"Archaeology has too long and honorable a tradition

to be surrendered without a protest to fantasies

which require us to start with out conclusions and

use them to deform the evidence".

          — John Howland Rowe

 


 

c o n t e n t s

 

Q. What kinds of dating methods are used by scientists on Easter Island?

Q. What’s the real story of the Poike ditch?

Q. Did Easter Island really have a palm forest?

Q. With a small initial population and an equally small area for colonization, isn’t some form of in-breeding likely to have occurred on Easter Island?

Q. Didn’t Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft journey to Easter Island prove South Americans could have reached Polynesia?

Q. But isn’t there an ahu (platform) on Easter Island with stonework identical to that of the Inca of ancient Peru?

 

Q. But what about the botanical evidence supporting Heyerdahl’s claim?

Q. How extensive is the DNA or blood typing research to date on the subject of the Polynesian origin of Easter Island?

Q. Is it really true that islanders were kidnapped and taken as slaves to the guano mines of Peru?

Q. Weren’t there originally two waves of settlers who landed on Easter Island, the first of whom carved the moai (and from whom the current islanders are descended)?

Q. Wasn’t there a war between two factions on the island, with one of those factions totally wiped out?

Q. Where did this "long ears" vs. "short ears" business come from?

Q. Heyerdahl talks about ear spools being worn by Inca royalty. If there were "long ears" on Easter Island, are there other Polynesian societies where people wore chocks in their earlobes? And, if not, would this not suggest a possible Incan/Pre-Incan influence on the island?

Q. What about Heyerdahl’s claim that some islanders had skin and hair characteristics more typical of people from South America than Polynesia?

Q. What's the difference between "Rapa Nui" and "Rapanui"?

Q. What are the bureaucratic requirements for visiting Easter Island?

Q. Considering the relatively small size of Easter Island, could it not be reforested with species native to the climate or with other trees that might thrive in the area? If so, has anyone ever done any research into what kinds of flora would be suitable and the cost involved?

Q. Was there anything on the island in the beginning that contributed to the food needs of the first settlers?

Q. Did the Birdman cult start after the last of the trees were cut down on Easter Island? If so, does the choice of a bird as the focus of power have symbolical meaning (e.g., the leader of the island takes on the image of the only other living being capable of leaving the island)? In a related way, after the "civil war" on the island, did the Rapa Nui regret the inability to leave and thus venerated the only beings capable of doing so?

Q. Given that the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is native to South America, is it true that the Polynesians already had it with them when they settled Easter Island?

 


Q. What kinds of dating methods are used by scientists on Easter Island?

A. There are several methods used today by scientists on the island. One of them is the familiar carbon-14* (or radiocarbon) dating method. Another dating method involves measuring minute layers formed in the surface of fractured obsidian (volcanic glass) caused by the absorption of water from the surrounding area. As the layers increase in thickness over time, they can be used like tree rings to estimate time-frames. Obsidian is abundant on Easter Island and therefore a useful source for "obsidian hydration" dating methods. Archaeologists, botanists, biologists, and other scientists have also measured core samples from the island’s volcanic crater lakes and even carbonized sweet potatoes.

Carbon-14 and obsidian hydration dating systems are subject to interpretation and possible inaccuracy due to contamination and other factors but are generally very reliable. The most recent Carbon-14 calculations indicate Easter Island was populated starting around 400 ce (and this largely corresponds with historical and legendary information).

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Q. What’s the real story of the Poike ditch?

A. Island legend claims that the Poike ditch was the focal point of a battle between two rival societal classes on the island (known as the Hanau Momoko and Hanau Eepe — terms once mistranslated to mean "Short Ears" and "Long Ears") and that all but one of the Hanau Eepe were immolated in a great conflagration in a ditch constructed for that purpose. While we know today that fires were kindled in the ditch, no evidence has ever been found that humans were killed or burnt there. In fact, the ditch appears to be a natural geographical formation modified by the Rapanui. Archaeologist Charles Love has suggested that the fires in the ditch were really used in the preparation of food for workers at the Rano Raraku statue quarry. This would help to explain the Rapanui term for the Poike ditch: Ko Te Umu o te Hanau Eepe ("The Earth Oven of the Hanau Eepe").

See below for more information on island conflicts.

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Q. Did Easter Island really have a palm forest?

A. Yes! A considerable one, in fact. Based on pollen analysis derived from lake core samples, as well as the discovery of palm seed shells, and other evidence, it’s clear that Easter Island was once covered by a huge palm forest. The most common trees were similar to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), which can grow to about three feet (a meter) or more in diameter and up to 65 feet (20 meters) high! The toromiro tree (Sophora toromiro) also grew in abundance. According to recent research, there may have been as many as 16 million palm trees on the island and that it may have taken six to eight centuries (assuming several hundred people were employed to chop down the trees) to denude the island.

Some researchers believe the so-called El Niño effect may have wreaked havoc on Easter Island and contributed to its deforestation, but the jury is still out on this one. Interestingly enough, other researchers have theorized that the El Niño effect may have actually aided the first settlers of Easter Island by creating favorable ocean conditions for long-distance canoe travel. As Helene Martinsson-Wallin said in her book Ahu - The Ceremonial Stone Structures of Easter Island, "Since the climate probably has been consistent during the last 10,000 years it is not likely that the environmental changes are caused by fluctuations in climate". What seems to be clear at this point is summarized by John Flenley (Professor of Geography at Massey University in New Zealand and the first to publish evidence that Easter Island was once forested):

 

1) The island was forested for many thousands of years before human impact.

