Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day meditation on the mystery of Easter Island

Easter Island of late has become a popular analogy to support a certain narrative about resource depletion.

According to this narrative, which can be found in many articles including this one from PBS Nova and this one from National Geographic, the inhabitants of Easter Island lived for several centuries "in harmony with their environment" but then depleted all their resources and collapsed into violence and perhaps cannibalism. Often, the famous Easter Island statues or moai (sometimes thought of as Easter Island "heads," although they actually have full torsos but many are buried up to the neck, such as those pictured above) are blamed as the impetus for the depletion.

As Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs and Steel, speculates in this 1995 article about Easter Island's depletion of resources:
With passing years, the statues and platforms became larger and larger, and the statues began sporting ten-ton red crowns -- probably in an escalating spiral of one-upmanship, as rival clans tried to surpass each other with shows of wealth and power. (In the same way, successive Egyptian pharaohs built ever-larger pyramids. Today Hollywood movie moguls near my home in Los Angeles are displaying their wealth and power by building ever more ostentatious mansions. [. . .] All that those buildings lack to make the message explicit are ten-ton red crowns).
In the article, Diamond articulates a theory that the Easter Islanders chopped down all the large trees to build canoes for hunting dolphins for food instead of farming, and for logs to roll their ever-larger and more-ostentatious moai around (he has since included this theory in his 2004 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which has popularized this view of Easter Island's past history).

The Nova article linked above quotes UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg as saying: "The price they paid for the way they chose to articulate their spiritual and political ideas was an island world which came to be, in many ways, but a shadow of its former natural self."

All of this moralizing fits a certain politically-acceptable narrative current today, and it may be that we should be careful that our own modern biases and assumptions are not influencing the historical conclusions that we draw. We have discussed the danger of doing this, and how difficult it is for the "fish" to perceive the "water" that it is swimming in, in this previous post. Is it possible that later historians will look back at the narrative some are crafting today for Easter Island's history and realize that certain ardently-held beliefs about environmental depletion (which have reached an almost-religious fervor among some members of the intellectual class) colored the historical conclusions in the same way that certain ardently-held beliefs about eugenics colored the conclusions of some intellectuals during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as discussed in that blog post?

Diamond's 1995 article mentions the work of Thor Heyerdahl, who in his 1953 work American Indians in the Pacific: The Theory behind the Kon-Tiki Expedition argued that Easter Island was settled by exiles from the high civilization that predated the Incas in the Andes and the coast of modern Peru. Like many other modern scholars for whom this theory is unappealing for various reasons, Diamond dismisses Heyerdahl's theory, lumping it with Erich von Daeniken's alien astronaut theory, saying: "Heyerdahl and von Daeniken both brushed aside overwhelming evidence that the Easter Islanders were typical Polynesians derived from Asia rather than the Americas and that their culture (including their statues) grew out of Polynesian culture."

This statement displays unfamiliarity with the arguments that Heyerdahl put forward in his well-documented and extensively-researched treatise (the first edition is 821 pages, in a 7" x 9" large-page format). Saying that the Easter Islanders were Polynesian does not contradict Heyerdahl, who argues that the Polynesians themselves originated from the Americas and moved west, with later contact with peoples from Asia and the Malaysian and Indonesian islands. He argues that Easter Island and the Hawaiian Islands would have been the first islands encountered by such a migration, and points to extensive evidence including the Easter Islander's own genealogies and oral histories that this is exactly what took place.

Far from "brushing aside overwhelming evidence," Heyerdahl provides extensive evidence that supports his thesis while discouraging the theory of Asian origins, including prevailing blood types, physical characteristics such as stature, nasal shape, and the presence of beards, the extensive practice of the medical procedure of trepanning which is found in the Americas and throughout Polynesia, the tradition of nose-rubbing as a greeting, fishing techniques and food types which are similar or identical to those of the Americas but different from those common in Asia and Malaysia, and the absence of fermented alcoholic beverages among the Polynesians prior to European contact in the 1600s and 1700s despite their presence in Asia and Malaysia (just to name a few among hundreds of other forms of evidence Heyerdahl examines in his book).

Indeed, if anyone can be said to have "brushed aside overwhelming evidence" it is not Heyerdahl but Diamond and the other modern researchers who dismiss his arguments.

In fact, as we have seen, there is extensive evidence that an ancient high civilization interacted with the populations of the Americas, and that the Polynesians were at least partly descended from people who created the impressive monuments that are found in Peru and around Lake Titicaca which spans Peru and Bolivia. This theory is distasteful to certain modern biases and political agendas, but it may be correct.

In such matters, the open-minded proposals with which Heyerdahl begins his 1953 work are more true than ever today. He states, "as long as there still are unsolved problems in the Pacific, we should at least give an open mind to the consideration of any solution however unimpressive it may at first seem to be" (3). Later, he approvingly cites "the following wise comment by [Edward Smith Craighill] Handy [1892 - 1980]" in a paper entitled "The Problem of Polynesian Origins," who said "there is only one sure way of being in the wrong, and that is by asserting dogmatically what is not true" (8). The italics are in Handy's original.

By asserting dogmatically that Heyerdahl's theory (or von Daeniken's for that matter) cannot be true, modern scholars appear to be falling into the trap that Handy and Heyerdahl himself are warning us against. This warning applies more generally to the entire subject of mankind's ancient past (and that of the earth's geology as well). We have discussed this subject previously using the analogy of the cholesterol-heart disease theory in posts such as this one.

