Posts Tagged ‘easter island’

Moai and Mana: Dispatch 6 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is sixth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Easter Island

Easter Island’s moai were enspirited with mana, or power, that would flow to members of the ancestral tribe once eyes were added to the statues. A few years ago, the Rapa Nui council of elders decided to add eyes, not of coral, but of cement, to one of the statues so that people could view and take photographs of a completed moai. The image is striking and indeed awesome.

Patricia, so knowledgeable, anticipates our question. How come all the moai don’t have eyes? She tells us that since the eyes completed the representation, they were regarded as especially powerful. None have been found for the hundreds of statues found on the island. Hundreds of sets of eyes may have been buried—hidden away tfor protection at the time of island upheaval. Alternatively they could have been thrown into the sea—either to save them or destroy them.

The group hikes up to Orongo at the Rano Kau volcano, the edge of Easter Island, but the center of the birdman cult. You really feel like you are at the edge of the world, given the wide panorama of the ocean.

The spiritual belief of the birdman cult grew as the making of statues and the economy declined. Mana was still important, thought to come not from the moai, but from a designated “birdman.” Warriors from different tribes would compete in an annual contest. The goal was to swim out to a small islet where birds annually nested, collect the first egg, and then swim back across the channel, climb the cliff, and bring the egg back fully intact. Seeing the rough, rocky channel, one can appreciate the danger involved and the skill needed for the task. The winner was designated the “birdman;” his tribe would then be the ruling tribe for the year, and his chief the paramount chief of the island. The birdman himself would have to live in isolation for the year—as his power was too strong for his fellow humans.

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Meeting the Moai: Dispatch 5 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is fifth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Moai on Easter Island. Photo: Richard Kurin

Moai on Easter Island. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Easter Island

It is awe inspiring to see the moai of Easter Island, even if you have seen them before. Made of tuff—a compounded volcanic ash, these ancestor figures rise generally 15-40 feet high, backs to the ocean, with their somber, elegant gazes looking inland, to the people, society and land whose well-being they once assured through the transfer of their power or mana.

It is also a pleasure to see again world class anthropologists Claudio Cristino, Patricia Vargas and their colleague Edmundo Edwards. This group has been the one responsible for the research valued by other scholars and preservation of what most visitors to the island see. Faculty members at the University of Chile in Santiago, they have worked on the Island for over three decades, inventorying and mapping statues and pre-historical sites; digging for finds and dating ruins; analyzing data, formulating and weighing-in on theories of Rapa Nui’s settlement, cultural ecology and religion; recovering the island’s past; restoring various sites and also revitalizing the living culture. Great work! They presented their major findings at the Smithsonian last year and are working on another book to be simply titled, Easter Island.

Our group visited Anakena, a beach and site of the earliest moai dated by the team to about 900 A.D., and huddled under tents in the rain to enjoy local music and a scrumptious barbecue. We were then off to Ahu Tongariki, an impressive site of moai restored by Patricia and Claudio with Japanese support, and then to the quarry where the hundreds of statues were carved out of the rock of one of the island’s volcanoes.

Our colleagues—who knew and involved Thor Heyerdahl in their scholarly conferences—believe the scientific evidence is overwhelming that it was Polynesians, not ancient South Americans, who came by boat in relatively small numbers, but in successive voyages to settle the island. They ate birds, chickens, and pigs, and had ample fields for horticulture. Divided into tribes ruled by chiefs, each constructed the moai which when activated with coral eyes, represented exemplary ancestors. The population grew to somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000.

Droughts, conflicts between tribes, and the enormous effort involved in building the statues—in labor, the cutting of trees, the construction of roads—took its toll on the island economy. Believing themselves the only and last inhabitants on earth, they fought.

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