By Jeffrey the Barak
At times, we wander the galleries and see pieces of art that look as if they could hurt someone, or kill someone, but in a way this has actually happened.
I refer to a place commonly known as Easter Island. This is its modern name, given to the place by Christian explorers from Holland in 1722 when they happened to come across this land on their Easter Sunday.
For most of history, This place had no name, and no inhabitants, but at sometime between 400 and 600 C.E. a human civilisation, the Polynesians, found it, and it became known as Rapa Nui.
We know from the surviving Polynesian people here and across Oceana that for at least two thousand years, their relatively advanced society was capable of trans-oceanic explorations by canoe that no modern sailor in their right mind would dare attempt. By contrast, the people of the nations that would later become the worlds explorers, the Britons, the French, The Spanish, The Portuguese, The Dutch were by comparison, quite behind in terms of long-distance seafaring.
Even the Mediterranean traders of the day would have been amazed at the voyages back and forth that the ancient Polynesians embarked upon.
So art came to Rapa Nui with its first people. It is generally accepted that they came from either the Marquesas Islands or Mangareva, which like everywhere else, are very far indeed from Rapa Nui.
The oral history tells us they brought plants, food animals and tools and their mission was colonization. The climate on Rapa Nui was certainly not the tropical paradise they were used to so they had a lot of adaptation to do in order to survive and thrive.
Rapa Nui was covered in trees, palms and other types, and drinking water was naturally gathered in volcanic craters, despite the islands absence of rivers or streams. The island also had obsidian, great for making cutting tools and weapons, and it had lot of special rock which we call lapilli tuff.
Some say the islanders employed slash and burn techniques to clear land for farming, and others say, they used up all the wood in order to make and transport the huge stone statues that Rapa Nui is now famous for.
With the forest cover gone, the rain and weather eroded the topsoil and famine ensued. But lets take a step back and focus on the art.
The art of Rapa Nui is divided between two periods. The Moai period and the Birdman period. On other islands in Polynesia, there were statues, (Moai), atop shrines, (Ahu). which were representations of chiefs (living and dead) and the gods in which they believed.
Dead chiefs were sacred, and after their life passed, their representative Moa remained. Rapa Nui has around 900 such moai, either standing, toppled or partially completed, still in the quarry or partway to their final site. There are about 360 ahu. The moai did not look out to sea, as commonly assumed, but they faced away from the sea, towards the villages. Some completed and erected statues had white coral eyes and wore stone hats or top knots called pukao, carved from a rock that was more red (scoria).
There is much debate as to exactly how the heavy statues were moved, assembled, erected etc. They are so heavy, that engineering on a grand scale was definitely needed, but the methods used have passed from memory.
It seems clear that at some point, the statues were worshiped as gods, and were a means of control for the ruling society, called the “Long Ears”. Everyone else, lived as subjects of the ruling Long Ears. However they were not slaves, but simply lowly subjects of the rulers, who would eventually rebel aginst the Long Ears and topple the very statues that generations suffered to construct.
It is said that so much wood was expended on the statue making that the islanders could no longer build canoes, so they became unable to travel to and from other parts of Polynesia. However, it is possible that the forests were burned to clear land, without any understanding of the long term environmental consequences. Without canoes, there was little opportunity to fish offshore, and without the lush vegetation, farming was all that was left.
So in isolation, with the natural resources of the island being eroded, burned and used for making statues, the people sealed their fate. Numbering as high as seven thousand in its heyday, the society on Rapa Nui became unsustainable with the resources at hand, and they were unable to leave or go for help.
Eventually, out of this declining situation, a powerful warrior class emerged, called Matatoa. And a change of power and leadership ensued. This also heralded the second art movement. All of the statues were toppled, some face up, some face down, and a new, even sillier religion began to dominate.
This was the birdman cult, (Tangatamenu). Once a year on a small island off the coast of Rapa Nui, migrating birds laid eggs. It was a bountiful annual harvest. The young warriors would hold a swimming race across the rough, shark-infested straits between the main island and bird island. The first man back holding an intact egg became absolute ruler for exactly one year, until this was repeated.
In the time after the upright moai, the art consisted of carvings and drawings on rock, depicting a bird-man character. Again the sheer quantity of this art in the virtual absence of all other, shows us that life at the time was all about the birdman. And a new monotheism emerged, coincidentally featuring a single, creator god, not the Jewish-Christian-Moslem one, but one with the name Makemake.
If the Western sailing ships had never found Easter Island, the natives may or may not have survived to this day, but considering what the sailors did to them, it is amazing that any have survived. The so-called advanced civilizations from Europe murdered, enslaved, kidnapped and infected the people with diseases such as smallpox and syphilis, and those few who survived these horrors were later subjected to forced Christianization.
As a result of the missionary subjugation, at this point there was no more art for a long time. The island was culturally dead until relatively recently when inhabitants of Polynesian decent began to nurture their cultural heritage, which amazingly still has much in common with other far way parts of Polynesia. And so through dance, costume, cuisine and the tatoo, the art of the island survives, but this time it wont kill them, it may save them, from us.