The Cultural Background of Easter Island Inhabitans and Polynesian People

Published: 2021-08-02 08:35:07
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Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is a volcanic Polynesian island located in the Pacific Ocean. It’s about 3,510 kilometers west of Continental Chile, making it a Chilean territory. The story of Easter Island begins with the Rapa Nui people, the original Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island. The Rapa Nui people lived their lives similar to other Polynesians. Their diet mostly consisted of vegetables and meats such as Polynesian rats and chickens, but they ate other things too. Their ancestors from Southeast Asia introduced them to bananas, yams, sugar cane, cordylines, and arrowroot, and later in the 11th century, they were introduced to sweet potatoes by Native American tribes. Because they lived on an island, the Rapa Nui people were able to do a lot of fishing, and therefore had fish in their diet as well. Fishing on the shore provided the people with crustaceans, small fish, moray eels, sea urchins, small mollusks, and tuna. While off-shore fishing, people were able to catch dolphins and sometimes seals, though this was only on rare occasions. For clothing, the Rapa Nui men wore simple loincloths and women wore a kind of skirt or apron. People decorated their bodies with tattoos, wore jewelry carved from coral and seashells, and wore feather headdresses. Hats were also a part of their culture, they wore a variety of hats on ceremonial occasions, as a reflection of their rank/status, or as an indication of their mood.
The Rapa Nui people were very unique, and invented a system of writing that was thought to be reserved for the major agricultural civilizations. Their language is so complex that today it still defies the greatest epigraphists. This language is called the Kohau Rongorongo. It’s made up of rongorongo signs in wood, these signs were very complex. They outlined shapes of turtles, birds, fish, mollusks, plants, humans, and crescent moons, and also represented geometric figures. Rongorongo consisted of 21 tablets, a staff, a statuette of a bird-man, and three reimiro. The tablets were surrounded by strict taboos and were read from bottom to top and from left to right, they must then be rotated 180° to continue.At this time, the people didn’t have very many resources to build with, so they used what they could to build houses, tools, and other necessary items. The houses found on the island were compared to haystacks by navigators of the 18th century. They were covered in grasses and reeds, the framework was formed by arched poles, and the entrance was only 50 centimeters high. Houses during this time served as a shelter from bad weather and as a place to sleep, all other activities took place outdoors. Because indoor activities weren’t common, furniture was limited to stone pillows, a variety of decorated wicker bags, wooden protective gods hung from joists, and weapons that were stored inside.
Like other Polynesian islands, Easter Islands society was aristocratic, meaning it had an upper class and a working class. If you were to live on Rapa Nui at this time, you would be in one of seven social classes: The Ariki Mau, or “king,” who was in charge; the Ariki, or “nobles,” who were of the highest class, besides the king; the Ivi Atua, or “priests,” who were in charge of communicating with the gods, because they were able to do this, they were of a very high class as well; the Matatoa, or “war chiefs,” who were in charge of the armies and fighting; the Maori Tahonga, or “experts,” who exercised their fields of expertise, (this could include astronomy, rongorongo, writing, medicine, witchcraft, construction of monuments, stone/woodwork, horticulture, off-shore fishing, etc.). They could be warriors, craftsmen, farmers, or fishermen; the Hurumanu, or “people,” who were just common citizens; or the Kio, or “servants,” who were of the lowest class, did the hardest work, and were normally prisoners employed as servants. Because of these social classes, some families had a higher status than others, but families sometimes formed alliances with each other. Within these social classes, there were also men, women, and children. Much like other societies during this time, men were given power and status. The kings, priests, nobles, and all the other important people were men, which left women with nothing. This is known as culturally dictated gender specialization, where women weren’t given status or power and were discriminated against by the men. Much like the women, children weren’t given much of a choice either. Meaning children were taught skills by their parents and grew up to be the same thing as their parents, so they didn’t have any freedom in choosing what they wanted to be. Also, there is no evidence that they went to school, the Rapa Nui people most likely spent their childhood doing chores and learning skills to be able to work when they grow up.
Going back to the island, I have to mention the Moai Aringaora, or Moai for short, which translates to “living face.” But they are commonly known as the giant statues of faces that Easter Island is most famous for. There are over 800 of these statues on the island, and some more recent excavations have shown that the heads may have bodies attached to them, though they are buried underneath the dirt. What some people may not know about these statues, is that they were built to honor and represent important people who passed away. They were put on rectangular stone platforms, “ahu,” which were used as tombs for the people the statues represented. The statues were very sacred to the Rapa Nui people, they were called the “statues of the gods.” Nearly all of them were carved from the rocks of the Rano Raraku volcano, which is considered a very sacred place on the island. They were also sculpted with pickaxes called “Toki.” Toki were carved from knots of very hard rock that’s found in the volcanic tuff of the sanctuary, these were very sacred rocks that were the only ones able to create these statues. The people who built the Moai were known as the statue makers. They were very skilled craftsmen who were specially trained in the art of stone carving, they were privileged and honored members of the community. The statue makers did no other work, they dedicated their lives to building the Moai. In order to do this, they had to be provided with food by fishermen and farmers, and are believed to have lived in stone houses that were found at Rano Raraku.
