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By Raymond Greiner
Rapa Nui is the Polynesian name for a remote, South Pacific island, approximately 2500 miles southeast of the Marquesas Islands. This island’s first European discovery was by a Dutch expedition in 1722 CE, led by navigator Jacob Roggenveen. The Dutch expedition arrived on Easter Sunday, attaching the name Easter Island. Rapa Nui is a small, remote island, creating challenge to early inhabitants, not only to locate and inhabit the island but also to establish a developing culture.
Rapa Nui’s history goes much deeper than from the time of its European discovery, though. It's a mysterious and fascinating culture, thriving from around 1200 CE, a society manifesting from mass pilgrimages of Polynesian voyagers in a migration and population dispersal effort occurring during this early historic period. After settlement had been established, tribal leaders and priests became obsessed with the Polynesian ritual of carving large, stone statues called Moai, with abstractly haunting faces, and then moving these massive carvings throughout the island.
There is much speculation concerning the purpose of these omnipresent stone monuments. Some are 40 feet in height and weighing over 70 tons. Archeological science and discovery reveals no time in ancient history when such large stones were moved such distances with so few people: Moai are located up to seven miles from their quarry site. Oral legend describes priests with mystical powers allowing the stones to walk short distances each day, arriving at their place of permanence. Ancient roadbeds are visible, indicating pathways with no archeological evidence of wheels or pulley systems. Details of this mystery remain in a void of speculation. These Moai carvings and placements would have been a remarkable feat, even if only a few were present, but Rapa Nui has nearly 900 of these monoliths, all facing inland away from the sea with stark gazes, as if searching in vain for their creators.
Early Rapa Nui inhabitants were from Polynesia, likely the Marquesas Islands. Voyagers were from a distant island, chosen in childhood, engaging in lengthy preparation for their impending voyage. Maps or charts were unavailable. Knowledge regarding destination and voyaging methods came via oral descriptions from tribal elders, knowledge passed down from previous generations. The chosen, potential voyagers were taught frugality, food, and water rationing in preparation of enduring extreme hardships during their impending voyage. The voyagers constructed large, double-hulled sailing craft, applying years of labor using natural materials.
The Polynesian philosophy of the sea differed from Europeans. Polynesians didn’t fear the sea, but rather embraced its abundance, and it became a cultural attachment. The voyagers were taught to read wave patterns, wind direction, and constellations. The rising moon and setting sun served as navigational guides, directing them to hypothesized destinations spoken of in the elders’ oral sailing directions. These great voyages occurred hundreds of years before Columbus. The objective was to establish self-supporting tribal life in Polynesian tradition, but first, they must have faced an ultimate challenge in making a long and arduous passage.
As the estimated nearness to destinations approached, the voyagers watched the sky for birds and the sea’s surface for floating palm fronds, indicating imminence of land. Their passage was from west to east, against the prevailing winds, adding difficulty to the voyage. It’s likely voyagers waited for a year of El Nino shifting wind direction favorably for this passage. Comparing the manner of life today, it’s unimaginable to vicariously share the emotions these voyagers felt. Their resilience, determination, and courage are monumental.
When the voyagers finally nosed their craft on the beach of Rapa Nui, every square foot of the island was covered with dense forest. The trees were the largest of the palm species, with heights exceeding 100 feet. These millions of giant palms took a century to reach maturity.
Today, Easter Island is a barren place, with not a single tree standing. Observing this condition challenges comprehension and we must ponder the historical contrast and its causes. Opinions vary regarding this deforestation, and it was likely a combination of factors.
The island’s population expanded, land was cleared for crops, and wood was used for housing, kindling for fire, and building canoes. Some conjecture that a large amount of timber was consumed to move the giant Moai. The voyagers carried with them rats, which were used as a food source, common on voyages and also within the Polynesian culture. Rats multiply at a staggering rate when food is abundant, and the rats thrived on Rapa Nui’s tree’s seeds and roots.
As the deforestation escalated, changes occurred, creating loss of tribal harmony. Invasions from Chilean tribes reduced population, causing descending unity. Springs dried up and wood became scarce. The culture was falling down, culminating with the absence of trees. The culture teetered on the brink of extinction. European exploitation came in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, and many descendants of the voyagers were imprisoned. Some eventually returned to the island, but the quality of life was abysmal without defined tribal structure.
Rapa Nui was not blessed with abundant, natural rivers found on many Polynesian islands. A young island, less than one million years old, formed from volcanic eruption, dependent on rainfall and small springs for water sources.
Observing Rapa Nui in its present state evokes sadness. However, the detailed reasons for Rapa-Nui’s demise are fascinating and important. The starkest reality in the failure of Rapa Nui is the fact that it was solely from human intervention. How much of this loss resulted from poor conservation practices? How much can be blamed on natural consumption relating to population growth? Obsession with the Moai carving and moving may have distracted from the importance of the land itself. Modern archeological data reveals that much of the devastation was caused by rat infestation and the inability to eradicate them, which is now more accepted now than earlier studies.
Popular author Paul Bahn, and co-writer paleontologist John Flenley, address the state of the island in their book “Easter Island, Earth Island,” indicating, “the person that felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn. Selfishness leads to survival. Altruism leads to death. The selfish gene wins. But in a limited ecosystem, selfishness leads to increasing imbalance, population crash, and ultimately extinction.”
Islands like Rapa Nui model micro planets, revealing loss or gain directly related to eco-management. In the case of Easter Island, it was once a thriving place of reverence and spiritual benevolence, exposing accomplishments of cultural magnitude presented before the mystical gaze of the Moai. The optic of time reveals that the dynamic of change moves gratuitously, an unshakable constant. Fragility is often unrecognized and ignored. The mysteries of Rapa Nui remain intact. However, its history reveals lessons that can be applied to humankind’s future.
These historic occurrences stir fearful predictions regarding practices within present-day social structuring: an ever-escalating force, wending on a path of destructiveness, applying minimal consideration of consequence intensity. Our species’ development may experience eventual reversal as we venture slowly toward felling our last tree.
#Essay #RapaNui #RaymondGreiner #EasterIsland #Maoi
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