Today my colleague, John Flenley, gave an informal evening lecture to half a dozen Earthwatch volunteers who are visiting the island to assist with archaeological investigations. I joined the the audience, which also included the Chris Stevenson, a Virginia archaeologist, and Thegn Ladefoged, an archaeologist from Auckland University.
In his talk, John reflected on his 30+ years of research on Rapa Nui.One of his themes was the relevance of the scientific investigations of past environments and past human activity on the island to modern civilization. As John puts it, given the potential catastrophes facing the Earth's now globalized civilization, wouldn't it be nice if we could do an experiment to isolate a population of perhaps a few thousand people for a millennium so that we could better understand what can undermine efforts to achieve a sustainable society?
Of course, the civilization that developed on Rapa Nui is as close as we can get to this notional experiment. Before you think further about the experiment, look at today's picture and imagine yourself as part of the isolated society isolated on this small but diverse landscape.
John's point is that we have a lot to learn from this experiment. There is much more to be learned from detailed investigations - including both our study and the one Stevenson and Ladefoged are carrying out to understand the functioning of the gardens that fed people for perhaps a millennium here. There is also much to be learned from integrating the knowledge that has been gathered so far. As we do this, and incorporate more and more detailed information, the story does change. For example, we all agreed that despite most published information pointing to a "collapse" at the the end of the moai- building era, there is a lack of sound evidence that population crashed exactly and dramatically at this time. Perhaps our project will shed some light on this.
In closing, John emphasized that many of the most remarkable things we learn from deciphering the Rapa Nui experiment center around the ways the island's leaders cultivated the moai-building and Birdman rituals to maintain peace between the many tribes/clans on the island. He also notes that the focus of the rituals seemed to shift appropriately from the extremely resource-intensive moai building to a reemergence of the creator god Make Make, as resource issues related to deforestation (and presumably maintaining food production) became a dominant source of concern for the society.
Since he has retired from his role as Professor and head of Geography at Massey University, John has been putting most of his time into efforts within his Anglican church and several trusts to conserve and restore the natural world, both around New Zealand and around the world. He's also just completed work on the third edition of a book on Easter Island, which he writes with archaeologist Paul Bahn.
On arrival on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), we were greeted by some Polynesian-style music and a rapid trip through customs. Unfortunately, two of us were still missing our luggage and there was no clear suggestion when it might arrive. The situation looked a bit bleak because the next flight from Tahiti arrives on Friday, although we were told to check back at the airport tomorrow when a flight from Chile arrives.
Hotel/hostel keepers on Easter Island tend to meet their guests at the airport. Although we had rented a car, this turned out to be very helpful. The car rental agent took a look at the lake-coring gear that had arrived with David Feek and John Flenley from Massey University, and then told us we didn't want the shiny new little Suzuki 4wd he had for us. Luckily we were able to quickly negotiate roughly the same price on a similar vehicle from our hostel keeper, Martin.
The hostel (or residencial in Spanish) is between a traditional hotel and hostel. It consists of adequate rooms with toilets and showers, collected through a lovely courtyard setting. In terms of quality, it is referred to as 'mid-range' in the Lonely Planet, and seems quite appropriate for Kiwis on a budget that includes the effect of a sinking dollar.
While we did little more than get settled on our first day, we had to find time to look around the island a little in the afternoon. We drove up to look down into the Rano Kau crater, which is likely to pose our greatest coring challenge. I'm sure you'll see and hear about Rano Kau again in this blog, so I'll focus now on the Orongo ceremonial village.
In a way, beginning with Orongo means beginning with the ending. The Orongo village and its Birdman cult represent what came after the 'collapse' of Rapa Nui's culture of statue building and ancestor worship. The ceremonial village would be owned for a year by the clan who successfully recovered the first seabird egg of the year from an offshore island, after dangerous swims across waters reported to be infested with sharks. You can see the island (Motu Nui) and a petroglyph of the Birdman in the photo I've posted, and you may want to read more elsewhere. For me, the take home message of the Birdman cult is that there was recovery after collapse, and that the focus on the dramatic feat of recovering the egg provided a very positive alternative to the clan warfare that appears to have emerged immediately following 'collapse'.