2) Climatic change had only minor impact on the vegetation.

3) Human impact was the major cause of the decline of forest.

 

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Q. With a small initial population and an equally small area for colonization, isn’t some form of in-breeding likely to have occurred on Easter Island?

A. With an initial population base of perhaps 200 persons, some kind of in-breeding was inevitable — especially among the royal clans. While it is known in the rest of Polynesia that deformed or otherwise "abnormal" babies were killed immediately after birth, there is no historical or legendary evidence for this practice on Easter Island. This pertains mostly to physical deformity, and since mental retardation resulting from in-breeding can take years to become apparent, it’s quite possible that such offspring would have survived at least for a time.

There is some evidence of endogamy (marrying within one’s group) among certain island clans. In order to preserve blood purity, it is said that members of the Urumanu tribe were not allowed to marry members of the Miru clan (and vice versa). Based on medical research done by the Canadian "Medical Expedition To Easter Island" in 1964, there is a statistically high percentage of Easter Islanders with six toes on each foot — and a peculiar degeneration in the knee joint. (Some members of the Miru were said to "walk funny" and were given the nick-name ngapau, meaning "bow-legged".) There is osteological evidence of in-breeding (at Anakena, the legendary landing site of Hotu Matu'a and the home of the royal Miru clan) — and early Easter Islanders generally had the most prevalent dental caries of any prehistoric people. Today there are very strict incest laws on the island — and even a phrase for the tapu (taboo): "Eating your own blood".

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Q. Didn’t Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft journey to Easter Island prove South Americans could have reached Polynesia?

A. First, Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft journey never went to Easter Island, nor was this his destination. (He eventually crashed on a coral reef in the Tuamotu Islands.) Second, while Heyerdahl’s raft journey suggests people from South America could have reached Polynesia, it’s important to recognize that the Kon-Tiki had to be towed out to sea by a tugboat in order to avoid the strong Humboldt current that would normally carry any drifting coastal vessel north towards Central America. So the likelihood of an un-assisted drift journey from South America is slim. (Some researchers have suggested that eastern Polynesians may have visited South America and returned, but there’s no significance evidence to support this theory.) Scientists and scholars have evaluated a wide range of disciplines, from linguistics to genetics, from ethnography to technology, and no solid evidence of direct contact between South America and Easter Island has ever been discovered.

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Q. But isn’t there an ahu (platform) on Easter Island with stonework identical to that of the Inca of ancient Peru?

A. Actually, no. There are several examples of extremely fine stonework on the island (at Vinapu on the southwest coast, for example, and at Vai Mata on the north coast). Heyerdahl drew attention to the stonework at Vinapu and it is similar to its Incan counterpart — but in appearance only; the Inca used solid blocks of stone, whereas the ahu in question on Easter Island is back-filled with rubble. More problematical is the fact that the earliest available date for Peruvian polygonal block masonry is after 1440 ce, while that for the comparable stonework on Easter Island is c. 1200 ce.

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Q. But what about the botanical evidence supporting Heyerdahl’s claim?

A. It’s circumstantial at best. Heyerdahl made numerous comparisons between South America and Easter Island, one of which focused on the palm that once grew in abundance on the island (now known as Paschalococos disperta). Probably similar to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), the Easter Island palm may have been comparable in size and appearance to its mainland counterpart. Since Heyerdahl rejected the theory that the palm nuts could have been carried on ocean currents and propagated on the island upon landfall**, he concluded the only other way a palm could have made it from South America to Easter Island was by human intervention. In 1996 Juan Grau conducted experiments on the possibility of the migration of seeds transported by the Humboldt and Equatorial currents. He demonstrated that, even after being immersed in sea water for a four-month period, the seeds retained their germinating capacity. As Grau observed, the route of the seed dispersal would be similar to the ones followed by thousands of plastic particles that arrive on the beach at Anakena from the South American continent.

But what is no less important is that Heyerdahl is assuming that the Chilean wine palm is indeed identical to the Easter Island palm, and John Dransfield of Kew Gardens in England has reported that, while the Chilean wine palm and the extinct Easter Island palm are quite similar to one another in some ways, the differences are significant enough that he named the Easter Island palm Paschalococos disperta. It is in fact a different species. This is instantly reminiscent of Heyerdahl’s bold and erroneous comparison between totora reeds on Easter Island and those on mainland Chile. They are both totora reeds, yes, but the Peruvian reed is Scirpus tatora, while the Easter Island variety is Scirpus riparius. Moreover, despite Heyerdahl’s initial assumptions that the Easter Island reed came from South America, whether it did or not is not relevant in so far as it is both a different genus and was present on the island 30,000 years ago — long before humans ventured into the Pacific (from west or east).

