Easter Islands Monuments - A mystery solved? (Essay)

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Easter Islands Monuments - A mystery solved? (Essay)

Imagine you are sailing across the world’s largest ocean, no ship to be seen around for weeks, no other people than the crew on the board, nothing, except water everywhere, always...
And, suddenly, you come to a totally isolated island in the middle of the ocean with huge monumental stone statues on it. You can’t understand who, how and why built theses sculptures – there are only a few decimated, poverty-stricken inhabitants, there are no trees on the island to help the transportation or erecting the sculptures. Amazing.
This view has fascinated scientists for a long time. Among several non-scholar explanations, such as those of lost continents or extraterrestrial invaders, archeologists and researchers discovered several facts elucidating the islands civilization history, as well as some incentives explaining the building of Easter Island monuments.
Before I present these theories, it’s worth to have a look at the fundamental geographical and historical details about the island and its civilization, determining the culture and development of native inhabitants. Basic Information
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua, lies in the south-eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, 2 000 km from the nearest inhabited place. Formally, it is part of the Chilean republic with an area of about 160 square kilometers. Its name comes from the spring holiday that Jacob Roggeveen, Dutch admiral, paid it a visit on in the year 1722.
The small and hilly volcanic island is chiefly composed of tuff – a rock formed of compacted volcanic fragments. The original fauna and flora were, because of the isolation, limited to a very few species, but still much more abundant than today (Diamond, 1995).

Easter Island Civilization
Native population of Rapa Nui is the easternmost settlement of a Polynesian subgroup that probably derived from the Marquesas group (“Easter Island”, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online). On the other hand, we can see here several elements of the South American culture (as shown later).
Eastern Polynesian emigrants, who thereafter remained isolated, most probably colonized the island around AD 400. The social organization resembled that of other Polynesians, with several clans tracing descent to a single ancestor.

According to oral tradition, Hotu Matua (their founding chief) came from an island "near the setting sun" - possibly in the Marquesas or Mangareva several thousand kilometers to the northwest.
The original Rapa Nui vocabulary has been lost except for some recorded mixed Polynesian and non-Polynesian words. Aborigines also had their local form of script. In their traditions, the islanders consistently divide themselves into descendants of two distinct ethnic groups, the “Long-Ears” and the “Short-Ears”.
Some features of Easter Island’s civilization notably recall the culture elements of South Americans. Already mentioned in Roggeveen’s notes: “white men had their earlobes slit and hanging to their shoulders”, which is a distinctly non-Polynesian custom. Another example is a sculpture of a kneeling man, with features characteristic of pre-Inca monuments in South America. The aboriginal economy was based on the cultivation of sweet potato, chicken rising and coastal fishing. The division of labor had to be clear, because the building of the statues required a lot of labor for a long period of time.

Moais – What, When, How and Why
Moais is the name of the huge statues on the Easter Island. We can find more than 600 sculptures carved from a single block of soft volcanic stone. Their size ranges from few to tens feet of height, from few to more than 80 tons of weight. A question arises: are they somehow special among other monuments built by indigenous civilization? The answer is: yes, at least because they were built by a civilization completely isolated from the rest of the world, thinking that they are the only people on this world having a small island and a water all around. The fact of enormous interest that these statues attract might also be explained by their aestetical nearness to the West civilization. Their poise, for instance, may unconsciously resemble to us a satisfied man with hands in his pockets. They are definitely much more simple and realistic that any other totemic statues. Just imagine how different is the look of traditional African art or the shrines of Hinduist gods. The question of how were these statues built is already quite well answered. Many scientists had interpreted the results of the archeological excavations and tried to repeat the islanders’ work. The process of carving was eased by the softness of the volcanic stone. Making the stones move was achieved by a group of volunteers with self-made rope and wooden rollers more easily than would be generally expected.

Erecting the statue was reached again by ropes and stones added under the sculpture lying more and more in a vertical position.
Beginning in about AD 1400 statue production slowed down and finally stopped, possibly because the wooden rollers and levers used too many trees, destroying the island’s small ecosystem. Now, another important question comes to mind – why did they build these statues? The most general explanation of building statues at all is in their symbolic meaning. Statues of this type are believed by most archaeologists to stand for something else, and that is to commemorate the spirits of ancestors, the tribal chiefs, or other high-ranking males who held important positions in the history of Easter Island.
After understanding the basic principles of the symbolic meaning of these statues, we can continue with the more structured and specified theories.
A bit more abstract justification of building the Easter Island Monuments can be found in Durkheim’s account on the origin of totemism (Durkheim, 1995). Totemism is a type of cult in which humans are believed to have a kinship with the totem (the sculpture, but also animal or plant). The totem, according to Durkheim, represents the believed supreme power of the tribe. In fact, this supreme power is nothing more than the social power over the individual member of the tribe itself.
Another approach can be found in the theory of the archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has studied the moai for many years. She also believes the statues may have been created in the image of various paramount chiefs. According to her, they were not individualized portrait sculptures, but standardized representations of powerful individuals. The moai may also have held a sacred role in the life of the Rapa Nui, acting as ceremonial conduits for communication with the gods. She emphasizes the spiritual position between earth and sky, which puts them on both secular and sacred ground; secular in their representation of chief and their ability to physically prop up the sky, and sacred in their proximity to the heavenly gods. Van Tilburg concludes, “The moai thus mediate between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods.”
(“Secrets of Easter Island”, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/civilization/giants.html)
In addition, it is thought that the moais have been carved as monuments by competing clans (“Easter Island”, Britannica Student Encyclopedia). The clans wanted simply to express their superiority by building greater statues. This theory could explain the increase in number of moais constructed around AD 1400, as well as the enormous increase in their height and weight. As we can observe nowadays, Easter Island Monuments still remain a great attraction to both scientists and public.

Many scientific excavations and researches were undertaken, clarifying a certain amount of the Easter Island’s mysteries. Easter Island has become a subject for Hollywood movie, it is a magnet for thousands of tourists every year. A well-organized Chilean national park system (since 1935) provides guided tours and security for the unique archaeological monuments they deserve.
The message that Easter Island gives to all of us, we can found in its environment’s sad history. This tiny island “can serve as a microcosm of the effects of human alteration of the environment” (Joan A. Wozniak, 1998). Easter Island sets an example how we all can end with a similar devastating approach to the world’s natural environment, remaining here the pyramids, the Eiffel tower and the Statue of liberty alone...

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