Home / News and Events / Blogs / Troy Baisden on Easter Island

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.

David Feek

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.

John Flenley and Mark Horrocks

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.

mysterious troy blog 1

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.

mysterious troy blog 2

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".

rakaru troy blog

CONAF has asked us to take a native guide with us each day. This serves two purposes. First, the guide will keep an eye on us and make sure we don't do anything we shouldn't -- there are so many archaeological artifacts and sites here, this is more useful than it may sound. Second, the guide knows the island extremely well. It was suggested that we take a guide named Zoro who has worked with scientists and archaeologists his whole life, going all the way back to William Malloy (still regarded as the greatest archaeologist to work here). I was briefly resistant to the idea of having a guide that doesn't speak hardly any English (because we speak hardly any Spanish), but amazingly we seem to understand each other very well because of his experience working with scientists. Nevertheless, I am making it a priority to try to learn some more Spanish as fast as possible.

Today we looked at Rano Aroi and other depressions on the largest mountain on the island. These depressions collect the sediments we want to bring back to the lab to analyse. The depressions here will help us understandithe highest elevation areas, which we think were the last to be deforested. Previously, work here has focused on the crater at Rano Aroi which has a large swamp. Unfortunately, there was an effort to clear away the upper meter of peat some years ago and previous results suggest that it may or may not still contain sediments that will give us the results we want. Luckily in several hours of walking, we found areas that appear likely to give us excellent records from the last 1000 years.

We then proceeded into the crater at Rano Raraku, where the moai (statues) were made. This site has proven most popular to core, for reasons that may be obvious from today's photo - be sure to note the moai in the background. With a lake sediment core, we look backward in time as we go down. In each layer of sediment from the lake, pollen, soil and all sorts of other biological and chemical markers tell us what the surrounding environment was like when that layer formed. So, it has proven possible to work back through time, identifying when the forest around the lake was cleared, and when massive statue building activity was underway, as well as when European introductions of trees and grasses occurred.

Luggage! In my excitement, I thought we should show off the rush tags placed on our lost luggage. These rush tags really work! It turned out that our luggage continued on from Tahiti to Los Angeles, and then was returned to us via Santiago, Chile within 26 hours of our arrival! I wonder if I can earn airpoints for that!?

I'll begin today with a bit more about collapse and history.Continuing backwards in time from Orongo, we move through the 'collapse' to the classic height of Rapa Nui culture. The eeriest element is the seemingly sudden abandonment of the culture, with evidence lying strewn around the landscape. Visiting the statue quarry at Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater composed of tuffs believed to be the best carving rock in Polynesia, one finds many nearly completed statues presumably waiting to be moved to ahu (alters), as well many statues still being carved. One behemoth would have weighed about 200 tonnes if it was completed, more than twice what any successfully erected statue weighed. It's fascinating to go directly from the statue quarry to Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on the island.From a travel perspective, the best and most surprising news of the day was the return of our luggage. Mark Horrocks and I made our way to the airport shortly after we heard the 11 am flight from Santiago arrive. We held relatively little hope, but since this is what we were told to do we tried to be optimistic. We couldn’t really see inside baggage claim, which is a controlled area even for flights from Chile. So we walked around the airport outside the security fence until we could see the backside of baggage claim. Within a few seconds, our spirits suddenly buoyed when I saw one of my duffels come around on the conveyor. Sure enough, they were all there. We still had to go the desk to claim them, and it turned out that they'd stayed on our Air Tahiti plane and gone on to Los Angeles, and somehow made the loop down through Santiago in outstanding time.

News wasn't all good though. First, we're still having trouble finding out more about the status of permission to do research. We came in the expectation that there could possibly be one hurdle left. I'll write more about that tomorrow. Plus David Feek and John Flenley left some coring gear on the island previously, but have been unable to locate the owner of the hotel (a native anthropologist) where it was left. Serious renovations appear to underway at the hotel, so it is possible the gear is buried or lost. If we can find it, this gear two rafts and some coring rods might save us a lot of time and expense. It seems hopeful and by the end of the day we heard the owner is on the island, so we'll try again tomorrow.