To be fair, there is one remaining probable botanical link between Easter Island and South America: The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). It was present on the island when Roggeveen arrived in 1722 and Heyerdahl believed that it came directly from South America (though he also admitted it might have come from the Marquesas). But even if it reached eastern Polynesia from the New World, this would in no way imply any direct contact between Easter Island and the mainland. We simply don’t know for certain how and where the plant was introduced to Oceania from South America, if that is indeed what happened. Ethno-botanist Douglas Yen speculates that it may have been carried to central east Polynesia somewhere between the 3rd and 8th centuries of the current era, and was widely dispersed from there. In 1989 Patrick Kirch discovered carbonized pieces of sweet potato in the Tangatatau Rock shelter on Mangaia Island (in the Cook Islands, east central Pacific), which were identified by archaeobotanist Jon Hather and radiocarbon dated to around 1000 ce. This proves the existence of the sweet potato in Polynesia going as far back as a thousand years.

But regardless of what kind of contact may have occurred, it seems nearly impossible to imagine a Polynesian/Peruvian contact in which the sweet potato was carried across the Pacific but not the staple of much of the whole South American continent: maize, which is much more easily stored, preserved, and transported.

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Q. How extensive is the DNA or blood typing research to date on the subject of the Polynesian origin of Easter Island?

A. Quite extensive. In addition to research derived from the examination of bones from burial sites on Easter Island, geneticist Erika Hagelberg’s has published numerous studies, involving hundreds of samples from different locations in Asia and the Pacific — on mtDNA, y-chromosome, HLA, and phylogenetic analyses — with results that consistently substantiate the conclusion that Easter Islanders are descendants of people from eastern Polynesia (which is also borne out in tracing the cultural evolution of their ancestors traveling eastward across the Pacific.

Thor Heyerdahl actually did blood-type frequency experiments, but what he either didn’t know or didn’t care about is the fact that very disparate races may have similar blood-type frequencies, so the results of his experiments weren’t very useful. Robert Suggs (in his book Island Civilizations of Polynesia) relates a story about how Heyerdahl attempted to bolster his theory by conducting blood-type analysis on "pure" Polynesians and those whom he believed may have had some European admixture. One "pure-blooded" Polynesian woman on Nuka Hiva actually turned out to be fractionally Polynesian because her father was half-Marquesan, as was her mother! This attests to how both the limitations of early technology and Heyerdahl’s quest to find evidence to support his claims influence the accuracy of works published by him and by those who rely on his research.

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Q. Is it really true that islanders were kidnapped and taken as slaves to the guano mines of Peru?

A. It is true that islanders were kidnapped and taken as slaves by Peruvian (and other) slave traders during the 19th century, but they weren’t taken to the guano mines. They were instead forced to be agricultural laborers and servants of wealthy Peruvian land owners.

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Q. Weren’t there originally two waves of settlers who landed on Easter Island, the first of whom carved the moai (and from whom the current islanders are descended)?

A. No. Current archaeological, ethnological, linguistic, genetic, and other evidence supports a single group of Polynesian settlers from the west (Marquesas Islands via Mangareva) somewhere around 400 ce and no subsequent contact from either the east or west. The Rapanui today are descendants of the first and only settlers (and, of course, those Europeans and other visitors who arrived on the island after its “re-discovery” in 1722). The idea of two groups of migrations derives from island legend and poorly substantiated theory.

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Q. Wasn’t there a war between two factions on the island, with one of those factions totally wiped out?

A. Probably as a result of over-population, resource-depletion, and the fact that the Rapanui couldn’t escape from their island, some form of island-wide conflict occurred, which contributed at least in part to the toppling of the island’s statues (moai). Legend refers to two distinct groups (the Hanau Eepe and Hanau Momoko — not the “Long Ears” and “Short Ears”; these latter terms are erroneous translations) who engaged in a fierce battle on the Poike peninsula, culminating in the death of all but one of the Hanau Eepe. But there’s no evidence to support the specific details of the legend. So, yes, there was most likely a war, and quite possibly between two factions, where “factions” might be clans or merely clan rivalry. (Hanau Eepe means “corpulent” and Hanau Momoko means “thin”, so it’s possible these terms describe aspects of different social strata on the island and, subsequently, the basis of some discontent that gave rise to internecine conflict; e.g., between the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”.)

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Q. Where did this "long ears" vs. "short ears" business come from?

A. Early visitors to Easter Island reported that some inhabitants had elongated earlobes and even inserted chocks or spools in them. These folks could be accurately described as "long ears" and, naturally, those who did not practice earlobe-elongation could be described as "short ears".

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Q. Heyerdahl talks about ear spools being worn by Inca royalty.

If there were "long ears" on Easter Island, are there other Polynesian societies where people wore chocks in their earlobes? And, if not, would this not suggest a possible Incan/Pre-Incan influence on the island?

A. There is little doubt that "long-eared" islanders existed, some of whom inserted discs, believed in some cases to have been dried tubers, into the lobes (others are described as simply draping the lobes over the tops of their ears!). More relevantly, elongated ear lobes with ear plugs are prominent in the Marquesas and Mangareva — so there is sufficient presence and precedent for the Easter Island tradition to be related to and be a part of the Polynesian motif. (It appears the phenomena of ear-lobe-elongation was known even at the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 arrival on Easter Island: An extract from his journals reads: "...he [an Easter Islander] was of a brown tint, and had long ears which hung down as far as his shoulders as if they had been stretched to that length by being weighted, after the fashion of the Mongolian Moors".)