The Moai were a large part of the Rapa Nui peoples religious beliefs, until around the mid-1600s. During this time, the people ended up cutting down all their trees and using up all their natural resources. After this, there was a food shortage and as a result, the population decreased. Because of this, there was chaos, people fought, destroyed statues of their enemies, and abandoned their “statue cult” altogether. After leaving their old religion behind, they created a new one, the religion of the Makemake, or “bird-man.” In this new religion, the people worshipped a new god, Makemake. Whoever was guided by this god, and was able to seize the first laid egg of the year, became the “bird-man.” For one year only, they were in charge of ensuring the fertility of the island, like the Ariki Mau. We aren’t sure if the Rapa Nui worshipped other gods, but according to other Polynesian islands; Tangaroa was the creator of everything, and the other gods were Tangaroa’s children. These other gods were the masters of the most important elements and human activities.
Easter Island was first found by an outsider in the 1680’s, when an English man, Edward Davis, spotted a “low and sandy island.” When he reported the land to the others in his homeland, they were hoping to find a new continent attached to the land, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. On July 16, 1721, nearly 41 years later, the Dutch sea captain, Jacob Roggeveen, set sail for the coast of Chile in search of the land. At this time, navigators were able to accurately find the latitude of a place, but finding the longitude was more difficult for them. So when Jacob went the distance Davis calculated, and didn’t find anything, he decided to sail west. On April 2, 1722, a crew member on Jacobs ship spotted a sandy island, this was a good sign because they thought this meant the new continent was close. While passing by the island, Jacob saw smoke, which meant the island was inhabited, so he decided to search the island before sailing on. They named the island Paasch Eyland, or Easter Island, because it was Easter Sunday.
Excavations on Easter Island started as early as 1914, maybe earlier, and continue to this day. Many people have worked on excavating the island, so it’s unclear when exactly the excavations started. But assuming excavations started in the early 1900s, they have been going on for over 100 years. During the excavations, scientists and archaeologists have been using modern scientific techniques and radiocarbon dating to piece together information. Unfortunately, because of the chaos in the 1600s, a lot of the artifacts and statues were destroyed or unfinished.
As mentioned before, many people have worked on excavating the island. A couple of these people include Katherine Routledge, who was an Englishwoman who spent seventeen months on the island from 1914-1915. She was the first woman to conduct systematic studies of Easter Island’s ancient history; Father Sebastian Englert, who was a Catholic priest who lived on Easter Island for 34 years from 1935-1969. He made the first complete survey of the statue platforms and recorded stories/memories of the older inhabitants; William Mulloy, who was an American archaeologist. He came with Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition in 1955; Finally, one of the most important people who worked on excavating Easter Island was Jo Anne Van Tilburg. Jo Anne Van Tilburg is an American archaeologist, famously known for researching and excavating the statues of Easter Island. She is the director of the Easter Island Statue project, she worked closely with the community of Easter Island to describe and catalog most of the statues on the island, completed an experiment to make a replica of a statue on Easter Island in 1998, founded the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club in 1989, and is considered as one of the world’s leading experts on the Easter Island statues.
Throughout all these excavations, many artifacts were found. People were able to find the remains of houses, fire pits, garden enclosures, other structures, stone/bone tools, drawings on rocks, carved wooden figures, panels covered with Rongorongo, and more. Bigger groups that worked on excavating the island found more of the small artifacts. While people like Father Sebastian Englert learned about the culture, and people like Katherine Routledge and Jo Anne Van Tilberg found and studied the Moai. After the finding of these artifacts, most of the island was designated as a national park to protect the ruins. Museums were also made on the island and became great tourist attractions. Unfortunately, tourism had a very significant impact on the island. Congestion increased by 96%, waste increased by 88%, environmental impacts increased by 72%, water contamination increased by 69%, and much more.
The culture of the Rapa Nui people has helped us to better understand the culture of the Polynesians, and vice versa, because they are so similar. The Rapa Nui people have also taught us important lessons. For example, don’t cut down all the trees and use all the natural resources. Otherwise, you’ll be left with destroyed habitats, ruined soil, depleted forests, and contaminated water. This also makes it very difficult to gain more natural resources for the future, therefore, the land will not be able to support the population. The finding of Easter Island was important because it helped us to learn about new religions, understand new cultures, and taught us important lessons.

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