people that did whatever inspired the idea of a lost civilization.

In many cases the people that are still around carry on oral histories that tie them to the “lost civilizations” and often provide details of what happened to those societies.  It seems like these days a lot of post-modernist anthropological thought likes to describe traditionally passed down history as “other ways of knowing” which I find absurd and worse in some ways than the traditional colonial approach of just ignoring the natives.  Native knowledge doesn’t require special magical ways of thinking nearly as much as it requires paying attention.  The example I love lately is the recent discovery of a 200 year old shipwreck… right where the local Inuit have been saying it was for the last 200 years.  The Inuit account didn’t conform to the Western account, so it took 200 years for someone to check out whether or not they were right about where the missing ship was. 

Native knowledge is not always hyper precise and completely factual though, any more than regular history is always super precise and factual.  History is basically the narrative structure we give to things that happened in the past.  Stuff happened long ago, history is the story we tell about it to give the past meaning and value to our present.  Oral history is not a different way of knowing, it’s a different way of learning.  Oral history requires shutting up and listening.  It also requires someone to be there to listen in the language that the teller speaks.  For many natives in the US, the history of residential schools squashing traditional languages helped fracture oral histories by getting rid of people who could listen. 

In Easter Island the oral histories were smashed by disease and enslavement.  In Easter Island there was actually even a system of writing, but the shattering of the traditional society cost even the memory of how to read what was written.  Much of the knowledge that would have helped illuminate the stories of the statues and why they were torn down was lost to disease.  The oral historical record for Easter Island is highly fragmentary.  The loss of people to tell and hear stories meant the loss of those stories.  So sadly a lot of the mysteries of Easter Island are actually tragedies.
Here's where I'm staying, the Refugio Archaeoligica

I'm all up in Easter Island n' stuff.  This is me on days of travelling and no sleep

I had to take a photo of the first Ahu with Moai I saw
Sorry if the end of the post seemed a little dark.  I just wanted to point out that the popular narratives of archaeological mysteries are often kind of problematic.  Rest assured I am having fun doing science in a tropical paradise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Heading Off to Easter Island

I'm going here

Hello everybody who reads this blog, I was just wanting to write a quick post to let you know that I am going to be in Easter Island for most of November, so I probably won't be managing to do any blog entries.  I have heard that the internet is pretty unreliable out there.

I'm heading out to do some archaeology!  Yay science!  I won't be doing any digging, but I will get an opportunity to do work in the lab with existing samples.  My work is basically going to be counting and sorting many small bits of rock, but I am pretty excited about it.

Getting the opportunity to work in Easter Island is really quite exciting.  When I tell people that I am an archaeologist, if their response is not "ooh, I always wanted to dig up dinosaurs," then it is usually either "like mummies?" or "like the giant stone heads?"  Now I will be able to say, "Yes, EXACTLY like the giant stone heads on Easter Island."  I will get to help further the understanding of how those heads were made, and that is pretty exciting to me.

I won't be able to say "yes, like mummies."  At least not yet, but I will get to say that I've worked at one of the super famous archaeological locales.  My personal interests lie primarily in the arctic, and in learning about the ways people lived before we had written records, but that kind of stuff often lacks the "wow" factor of GIANT STONE STATUES!!! and ANCIENT MUMMY CURSES!!!  Archaeology isn't typically much like the movies, but it is fun and exciting to me.  And now I get to work on something that many people around the world find exciting.

So, have a good November.  I'm off to do science.

P.S.  If I ever unleash unspeakable ancient evil or find evidence of ancient aliens I will be sure to let you know here.