Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Island

Fig.1: A quarterback's ideal offensive line.
I am on record of saying that Polynesians have never done anything exciting in the history of history. Well it takes a big man to admit when he's wrong, so please accept my apology, you fine patrons of the interweb (especially you three Polynesian patrons out there). They did one mildly interesting thing on the isolated hamlet in the South Pacific Ocean now known as Easter Island: the construction of 887 moai statues that dot the land to this day (fig.1). Their large heads, expressionless faces, and slightly pudgy bellies have become recognizable throughout the world, and are considered perfect homes for anthropomorphic cephalopods living next to pineapples under the sea. Unfortunately, the Rapa Nui civilization that sculpted these magnificent megaliths has been endangered for several centuries, with their language, traditions, and perfectly tanned bodies on the decline. We must save them before the Hawaiians and their silly hula dancing become the only Polynesians to ever accomplish anything of note!

A big question is how Easter Island got its name. Yes, those large statues do make great hiding spots for colored eggs, but there has to be a more symbolic reason based on the idea of resurrection and the renewal of life, right? Or not: the Dutch guy who accidentally discovered it in 1722 did so on Easter Sunday. Wow, that's deep. I'm glad there's not an island that was first encountered by Europeans on Christmas. (Oh wait.) The original name of the island is a subject for debate, mostly within the Polynesian Etymology Club active at every high school. The current name of Rapa Nui (Big Rapa) appears to come from its topographic and cultural similarities with Rapa Iti (Little Rapa) in French Polynesia over 2,000 miles away, even though this name makes Easter Island feel self-conscious about its weight. Another possible name, albeit a mouthful of one, is Te Pito o Te Henua, which could mean, "The Navel of the World." This would make sense based on its isolated location in the Pacific, and its reputation as the world's largest exporter of belly button lint.

Fig.2: Sadly, most pizza places refuse to deliver to 
houses with an Easter Island address.
Easter Island was settled at some point between 300 to 1200 AD (AD standing for Anno Doughnutty, as we humans base our calendar on the first baking of the warm and frosted doughnut). Since the nearest inhabited island is about 1,300 miles across an ocean, the Polynesians must have traveled for weeks in their sturdy handmade canoes with precise navigational accuracy in order to land there. (Okay fine, that makes it the second most exciting thing that Polynesians have ever done. But that's it!) The first ruler of the island was Hotu Matu'a, which might as well be pronounced "Hakuna Matata" for own amusement. A hierarchy was soon established with Hakuna Matata's descendants as high chief, and nine clans with subordinate chiefs of their own. The Rapa Nui culture thrived in their new homeland, with their population rising to around 15,000 by the 17th century. Hakuna Matata's philosophy of no worries about natural resources for the rest of their days allowed them to transform a previously uninhabited island into a prosperous civilization with absolutely no negative consequences whatsoever! *cough cough*

The abundance of volcanic rock allowed for the creation of Easter Island's best known feature: the moai statues. Tradition states that the moai represented the deified ancestors of past chiefs, built to look after the island's residents to ensure peace among the clans, tranquility with nature, and that the youngsters were eating all of their vegetables. The Rapa Nui believed in a mystical force called mana, similar to "karma" in Eastern cultures and "comeuppance" in the made-up-words community. The larger the moai that a chief built for his ancestor, the more mana he would receive, and thus the more luck he would have a the craps table. An average moai weighs about 14 tons, with the largest erect statue coming in at about 82 tons, putting him in the super heavyweight division of Ultimate Moai Wrestling. This creates Stonehedge-esque questions as to how they were moved from the quarry to their eventual locations, mostly around the coast. Theories include rolling them along logs, rocking them back and forth along their bases, and even having the god Make-Make to use his Jedi powers to levitate the monolith (as such, Make-Make runs the most successful moving company in the Pacific).

