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ASPECTS OF EASTER ISLAND

Easter Island is unique and mysterious in terms of both the  huge carved stone figures that dot the landscape and the historical written language of the people in the form of a hieroglyphic script. This Web site provides an overview of both these aspects of this most unusual of Pacific Islands.

           

The last Eastern outpost of Polynesia, Easter Island is one of the world's most remote and highly spiritual places. Only 64 square miles in size, it is like an open air museum for there are huge stone moais gathered everywhere. These mysterious carved figures, massive in size, some weighing 50 tons, stand more than ten meters high, gazing out across rolling hills, mountains and extinct volcanoes towards crystal clear waters.

The sights on Easter Island show clear evidence when considered in conjunction with the archaeology and languages of the Society and Marquesas Islands indicate strongly that the pre-historic culture of Easter Island could have evolved from a single landing of Polynesians from a Marquesan Island, fully equipped to colonise an uninhabited volcanic island. Their success in making this windswept sixty-four square miles, without an edible native plant, not only habitable but also the seat of remarkable cultural achievements, is testimony to the genius of these Polynesian settlers.

A study of excavated adzes, fish hooks, ornaments and other artefacts indicates that Tahiti and the other Society Islands must have been settled soon after the Marquesas. Present information indicates that Hawaii and New Zealand were settled after A.D. 500. Radiocarbon techniques permit us to assign tentative dates to this entire Pacific migration: entry into West Polynesia about 1000 B.C., reaching East Polynesia about the time of Christ completing the occupation by A.D. 1000.

Having reached the Pacific's farthest outpost, the early Polynesians possessed the skills to return. It is doubtful that one way voyages could account for the early presence in the Hawaiian islands, for example, of twenty odd cultivated plants of Tahiti and the Marquesas. Thus we conclude that the early Hawaiians repeatedly negotiated the longest sea route in Polynesia returning to Tahiti and then again to Hawaii, known as "child of Tahiti".

THE STATUES OF EASTER ISLAND

The statues of Easter Island as we view them today are considerably different in appearance from when they were  placed into position. Originally great top-knots of stone were placed, as wigs, on the heads of the statues after they had been raised into position. The top-knots were hewn from a red stone found in a crater seven miles from the quarry where the statues were made.

Statues as seen by Captain Cook

Early images of Easter Island.

Easter Island statues as first seen by Captain Cook

Monuments of Easter Island c.1850

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A row of stone images restored to the positions they once occupied.
The red stone top-knots they once wore now lie on the ground.

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These top-knots were left abandoned in the shallows
were once carried along the coast in large vessels
made from totora reed.
Father Sebastian  Englert
Father Sebastian Englert was the uncrowned king of Easter Island
and was regarded as the locals'
 best friend.

 

Thomas S. Barthel's book "The
Eighth Land" is dedicated to
Father S. Englert.

fallen statues

A fallen idol of Easter Island

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Numerous carvings of the bird-man some showing him with egg in hand, were made on the cliff top at Orongo on Easter Island. Each year the first egg was kept by the bird-man. After three days the shell was emptied and filled with tapa. It had the power to increase the food supply.

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THE RONGORONGO

In the I-Kiribati (Micronesia) language the term Rongorongo can be translated to mean a "written message". This is a commonality between Micronesian and Polynesian language and an appropriate name for the hieroglyphic script of Easter Island. This script is unique to Easter Island and has remained a mystery since its discovery. It has been the subject of detailed analysis from all forms of learned people and yet the key to interpreting its meaning is still obscure.

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The kohau rongorongo or Easter Island tablets were once thought to be a mnemonic device but the recent researches of Dr. Thomas Barthel have shown that the script is a system of ideograms. They have not been fully interpreted but their contents relate to ritual and traditional matters and one tablet is thought to be a catalogue of the content of others. The script was part of the traditional lore known to the rongorongo men who were the bards and ceremonial priests. These men had the responsibility of performing ritual correctly and they passed on their knowledge in organised schools of learning.

In the 1860's, Eugene Eyraud, the first European missionary to work on Easter Island, noted that every house contained wooden tablets covered in a form of writing or hieroglyphics, yet no islander could (or would) explain the symbols' meaning. Today, only a few of the tablets survive. The script comprises tidy rows of tiny symbols which include birds, animals, plants, celestial objects and geometric forms. It is thought that the tablets were classified according to subjects such as hymns, crimes and deaths on the battlefield.

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An example of the Rongorongo

In examining the vast body of work on Easter Island and in particular the Rongorongo, one would have to contemplate on the extensive and often complex research undertaken by outsiders directed towards unlocking the mysteries of the Rongorongo. Our Polynesian people of Easter Island particularly during the period of the Rongorongo led a simple lifestyle and were governed by a rather more complex culture. Perhaps an understanding of the culture, and in particular the myths and legends of the Polynesian people of Easter Island at this time would be a useful aid in understanding the complexities of the Rongorongo.

  

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  click here Easter Island                                                                  
click here Easter Island and the Blackbirders                             
click here Oceania-The Last Voyage of Captain James Cook   
click here Jane's Oceania Home Page                                         
 
 
Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 18th October 2008)