Ahu Tongariki is the largest set of restored moai statues. The ahu is of considerable interest from a natural hazards perspective. The entire set of moai were swept away by the tsunami resulting from the enormous 1960 magnitude 9.5 earthquake centred on the coast of Chile. They were restored to the ahu through the efforts of an enormous crane sent from Japan.
As I understand it, the moai at Rano Raraku represent the final stages of statue carving. Many are artistically distictive and convey considerable personality.
Around the statue quarry, dozens of nearly completed moai can be found. These moai presumably awaited movement to a distant ahu, possible across a distance of dozens of kilometers. We admired one moai still attached to its parent rock which was estimated to weigh 200 tonnes.
John Flenley contemplates collapse. Many statues were toppled purposefully to cause their necks or torsoes to break.
A statue lies face down at the Ranu Raraku quarry.

Today, we finally found the office where the local researchers are based. Once we found it, it seemed hard to believe it took us a day and half. But, it is a single room at the back of a hotel complex, and has no sign. Upon arriving, we found our contact on the island, Lili, and she brought us up to date on the details of our permissions.

There are many steps involved in getting permission to collect samples here, and we've essentially passed all of them except a native commission. Lili whisked us off immediately to talk with the local head of CONAF, the government agency that administrates national parks and forests. The local head of CONAF spoke little English, so Lili translated. She told us CONAF was very supportive of our work for a number of reasons -- including our interest in understanding the function and dynamics of ecosystems that existed on the island in the past. They hope to begin some restoration projects that will benefit from this understanding.

CONAF was also interested in whether we can help answer an emerging question about the risk that many of the petroglyphs at Orongo, including the one in my first photograph, might soon fall into the ocean. There appears to even be some risk for the entire Orongo site, if I understand correctly. We may be able to look into this by checking the lake sediments we collect for evidence of past landslides that reached the inside of the crater. If we can help answer this question, they believed it would also cement our case with the native commission. We agreed in principle to try to examine this in our work in the Rano Kau crater, and to provide advice on how they might construct further work to evaluate the stability of the Orongo site.

The upshot of all this is that our meeting with the native commission will be next Tuesday, and we can (in the meantime) begin detailed exploratory work to determine where on the landscape we will take samples. But we can't take any samples yet. Ultimately, we hope we've done the right thing by coming to see our permission through, and assuming we can start work. In many western countries, it would be best to have postpone our trip until we had permission. But we surmised that coming to press our case was the best approach for Rapa Nui where both the Chilean authorities and native people are involved in granting permission, and the process is a bit opaque (at least to us). Please wish us luck!

permission pending troy blog

For today's photo, I'm including a photo of moai on the ahu at Anakena. This is the best beach on the island, and the only one with significant dunes. It is where the first canoes landed, and is assumed to be the first settlement. The white coral sand makes a beautiful contrast against the dark volcanic rocks and red soils. Incidentally, the coconut palms in the back were planted relatively recently once a species was found that could flourish this far south -- the typical Polynesian varieties require more tropical temperatures. Soil-derived sediments accumulating in washes behind the dunes may be useful for our research, helping us to understand the first area settled.

Why are we doing this? What's this all about? The Marsden fund has supported our project to investigate the causes of a societal collapse on Easter Island. You can read the summary below, as well as our press release to learn more about the project and its possible relevance to contemporary concerns such as the global financial crisis. Since we wrote the proposal, it has become increasingly apparent that we also have to ask what is a "collapse", and is a "collapse" as bad as it sounds?

Project summary

In his book "Collapse", Jared Diamond highlights the spectacular and mysterious collapse of civilisation on Easter Island. Diamond outlines a number of factors leading to success or failure of civilisations. We have identified that one of these factors - fragile soils - allows us to hypothesise that Easter Islanders would have overshot the carrying capacity of their landscape, reaching maximum population as soil nutrient depletion caused declining crop yields. We propose isotope, biomarker and DNA approaches to reconstruct the biogeochemistry of collapse and thereby test whether the timing of nutrient depletion can answer the question: "Why did they cut down the last tree?"

Within dormant volcanic craters where settlement occurred, we will obtain carefully located cores to precisely resolve the timing of changes in plant, animal and human populations, as well as soil fertility. We will examine plant microfossils (e.g. pollen, starch grains), nitrogen isotopes, the DNA of native and introduced species, and steroid biomarkers derived from humans, animals (faeces) and plants. Plant microfossils from surrounding soils will define the extent of cropping. Collectively, the analyses will enable bio-geochemical modeling to help predict the future of societies around the world where we are stressing carrying capacity of landscapes.

petroglyph troy blog

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'.

Troy Baisden

Was Collapse Inevitable on Easter Island (Rapa Nui)? Reconstructing a Civilisation's Failure is a Marsden Programme Troy Baisden is involved in.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30