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.

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