In fact, there is much to support the theory that Easter Island was populated from the east by exiles from the monument-building culture of the Inca regions, and that hundreds of years later another group of Polynesians from further west came to Easter Island and wiped them out. First, the monumental moai of Easter Island have strong similarities to anthropomorphic stone statues found in Central and South America (including at Tiahuanaco). F.A. Allen's Polynesian Antiquities (1884) argues, "If it is merely a coincidence that these wonderful antiquities [on Easter Island], so closely resembling in character those of Peru and Central America, should exist on the very next land to the New-World, it is surely a most curious one . . ." (Heyerdahl 215).

Further, Heyerdahl notes extensive evidence for the elongation of the earlobes using a process that we call "gauging" today among the first inhabitants of Titicaca, including the mysterious Viracochas, a practice that was continued among the Incas (233-234). The earlobes were elongated to such a degree that they hung in some cases to the shoulders, and in order to keep them out of the way when not filled with a ring or a wooden block they would sometimes be hooked over the top of the ears or even tied together behind the head.

Significantly enough, Heyerdahl notes:
The sudden interruption of the megalithic work in the image quarry indicates the probability of a prehistoric invasion with tribal warfare on the island. Easter Island tradition is also very specific about such an early local war, which took place between their own ancestors and a legendary people referred to as the "long-ears," because they had the same extended earlobes as those seen on the statues. The adult men among the long-eared aborigines are said to have fled to fortify themselves on the extreme eastern headland, where finally they were all massacred in a ditch. [. . .] Thomson (1899), who collected the legends at a considerably earlier date, when they were less distorted, could even write: "The 'long-ears' appear to have been in power in the land at an early period in the history of the islands, though they were eventually defeated and exterminated by the others." (205).
Heyerdahl also notes that English archaeologist Katherine Routledge (1866 - 1935) wrote in The Mystery of Easter Island (1919):
According to the account of Admiral T. de Lapelin, there is a tradition at Mangarewa in the Gambier Islands to the effect that the adherents of a certain chief, being vanquished, sought safety in flight; they departed with a west wind in two big canoes, taking with them women, children, and all sorts of provisions. the party was never seen again, save for one man who subsequently returned to Mangarewa. From him it was learned that the fugitives had found an island in the middle of the seas, and disembarked in a little bay surrounded by mountains; where, finding traces of inhabitants, they had made fortifications of stone on one of the heights. A few days later they were attacked by a horde of natives armed with spears, but succeeded in defeating them. The victors then pitilessly massacred their opponents throughout the island, sparing only the women and children.
Heyerdahl notes on page 206 that if these Polynesians from Mangareva sailed east (with the "west wind" described in the account above), "there was no inhabited mountain island east of Mangareva save Pitcairn and Easter Island" (and Pitcairn was no longer inhabited when the mutineers from the Bounty settled there in the late 1700s, but Easter Island was inhabited when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed there on Easter in 1722).

Thus, a completely different timeline emerges, in which long-eared descendents of the Viracocha people who built the Tiahuanaco Empire settled Easter Island and constructed the long-eared statues, but construction abruptly ceased when later Polynesian seafarers (themselves perhaps descended from seafarers originating in North, Central, and South America) came back to the east from Mangareva and massacred all the adult men, sparing only the women and children.

This timeline has much evidence to support it, including the not-inconsiderable fact of the actual oral histories of the Easter Islanders and Mangarevans themselves as told to the earliest European visitors.

Is it not possible that, in a desire to turn Easter Island into a morality tale supporting a certain modern narrative, much evidence is being overlooked? The Diamond and Van Tilburg quotations cited above both contain an overt admonishment against an imagined "arms race" of building larger and larger and more ostentatious moai at the expense of the environment, and a smug if unstated conclusion that "they got what they deserved" for such excessive consumption, but it may be that the real lesson of Easter Island is quite different.

In fact, the real lesson of the massacre of the "long-ears" by the "short-ears" may be that barbarity can always overwhelm civilization, and that the age-old human tendency to pit one group against another can bring constructive and culturative activity to a screeching halt. In this reading of the events of history, the moai of Easter Island are restored to the magnificent cultural achievement that they truly appear to be, rather than the despicable symbols of conspicuous consumption that Diamond wants to reduce them to (in a sort of displaced anger at the home-building activities of his wealthier Los Angeles neighbors).

On this Memorial Day, in which America remembers those who have fought and died in places like Normandy and Iwo Jima, it is perhaps appropriate to consider this possible lesson of Easter Island. We do not know what brought about the fall of the ancient civilizations that appear to have understood the size of the spherical earth, the mathematical concepts of pi and phi, the subtle astronomical process of precession, and the architectural techniques needed to build enormous pyramids and megalithic temples containing stones many tons in weight, but we do know that such knowledge was later lost for centuries and some of it is perhaps lost forever. As the Handy quotation cited by Heyerdahl counsels, we should be careful not to declare dogmatically that we know the answer or that other theories (especially those supported by careful analysis of extensive evidence) are wrong.

There are many today and in our own recent modern history who blame their problems on the success of another group, and believe that political power and even violence can be justifiably applied against those offending groups. This was the approach of Karl Marx, and it was the approach of the Nazis, against whom not only the Americans but the civilized people of the world fought and died in order to stop, not only those in uniform but also members of the underground in many occupied nations. Sadly, there are still people today who want to blame one group or another for their problems, and are not against massing power against that group in an attempt to remedy their grievances. I would suggest that this very tendency -- which we might see as analogous to pitting "short-ears" against "long-ears" -- is a strong candidate for the historical force which can destroy the fragile thing we call civilization, a force which has threatened to throw man into barbarity many times in the recent past, and which has succeeded in doing so many times as well.

If so, then it is a tendency that we should be very alert to detect, and to guard against in ourselves and others.