There are also ample occurrences of this practice elsewhere around the world... statues of Buddha feature elongated ear lobes; women in Borneo were known to attach weights to extend their ear lobes; and spools inserted into ear lobes have been reported in Africa (e.g., Kenya), China, Japan, the area now known as the Chesapeake Bay in North America (circa 200 bce to 400 ce), even bronze-age Ireland in addition to South and Central America. Surely no one would believe that all of these people, whether individually or collectively, had to have contact with each other in order for the earlobe elongation to become a prevalent tradition — any more than one would conclude that the pyramids of Central America were built due to the influence of ancient Egyptian pyramid-builders.

When we see elongated ear lobes and the use of ear spools on Easter Island, elsewhere in Polynesia, and on the South American continent (as well as around the world), we may be faced with a conundrum as to the origin of or likely association with this practice — but the conundrum is resolved when we find other, compelling evidence associating Easter Island with Polynesia rather than South America, precisely because this and other traits are Polynesian in nature. In other words, the fact that this practice, and variations thereof, exist or have existed in diverse areas around the world indicates that this is a fairly common human trait or behavior and not likely to be the result of "diffusionism".

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Q. What about Heyerdahl’s claim that some islanders had skin and hair characteristics more typical of people from South America than Polynesia?

A. In addition to his own observations, Heyerdahl borrows from Roggeveen in reporting these "racial" characteristics — but in keeping with Heyerdahl’s research style, he is highly selective in what he reports. For example, he frequently cites early European explorers and their descriptions of Easter Islanders to emphasize his theory about ethnic diversity among the Rapanui (in Easter Island: The Mystery Solved he says boldly and without any factual basis, "Different ethnic groups were clearly coexisting here") — but he often omits additional information which those early European explorers provided that might challenge his theories. From the log of the frigate Santa Rosalia (1770) we learn that the Easter Islanders’

"...physiognomy does not resemble that of the Indians of the Continent of Chile, Peru, or New Spain in anything, these islanders being in colour between white, swarthy, and reddish, not thick lipped nor flat nosed, the hair chestnut coloured and limp, some have it black, and others tending to red or a cinnamon tint" *** "...their appearance...tallying with Europeans more than with Indians".

From the log of the frigate San Lorenzo (1770) we similarly learn that

"...they are in hue like a quadroon, with smooth hair and short beards, and they in no way resemble the Indians of the South American continent".

The comprehensive nature of these comments usually does not show up or is not given emphasis in Heyerdahl’s publications.

When it comes to skin and/or hair color and meanings attached thereto by Heyerdahl and earlier European explorers, it’s important to understand that Heyerdahl, like those first European visitors, knew little about population genetics; he and they approached the racial types (especially as manifested by skin colors) with their own preconceptions. Thus they were "surprised" to find people who appeared to them to be of mixed racial origins. This bias may also be a by-product of contact with populations showing less evident external variation in skin and hair color (e.g., on the South American continent). The fact is, recessive traits (like red hair and fair skin) are more likely to emerge in a closed environment with a limited gene pool. Thus, islanders descended from Polynesians (who themselves no doubt had contact with other groups, most certainly from the west) are less likely to show these recessive traits until they found themselves in a closed population.

Given the isolation of Easter Islanders and the likelihood of some in-breeding (whether reluctantly due to population limits or intentionally — the royal Miru tribe on the island’s north coast insisted on sustaining what it considered to be a royal bloodline by way of endogamy) it’s not surprising that distinctive "racial" traits might emerge.

The Easter Islanders also practiced a form of ritual skin whitening whereby specially chosen children were secluded and shielded from the sun in order to make their skin as light as possible. While we don’t know how many of these special children would have been out and about during visits from the first explorers, it bears witness to how the islanders themselves recognized and even promoted differences in skin color. And without knowing about this ritual skin-lightening, Roggeveen may have nevertheless observed some of its adherents when he reports in his log that the "natural colour is not black, but pale yellow or sallow, as we saw in many youths...because they...were not subject to the labour of land cultivation".

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Q. What's the difference between "Rapa Nui" and "Rapanui"?

A. "Rapa Nui" is the Polynesian name that was given to Easter Island after its European discovery in 1722, ostensibly by Tahitian sailors who wanted to differentiate between Easter Island and the island of Rapa, 404 miles [650 kilometers] south of Tahiti. In so far as Easter Island is larger than Rapa and "nui" is the Polynesian word for "big", the name "Rapa Nui" means "big Rapa". That's not the end of the story, of course. Interestingly, the 19th century French missionary Hippolyte Roussel (writing on behalf of the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary in Paris) noted that “The name ‘Rapa Nui’ is unknown to the natives. This designation of their homeland was introduced by foreigners or, more likely, by the natives of neighboring islands that would have landed here on whaling ships. No matter whom I asked and how many times , asking over and over again to confirm the truth of their assertions, they always answered, ‘We don’t know the name Rapa nui — our land has never had its own name — we only know Hanga Roa, Va├»hu, Otuiti, etc., etc.....’”
 