Fig.3: Being named the Bird-man
gave you the inside track to 
becoming a successful defense 
Another storied tradition on Easter Island is their "Bird-man" competition, or tangata manu. Every year, participants were chosen to dive off a cliff and make the dangerous journey to a nearby islet, a swim fraught with sharks, ragged rocks, and no lifeguard on duty. The first man to collect an egg from a tern and bring it back uncracked was declared the Bird-man (fig.3) and the champion of that year's field day! His accomplishment was rewarded with a parade in his honor, residence in a sacred house, and exclusive rights for his clan to collect the tern eggs for the rest of the season. You know what that means? Breakfast served all day long, baby!

Unfortunately, friendly competitions between clans gave way to unfriendly civil warfare. This social upheaval may have been a result of the complete deforestation of the island by 1650, leading to no timber to construct fishing boats, no birds to prey upon, and tons of Loraxes around to get all annoyingly preachy and environmental on everyone. The lack of resources created the same strife between the island's various groups as that Easter where my siblings and I had to share a single Tomagotchi (we try not to speak of that horrific day in my household). By the time of Jacob Roggeveen's 1722 Easter Sunday visit and clever name-giving, the population shrank to a maximum of 3,000 people. The clans also practiced spiritual warfare against each other by actually toppling over their respective moai; European visits between 1770 and 1825 reported seeing less and less standing statues visible from the coasts. While it was tragic that the Rapa Nui attempted to destroy a major part of their historical legacy due to petty arguments about resources (not to mention nearly putting the Polynesians back into historical irrelevancy as far as I'm concerned), it must have been extremely liberating to push those giant things over! Stress balls have nothing on that!

Fig.4: Go home, moai! You're drunk!
While the decline of the Rapa Nui culture on Easter Island marks one of the few times in the early modern period that the near destruction of an indigenous civilization wasn't all the Europeans' fault, those pasty pryers certainly didn't make things easier for them. Since the Rapa Nui were mistrustful of strangers based on the life skills taught by kindergarten teachers, visits by explorers usually resulted in violence, with spitballs flying everywhere. In the 19th century, slave traders from Peru captured nearly half of the remaining population; when they finally decided to be nice and return the Rapa Nui to the island, wouldntchaknow that quite a few had smallpox! This created an epidemic throughout many Polynesian islands (with some jerkface throwing some tuberculous in there as well), and it is estimated that only 111 Rapa Nui were left by 1877, with no Bird-men around to defend their habeas corpus rights.

Fig.5: It is theorized that the Rapa Nui 
used coral to design eyeballs for their 
moai, just to give them more of a that 
stalker vibe.
But of course, where there's death and devastation of a native culture, you know the English are always willing to take advantage! That's what Alexander Salmon, a wealthy plantation owner on Tahiti, did when he bought up the vacant land on Easter Island for just a couple of beads (a handful would have been pushing it). It wasn't long before he got all creeped out by all the stone faces staring into his soul (or lack thereof), and made a handsome profit by selling the island to the government of Chile, which was a mere month-long canoe trip away. The Rapa Nui were confined to Hanga Roa on the southwestern coast while the vast majority of the island was controlled by Chilean sheep farmers and, more influentially, Chilean sheep (they can be very persuasive). It wasn't until 1966 that the Rapa Nui gained full citizenship and were allowed to live throughout the island once more, as long as they promised to stop damaging their own monuments and take their anger out on moai-shaped inflatable punching bags instead.

Today, the moai statues are protected under a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and tourism to see the one-of-a-kind sculptures drives the local economy. But what about the Rapa Nui people (fig.6)? Their population has increased to over 3,000 by the time of writing, but their culture, language, and religion is constantly being undermined by that of their Chilean administrators. Sure, the moai were built to protect the people, but how much can they really do with their arms pinned to their sides like that? T-Rex arms are more effective! I have a huge respect for these Polynesians who actually did something cool (unlike those lazy useless Samoans), so I say that the Rapa Nui people need to be protected all the same. Let's take some of them from their natural habitat and display in museums all around the world, just like the moai! It's the only way to protect them while spreading the word about their glorious heritage and can-do attitude!

Fig.6: Seriously, Rapa Nui people? An accordion? You guys just lost all your cool points!

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