Continuing from the last post, I was pointing out that collapse can be relative term. To what degree did Easter Island society collapse after the statue-building era came to an end?
I've already posted some material about the Birdman cult. Today, while we were waiting for the meeting on our permission to start collecting samples, we visited an archaeological dig that I found fascinating. Sorry, I have no pictures since I was busy taking a video. It was ceremonial site that must have been set up roughly between 1800 and 1870. It closely resembled a European sailing ship, and happened to have exactly the same dimensions as one of the first ships to visit Easter Island. It was used, and modified many times based on the accumulated layers. This site seems to show how the society adjusted
and changed its customs, indicating that collapse was far from total.
Today ended with a successful result for our permission hearing. Given our efforts to include local researchers in our project and provide results that are of use to the National Park and to the people on the island, we were told our case was very good.
Yesterday, we went to the local museum. One panel reminded of a very striking feature of Easter Island's history. The local people had developed an integrated economy between roughly a dozen territorial clans/tribes that persisted for many centuries. Each clan's territory contained valuable resources -- one had the best beach for launching ocean-going canoes, another had obsidian for tools, another had the tuff used for carving moai (statues), while another had the scoria used for the topknots (hats) placed on moai. I've included a copy of Routledge's circa 1914 map of the political divisions on the island, even though it differs from later versions I've seen.
Looking from today's world, and integrated economy hardly seems unusual. In fact, that's the goal of globalisation. But remember that in Europe at the time (c 1200-1600 AD), the economy was far from integrated, and there were dozens of small and often warring kingdoms still amalgamating into nations. Effectively little trade occurred across borders in Europe, while Easter Island had clear evidence of strong trading. One reason for this may have been the role of the statue building culture in society. One question we have to ask is whether clear collapse of the statue building culture represented a true collapse of society. While evidence exists for warfare and violence, difficulty remains in determining if the collapse of the statue building culture coincided exactly with a complete societal collapse. It appears, for example, that the Birdman (Manu Tangaata) cult may have served as a new cultural basis for society. Clearly, there was some difficulty making the transition from an integrated economy based on statue building to a later one based on the Birdman cult.
This could be very similar to the rise of conflict and Fascism around the time of the Great Depression, a result that today's world leaders hope to avoid despite the seriousness of the current financial crisis. A crisis becomes increasingly serious as it moves from the loss of luxuries to the loss of basic needs, such as food. Ultimately, our project is trying to learn about whether fertility, food and population were at the root of a crisis causing the collapse of the integrated economy that existed here on Easter Island about four centuries ago.
The final member of our team is the technician in the Geography Department at Massey University, David Feek. David grew up in and around the Manawatu and landed himself in a "tech" job at Massey that has gone on for over two decades. David and John have worked together all over New Zealand and the Pacific, sampling various wetlands to obtain cores for pollen analysis and radiocarbon dating.
John reckoned that including David in the project was essential, and I see why. David has been a godsend for efficiently pulling together the gear to sample here despite airline baggage regulations. His best trick so far has been leaving a good stash of gear of on the island.
The other day we found it, minus a couple long rods that may have been separated from the rest due to their length.
We've been working on logistical and practical details that aren't very interesting to relate in a blog, so I'll take this time to tell you a bit about the 3 Kiwis that are here with me. In today's picture, John Flenley (left) and Mark Horrocks (right) are discussing the statue building quarry at Rano Raraku. Just over John's head, you can see the head of statue that was in the process of being carved, including the protruding nose and chin.
John is a Professor Emeritus from Massey University, and has been the leader in developing the vegetation history of Easter Island through pollen studies of crater sediments from the main three craters. He began this research with a visit to the island in 1977, and has visited repeatedly. It is John's work that confirmed forests once thrived on the island, and that the deforestation process was associated with human settlement. With Paul Bahn, he's also written one of the most useful books on Easter Island.
When I originally discussed this project with John, he put me immediately in touch with Mark, who takes over John's role of pollen analysis in this project. In addition to pollen, Mark specializes in starch grain microfossils, which provide a promising tool for understanding the extent of past agriculture. Mark lives in Auckland, and is associated with Auckland University, but organizes his research as small consultancy business specializing in microfossil analysis.
John and Mark are great team, and love discussing all aspects of botany. But I have to say, these long discussions about plants and pollen often exceed my attention span, and David's too.
Today, we descended from the rim to the bottom of Rano Kau crater. At the base of the path, we discussed past coring work in the lake. John Flenley has always been struck by the microclimate in the crater and its potential for agriculture. The wind protection offered by the tall walls (300m) and abundant water would have made it very useful for some forms of agriculture, despite the difficulty involved in descending and climbing back out. With our guide, Zoro, Mark and I began traversing the boulder-strewn lake shore.
Along the way, we found growing examples of many of the crops Polynesians brought to Easter Island: taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, ti (Tahitian cabbage tree), and paper mulberry. There were also a number of tree crops introduced by Europeans, including avocados and mangos. I wondered why I brought a lunch.
Part of the purpose of today's trip was to think about how we can collect cores that might tell us about past landslides and failures of the crater rim near Orongo, while still achieving the original goals of our research. We are hopeful that by collecting cores where we first descended, and directly underneath Orongo, we will be able to achieve both goals. The former is probably the best place to undertake agriculture, and therefore may have the most enduring record of agricultural activity. The area underneath the village of Orongo may be highly relevant to us because Orongo became the focus of activity after the "collapse".