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.
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.