At any rate, aside from the fact that the original Easter Islanders themselves may not have even used a name to refer to their island, and the fact that all kinds of variations have appeared in the literature (e.g., "Rapa-Nui"), much discussion has ensued about how the name should be spelled and why. While numerous linguistic arguments have been presented one way or another, the prevailing approach is to use "Rapa Nui" (two words) to refer to the island and "Rapanui" (one word) to refer to its people and culture.

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Q. What are the bureaucratic requirements for visiting Easter Island?

A. Most visitors require only a passport (valid for at least three months) to visit Chile and its territories. Visas are not required for North Americans, Australians, and most Europeans (but New Zealanders do need a visa, which costs US$90 and which must be obtained beforehand). No vaccinations are required and malaria is not present anywhere in Chile or its territories. U.S. citizens must pay a $100 entry fee to Chile, valid for the duration of the passport (US$55 for Canadians, US$30 for Australians, US$15 for Mexicans). This so-called reciprocity tax is applied to any country that charges Chilean nationals a fee to process visas. If you fly in and out of Tahiti, there is no fee. Airport taxes are sometimes included in your ticket. In order to drive in Chile you must have an international driving permit, though this isn’t typically enforced on the island. (Still, better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.) And if you wish to rent a motorcycle, a motorcycle license is mandatory.

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Q. Considering the relatively small size of Easter Island, could it not be reforested with species native to the climate or with other trees that might thrive in the area? If so, has anyone ever done any research into what kinds of flora would be suitable and the cost involved?

A. Since Easter Island once had possibly as many as 16 million palm trees (Paschalococos disperta — a species similar but not identical to the huge Chilean wine palm Jubaea chilensis), one would think that reforestation would be possible because the island at least at one time provided the requisite climate (actually, it did so for a period dating back some 37,000 years). In addition to the large palm, Sophora toromiro (the Toromiro tree) also grew in abundance; it was described by early explorers as a mimosa-like shrub reaching up to nine feet [~ 3 meters] in height, with stems described as the "thickness of a man’s thigh". This plant, like the original Easter Island palm, is extinct in the wild. The last surviving wild Toromiro tree was discovered in 1917 within the Rano Kau crater; it survived until 1962 (when it was chopped down for firewood). All other native Toromiro trees were lost due to habitat destruction through slash-and-burn farming methods and the introduction of domestic livestock. Only 20 or so Toromiro trees are known to exist in botanical gardens around the world. Incidentally, the island’s governor has a non-wild Toromiro tree in his garden.

So, with the exception of grasses and shrubs (which cover about 90% of the island), none of the large flora visible today (now representing about 5%) is native. At least part of the grove of palm trees at Anakena, for example, was brought to the island from Papeete in 1960 by marine guards of the Esmeralda training vessel (though at least one islander has reported to me stories about planting palms here years before this and even eating palm nuts; indeed, according to Métraux, the first coconut palms on the island were planted by Salmon in 1877, some of which are said to survive to this day but do not fruit — but whether these accounts refer to the same palms as those at Anakena is uncertain). Juan Grau reports that originally as many as 250 palm trees were planted at Anakena; there are considerably fewer of them there today.

The large Eucalyptus (Blue Gum; Eucalyptus globulus) at Vaitea was planted there in 1910 (and disproves the argument that the absence of trees on Easter Island is because they cannot grow there). Although fast-growing, Eucalyptus trees shed bark, creating a dry, acidic litter beneath the trees, and the roots draw the moisture of the soil away from less hardy native plants.

The massive deforestation of Easter Island by its people, which may have been exacerbated by climatic conditions (e.g., the Little Ice Age, El Niño/Southern Oscillation phenomenon) and was almost certainly aggravated by the Polynesian rat (which ate palm nets and thus interfered with propagation of the tree), caused significant soil erosion that continues to this day. Eucalyptus groves on the Poike Peninsula, for example, were planted in an effort to minimize erosion. It hasn’t been very successful.

But more to the point: Because of the porous nature of the Easter Island volcanic substrate, much of the nutrient value of the soil has been leached out due to erosion and rainfall and this wouldn’t be as significant if the palm forest had survived. Small pockets of arable soils occur scattered across the island but the intensive erosion has stripped the primeval soil from areas where the soil cover was formerly thickest and probably most suitable for large-scale re-plantings. These conditions may have contributed to the necessity of the islanders building manavai — walled gardens — designed to protect sensitive crops from harsh island conditions, including strong offshore winds which can not only knock over delicate plants but cause soil dessication. It’s also interesting to note that radiocarbon dates put the predominant use of grasses as fuel in the latter half of the 19th century, probably reflecting widespread changes in the island’s vegetation.

All of this may have something to do with why attempts at re-introduction of flora have been less than satisfactory. An effort in 1988 to re-introduce two Toromiro trees on Easter Island failed due to root nematode problems, which killed the plants. Similar unsuccessful efforts were undertaken at reforestation in 1995 when the Royal Botanical Garden in Melbourne provided seed stock for a Toromiro re-introduction experiment. Yet another experiment involving somewhere between 150 and 500 Toromiro plants in 1997 met a similar fate. These failures are attributed largely to pest and disease problems, but are also due to inadequate horticultural resources.

