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Cultural Origins

No single aspect of Easter Island prehistory has generated more theories and controversy than cultural origins. Debate has centered on the probable source of such seemingly non-Polynesian traits as the rongorongo script and the stylistically unique stone statues. Diffusionists have favoured the interpretation of dual origin from separate cultural traditions. Other scholars, such as Metraux (1940), have advocated a unitary origin in East Polynesia, whereby the aberrant features of Easter Island culture are explained as local adaptation or the result of independent invention.

Heyerdahl's theory of Easter Island settlement is the best known of various composite culture hypotheses and the only one that is in any sense still viable. Briefly, he has argued for first settlement by people from the Andean area of South America, followed by a late Polynesian; migration. His theory has met with considerable criticism, but it is one that merits discussion, particularly in view of the fact that a New World contact cannot be categorically dismissed. Most Polynesian archaelogists are open to such a possibility but strongly disagree with Heyerdahl in its temporal precedence over Polynesian colonization and relative influence on local cultural development.

The curbstone foundation of a house type called hare paenga,
occupied by nobility. (Bishop Museum photo.)

Easter Island is one of two focal points in Heyerdahl's broader view on Polynesian origins (1941, 1951). He proposed that the first movements into Polynesia were from the east, from the Americas, rather than through Micronesia and Melanesia as was the widely accepted view at the time Heyerdahl argued that (1) Easter Island had been settled by a group of maritime Tiahunaco people from the Peruvian coast in approximately A.D.500, (2) a forced migration from North America of Kwakiuti Indians from the Northwest Coast had resulted in colonization of the Hawaiian Islands in about A.D. 1100, and (3) in the later settlement of other islands, the Amerindians were met by a dark-skinned people known as Menehune. Extensive research has failed to produce any supporting evidence for the latter two points, and they have been largely forgotten.

The entrance to a corbeled-roof house at the ceremonial centre of Orongo, before restoration.

Heyerdahl considered a variety of evidence in formulating his East4er Island settlement theory, linguistic data, physical characteristics, plant species distributions, masonry styles and techniques, and stone image styles. Though substantially different from earlier applications of the comparative method that evaluated a single trait or several unrelated ones, Heyrdahl's approach is nevertheless bothersome in the highly seductive choice of data in a theory far too involved to allow a comprehensive review of every detail. He has repeatedly emphasized (1968j; and b) a certain few key elements of fundamental importance to his claim for a strong South American cultural affinity. 

A stone-walled dwelling called a tupa, the entrance is at ground level
immediately to the left of the tower-like section. (Bishop Museum photo.)

(1) The linguistic aspect of Heyardahl's theory is based on studies of: (a) lexical terms for the numerals 1 to 10 collected by Island term for sweet potato (kumara), (c) the rongorongo script, and (d) selected place names. The derivation of the pan-Polynesian term for sweet potato (the protoform is kuumala) from Quechua cumar has been widely accepted by scholars, and it may come as a surprise that the word cumar" is not a Quechua word; and the word cumar never was used for sweet potato anywhere along the coast of South America" (Brand 1971:361). There are, in fact, no known precontact borrow words in the Easter Island language (commonly referred to as Rapanui).

--- to be continued

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