Diary note 8: Easter Island

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Today I went to listen to a talk about Easter Island. It was given to members of our club by Pieter Baas, a well-known dendrologist. On the basis of scientific facts he demolished the romantic theory that the first inhabitants of Easter Island had created their own demise by deforestation or hubris, that is by an over ambitious habit of building enormous statues. These legacies of a disappeared culture not only attract thousands of tourists today. It also thrills a world in fear of losing its supportive ecosystem.

What happened? In my words: a group of explorers with their families arrived on this island in historic times, just as on most other islands of the Pacific, during the great Eastward expansion of the Polynesians. Only this time they walked into a trap. The island was too distant from other inhabited islands. It was highly improbable that they would retain contact with their origins.

This became even more implausible when for whatever reason deforestation set in. Fewer trees of the right size to construct boats for long trips became available. The colonizers were stuck with the island. As the material for boatbuilding declined, the distances they could travel into the ocean shrank, and so their access to the larger animals they hunted for protein. Their diet changed, now relying instead on crustaceans fished near the coast.

They had sailed into a prison, which they adapted to, as human beings always do. Their lives became different, but their lives were not truly unsustainable. That is, as long as they were not “discovered” by other explorers.

This is just my take on some of the facts given by Pieter Baas. Yet the riddle of the giant statues remains complete. They may not have been the cause of deforestation or the collapse of the social structure that was needed to produce them. Still the statues required an extraordinary effort.

Excavating the giant stones, sculpting them into ancestral effigies, rolling them without hardly any technical devices for miles along causeways? Heaving them into upright position? Putting giant stones on their heads? As far as I know nowhere in the Pacific the motivational energy has appeared to produce an equal effort.

So it struck me as an hypothesis that as all art these sculptures expressed an emotional necessity. As the islanders became more aware of their distance to the home country, which they would never visit again or have contact with, their ancestral memories became more important. Like the story of the origins took on myth-like proportions, the need to be surrounded by evidence that they were not alone, took the form of sculptures that did not face the un-crossable ocean, but inward to their lonely settlements, like giant parents.

This were the musings I played with while listening to the scientific discourse taking apart the story of the sculptures as a cause of decline. But what if the sculptures had been a defence against a loss of hope? Symbols of loneliness?