This isn’t to say that cultivation of plants on the island isn’t working; the CONAF nursery at the foot of Rano Kau produces thousands of indigenous species of plants every year — just not large trees. But due to a lack of infrastructure for conservation planning and management (including difficulties in finding suitable areas that match necessary microclimate, soil, and protection factors), and the extreme nature of habitat degradation, restoration of the once-abundant Toromiro is not considered feasible.

As for the palm, in 1987 between 100 and 300 Chilean Wine Palms (Jubaea chilensis) were brought by LANChile to the island from the Cocalán Farm on the Chilean mainland. They have not done all that well, though some are healthy and at least one plant (as reported in March 1993) was measured at a meter [~ 3 feet] tall. Interestingly enough, those young, planted, Chilean Wine Palms can actually reach from two to five times the growth rate of biomass on Rapa Nui compared to the continent. Another experiment with 300 Chilean Wine Palms, in 1998, this time shipped courtesy of La Campana Ecological Reserve and LANChile, met with similar results but nothing widespread has come of it. However, as Grau has reported, many of these samples have grown to be about 1 to 2 meters [~ 3-6 feet] in height. Grau also mentions that, while coastal climate conditions in central Chile (where the Chilean Wine Palm grows by the thousands) is similar to that of Easter Island, he also acknowledges that both the island and the continent could have experienced climate changes over the centuries. It’s also important to note that three different paleo-environmental interpretations have resulted from studies of ENSO phenomena on Easter Island — one positing increased rainfall, one positing prolonged drought, and one positing little or no climatic effect. The most compelling evidence to date emphasizes human rather than climatic influences in environmental degradation on Easter Island. Grau also relates that attempts to grow on Easter Island a coconut palm related to Jubaea chilensis has met with poor success due to pest infestation. In short, though experiments have proven a palm probably quite similar to the original Easter Island palm can grow on the island on a small scale, re-forestation is quite another matter altogether.

As far as the actual costs involved in re-introduction of trees on Easter Island, the data are hard to come by — but it would be safe to say a widespread re-forestation would be no small feat in terms of manpower and money, especially given some of the various political and social problems plaguing the Rapa Nui people.

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Q. Was there anything on the island in the beginning that contributed to the food needs of the first settlers?

A. As can be imagined, much has changed on Easter Island since humans first arrived there some fifteen hundred years ago and thus it hasn’t always been easy to determine with confidence what the island was like, especially in a context of food sources. We know the island was once covered with a vast palm forest, the trees similar to (but at the same time a distinct species from) the Chilean Wine Palm, which grows up to 3 feet in diameter and up to 65 feet in height. In fact, there may have been as many as 16 million of those trees. Pollen and other analyses have also revealed 48 indigenous plant species, mostly flowering plants and ferns. Today over a hundred species of plants exist on the island, the majority being recent introductions. Some are ornamental (e.g., lavender); others are crop plants (e.g., avocado); still others are timber trees (e.g., blue gum). It’s estimated that more than a dozen species of flora were introduced before the first Europeans arrived in 1722 and nearly a dozen and half species of flora were introduced after the first Europeans arrived. Because Easter Island’s climate is cooler than most other islands in Polynesia, breadfruit, coconut palms, and kava did not grow there; if these plants were brought, they did not survive. (Although one researcher has interpreted a glyph on a Rongorongo board as representing breadfruit, this may reflect historical knowledge of the plant rather than its existence on the island, since no evidence for it has ever turned up.)

No indigenous land vertebrates, prior to human arrival, have been identified, though there has been discussion about how at least one of three species of lizard on the island got there. Before human occupation, sea birds nested not just on offshore islets but on the main island itself, but these numbers dwindled after the first settlers arrived. (In fact, at one time Easter Island was one of the richest seabird islands in the world, with 25 species — 14 of which are now extinct.) Legends speak of the birds being driven from place to place on the island, eventually settling on the islets about a mile off the southwest corner of the island. In the 1930s, researchers on the Franco-Belgian Expedition collected evidence for the existence of the sooty tern, petrels, grey terns, noddy terns, boobies, tropicbirds, and frigate birds — but, today, even migratory sea birds are relatively rare on Easter Island and its environs. (They are abundant, incidentally, on the uninhabited Henderson Island relatively nearby.)

Sea mammals and turtles do not seem to have been abundant after the arrival of human settlers, however, and only 164 species of fish have been recorded on Easter Island (the low numbers — Hawai’i, by contrast, has 450 species or more; Fiji has over 1,000 — are probably attributable to the lack of coral reef).

As far as less pleasant beasties are concerned, spiders, insects (like crickets and cockroaches), worms, snails, and scorpions are said to have been introduced — but no snakes!

Human introductions include four land birds — the chimango, the tinamou, the house sparrow, and the common finch — not counting the chicken, which was brought with the first settlers. They also brought with them the Polynesian rat, which was later ousted by the European rat — and, though pigs and dogs were common elsewhere in Polynesia, either they weren’t brought with the first settlers or didn’t survive the journey, for no osteological evidence for their existence on the island has turned up. Rabbits were introduced in 1866 but were eaten to extinction (probably the only place in the world where that has occurred!). Also in 1866 sheep, pigs, horses, goats, and cattle were introduced and survive to this day in fluctuating numbers (goats being among the least prevalent).

It’s generally believed that the first settlers encountered a fairly verdant island but very little if any plant or terrestrial animal life existed that would have provided sustenance. Sandalwood nuts may have provided some nourishment (the plant is extinct on the island today). And while some researchers have recently begun to study the possibility that islanders could have used palm sap as a food/energy source, findings are only preliminary at this point. There is a long list of items, including foods, said to have been brought with the first settlers (including, interestingly, flies!), but these reports are more of a legendary nature than historical and thus must be accepted with a certain degree of caution. We do know that the islanders brought taro, sweet potato, yams, sugar cane, and banana with them, along with the Polynesian rat and the chicken. With those introductions and the presence of migratory sea birds and marine animals, the islanders (who were consummate seafarers) managed to tap even the meager reserves of ocean fauna. Interestingly enough, as the vast palm forest diminished and the islanders had less wood for building canoes, fishing methodology changed from deep sea to shore (as evidenced by chronological changes in fishhook types and marine animal bones found in middens).

The short answer is that, depending on what one means by "on the island" (i.e., the terrestrial portion vs. the island’s environs), there was little or nothing that would have contributed to the food needs of the first settlers. If one includes the island’s environs, then the first settlers had access to sea birds and marine animals — but, other than what they brought, that’s about it.

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Q. Did the Birdman cult start after the last of the trees were cut down on Easter Island? If so, does the choice of a bird as the focus of power have symbolical meaning (e.g., the leader of the island takes on the image of the only other living being capable of leaving the island)? In a related way, after the "civil war" on the island, did the Rapa Nui regret the inability to leave and thus venerated the only beings capable of doing so?

A. First, there is a wide temporal range during which various activities are theorized to have occurred on Easter Island, including the ceremonies of the Birdman cult. Just as work in the Rano Raraku statue quarry did not stop abruptly (as is often erroneously described in some Easter Island literature), the Birdman cult did not likely emerge only after the "civil war" on the island. While we know that the last Birdman competition was held in 1862 (missionaries were there to describe it), we also have reason to believe that the last statue (moai) was felled as late as 1868, so obviously there was some overlap of activities, including conflict.

As to when the trees were cut down on Easter Island, it’s important to recognize that, while the predominant theory attributes deforestation to the islanders themselves, there are additional interpretations of causes that include environmental factors (such as the El Niño/Southern Oscillation effect) and the fact that of all islands in Polynesia (indeed, of all islands in the world) Easter was by far the most fragile environmentally. While some authors (like Jared Diamond) have boldly concluded that the islanders were not improvident in chopping down all the trees, this is a premature statement and needlessly biased; if anything, the islanders chopped down trees in a place where the climate and soil conditions were especially susceptible to degradation. These are not mutually exclusive. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the islanders chopped down the trees because we know they used them for many different purposes — from building canoes (in the early days after they arrived on the island) to providing fuel for cooking and slash-and-burn farming methods to employing giant logs in moving and erecting platforms (ahu) and moai. A recent theory has emerged suggesting that the islanders may have even used palm sap as a food source. Ultimately, we know that there were trees on the island for a very long time before humans arrived and they disappeared fairly quickly thereafter.

From the pollen record, we know that the island was heavily forested (possibly as many as 16 million palms) and that the record went back nearly 30,000 years. Clearance of trees, however, began around 800 ce, which is closely related to the arrival time of the first settlers (itself the subject of much theorizing). The forest was gone by around 1400 ce. Certainly by 1722, when Roggeveen first arrived, there were no trees to speak of.

While it’s quite possible that the Birdman cult emerged after the last of the trees was cut down, it’s also important to realize that the Birdman cult is not unique specifically to Easter Island nor likely to have been a late arrival in its own right. While the Birdman designs on Easter Island are unique relative to other areas in Polynesia and clearly underwent their own cultural evolution, the bird/human designs on Easter Island can be traced across Oceania into southeast Asia (but not from South America, as Lavachery and others have speculated) and a ritual similar to the Birdman competition on Easter Island was known in Samoa. This is not surprising, as Easter Islanders are Polynesians and would have brought with them many religious and cultural meanings, symbols, and rituals from their homeland(s) in the west.

Throughout Oceania seabirds were seen as omens, messengers, mythical explorers, spirits of the gods, the dead, as well as a source for food — so it’s no great leap to imagine the Easter Islanders interpreting birds as symbols of freedom, of escape from their entrapment. As Flenley & Bahn have observed, the moai even have wing-like hands. Island legends also refer to sea turtles as mythical beings of transport, so this theory and the accompanying symbolism does not need to be confined to avian species. But the fact that sea birds could inhabit land, sea, and sky imbued them with special meaning.

As to the islanders leaving the island, and their ability (or inability) to do so, first, we have no archaeological evidence that anyone ever left Easter Island once they arrived there. While some have theorized that subsequent groups also landed on the island, there’s little or nothing to substantiate those theories either. More than likely a rag-tag group of Polynesian explorers, possibly at the limit of their endurance, reached Easter Island and, because of its extreme remoteness (and the unlikelihood that they would ever have reached it in the first place) may have infused them with a sense of entrapment from the very beginning. Certainly by the time of the "civil war" the islanders had lost their ability to leave, at the very least because the trees to build canoes were gone. Indeed, both Gonzales in 1770 and Cook in 1774 reported that the islanders had poorly made canoes and no wood. It’s also clear from the archaeological record that islanders once used canoes, and probably large ones, for deep-sea fishing but that this gradually changed over time (probably because of the over-exploitation of trees). Bones in middens (trash heaps) as well as chronological changes in fishhook technology on the island reveal that a very high proportion of dolphins were being eaten at first but eventually the islanders reverted to aquatic food sources closer and closer to land as their seafaring technology diminished.

So, to summarize, the Birdman cult or variations thereon probably co-existed with moai construction, environmental degradation, and the "civil war" — though clearly it achieved prominence as a way of unifying the island’s culture before it collapsed utterly and completely into oblivion. And while its symbolism no doubt relates to Polynesian ancestry, it’s reasonable to assume that it also represented freedom from a self-imposed entrapment. Whether the islanders regretted their inability to escape from the island is impossible to know (there’s also historical information suggesting that the islanders thought all other lands had sunk beneath the sea and that they were totally alone in the world) — but it’s not hard to imagine. Of course, it’s also possible that they believed they would be rescued before total chaos ensued, but this didn’t stop them from over-populating the tiny island and depleting its resources. Indeed, this could have even inspired some complacency. Even with recent theories linking deforestation on the island to environmental conditions, rather than exclusively human actions, the Easter Island as Earth Island metaphor is still a good one.

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Q. Given that the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is native to South America, is it true that the Polynesians already had it with them when they settled Easter Island?

A. The short answer: Yes, the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is native to South America and, as far as has been determined, it may well have been brought to the island by Polynesians when Rapa Nui was settled.

The longer answer: Though Thor Heyerdahl made much of the presence of the sweet potato elsewhere in Polynesia (and on Easter Island in particular) to bolster his now defunct diffusionist theory of a South American origin for (or presence on) Easter Island in its pre-history, even if we do not know for certain how the sweet potato reached Polynesia (one compelling argument is that eastern Polynesians visited the coast of South America and brought the sweet potato back with them; see below), we have reason to believe it was in Polynesia before Easter Island was settled (there are wild species of sweet potato in southeast Asia) and, based on what we know about the culinary and technological traits of the Polynesians, it’s a reasonable assumption that they brought the sweet potato with them when they made their extraordinary journey eastward across the Pacific. Carbonized sweet potato identified on Easter Island has been radiocarbon dated to somewhere between the 15th and 17th centuries CE, which precedes European contact, further reinforcing the idea that it was brought by the first Easter Islanders.

It’s also possible that the sweet potato reached Polynesia without human influence. The plant lacks uniform or distinct forms characteristic of other human introductions and some researchers have noted that, because the Ipomoea species are strand plants, they could be distributed by sea. Sweet potato capsules float in water and the seeds, which have an almost impervious outer covering, eventually germinate after emersion in sea water. Carbonized sweet potato found in the Cook Islands has been radiocarbon dated to around 1000 CE, so at the very least it’s arrival preceded this date. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the sweet potato in Oceania (Douglas Yen) notes that the area covered by the Marquesas to the Society Islands constitutes the most likely gateway to Polynesia for the sweet potato and that there may have been as many as three different introductions of the plant. He goes on to speculate that possible contact between the Marquesas and Easter Island implies that the sweet potato must have been introduced at or earlier than the 9th century CE. Also, since the equivalent time-frame for introduction of the sweet potato to the Marquesas is 300-600 CE, a safe estimate for the arrival of the sweet potato on Easter Island might be 400-700 CE — and this corresponds to speculation as to the first settlement.

• • •


* The carbon we see in charcoal and charred wood comes in many different forms, including carton-12 and carbon-14. Carbon-14 is a radioactive form of carbon and is quite rare (there are about a trillion carbon-12 atoms to one carbon-14 atom in living things). Carbon-14 is formed in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. In their interaction with the atmosphere, plants and animals naturally absorb carbon-14 just as they do carbon-12. Thus, a consistent ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 exists in all living things. That is, at least, until the plants and animals die and no longer absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists can then measure the ratio in a dead organism and tell how long it has been dead. [return to text]

 

** Heyerdahl’s rejection of this theory, and foundation for his own theory, is predicated on observations he reported during his Kon-Tiki expedition — namely that coconuts stored in the "hold" of his raft (and thus exposed to salt water) didn’t survive the journey, whereas those carried high and dry in the deck-level hut did. Studies have shown, however, that coconuts can survive in the open ocean for up to 110 days (which is longer than the Kon-Tiki expedition) and still germinate. [return to text]

 

All text on this site

© 2006 by the Easter Island Foundation & Shawn McLaughlin.
All rights reserved.

 

SELECTED REFERENCES

 

Bellwood, Peter

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Bruman, Henry J.

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Corney, Bolton

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Diamond, Jared

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Englert, F. Sebastian

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Fischer, Steven R. (ed.)

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Fischer, Steven R.

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Flenley, John & Paul Bahn

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Grau, Juan

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Grau, Juan

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Hagelberg, Erika; M. Kayser; M. Nagy; L. Roewer; et al.

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Heyerdahl, Thor

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Highland, Genevieve A., et al.

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Kirch, Patrick V.

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Lee, Georgia

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Roussel, Hippolyte

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01/26/07