Easter Island: land of mystery
Part 3 of 4
Easter Island has at least 313 ceremonial platforms or ahu – open-air temple sanctuaries erected in honour of the gods and deified ancestors. A few were built inland but most are situated around the coast, usually at sheltered coves and areas favourable for human habitation, though a few are located on cliff edges. They are composed of a rubble core faced with masonry, for which no mortar was used. Seaward walls often consist of uncut stones, but sometimes they consist of precisely carved and fitted blocks. On the landward side was a ramp, paved with lines of beach boulders and sloping down to an artificially levelled plaza.
Some ahu are quite small, but others are remarkable pieces of massive communal engineering, 150 m (500 ft) or more long and up to 7 m (23 ft) high. Some required the moving of 300 to 500 tons of stone, while the Tahai complex comprised three structures requiring 23,000 cubic metres of rock and earth fill, weighing an estimated 2000 tons.
Fig. 6.1 Plan of an image platform.
Platforms served as social and religious centres, and also as boundary markers. A few platforms seem to have been built to contain burials, but this does not seem to have been the original function of the image platforms. No early skeletons have been discovered, whereas elaborate cremation pits have been found behind the central platform at many complexes, in contrast to the rest of central and eastern Polynesia, where cremation was not practised. At a later stage, bodies were interred in stone-lined tombs in the platforms and ramps. After the moai had been toppled, bodies were placed around the fallen moai or on other parts of ramps and then covered with stones. Semi-pyramidal platforms were the last type of ahu to be built: they were usually superimposed on the earlier, statue-bearing platforms, and seem to have been designed purely for burial purposes. Less than 75 are known, compared with more than 125 image platforms.
Some platforms seem to have been built in a single episode, but most image platforms show evidence of more than one construction phase, and some as many as eight. Based on radiocarbon dating, the earliest structure, at Tahai, is dated at 690 AD, though some archaeologists regard the association of the dated material with the structure as extremely doubtful.1 Platform building is generally believed to have become an obsession by 1200, and to have lasted until well into the 16th century.
The finest platform masonry, such as that found at Ahu Tahiri (one of the two ahu at Vinapu), consists of ‘enormous squared and tooled stones, that turn the edge of the toughest modern steel’.1 The best facade slabs commonly weigh 2 or 3 tons. At Vinapu one of the polished basalt slabs measures 2.5 by 1.7 m (8 by 5.5 ft) and weighs 6 or 7 tons, while one at Ahu Vai Mata is 3 by 2 m (10 by 6 ft), and weighs 9 or 10 tons.
The cyclopean masonry of Ahu Vinapu and certain other platforms is reminiscent of that of ‘Incan’ (or rather pre-Incan) monuments to be found at Cuzco, Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, and Sillustani in Peru. John Macmillan Brown writes:
The colossal blocks are tooled and cut so as to fit each other. In the Ahu Vinapu and in the fragment of the ahu near Hangaroa beach the stones are as colossal as in the old Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, they are as carefully tooled, and the irregularities of their sides that have to come together are so cut that the two faces exactly fit into each other. These blocks are too huge to have been shifted frequently to let the mason find out whether they fitted or not. They must have been cut and tooled to exact measurement or plan. There is no evidence of chipping after they have been laid. Every angle and projection must have been measured with scientific precision before the stones were nearing their finish.2
Fig. 6.2 The seaward wall at Ahu Tahiri, Vinapu, originally one course higher.
Fig. 6.3 Details of the seawall.
In Peru, megalithic masonry is found on a far vaster scale and the polygonal blocks often have far greater dimensions. On the basis of carbon dating, orthodox researchers claim that the accurate mortarless fitting of large polygonal blocks began in Peru after AD 1440, whereas Easter Island had similar dressed stonework before AD 1200 and therefore could not have been influenced by South America in this respect! However, there is not a scrap of hard evidence to support the claim that magnificent colossal structures like the ‘fortress’ at Sacsayhuaman just outside Cuzco were built by the Incas just a few hundred years ago. Although the Incas were excellent stone masons, they used small rectangular blocks, perfectly fitted. Layers of Incan masonry can often be seen on top of the earlier, larger, polygonal construction. For all anyone knows, the oldest, cyclopean masonry at Sacsayhuaman could be hundreds of thousands of years old!
Fig. 6.4 Part of the cyclopean fortress at Sacsayhuaman, Cuzco.
Fig. 6.5 Masonry similar to that at Vinapu can be found at Sillustani, near Lake Titicaca, Peru.
The practice of dating stone structures by carbon dating organic remains found in association with them can obviously lead to flawed results. The same method has been used to date the beginning of the classic construction phase at Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) to AD 800. But the fact that the site was inhabited at that time does not preclude the possibility that some of the original structures were built ages earlier.
There are signs of different stages of ahu construction at Vinapu. Detailed examinations during Heyerdahl’s first expedition led to the conclusion that ‘Vinapu 1’ or Tahiri (the structure with the classical stone masonry) belonged to the earliest building period (which in Heyerdahl’s view still meant the 8th century AD), contrary to all previous theories, and that the platform had twice been rebuilt and added to by far less capable architects. The modern orthodox view, however, is that Vinapu 1 dates to AD 1516, whereas Vinapu 2 – a structure displaying a rougher, typically east Polynesian facing of vertical slabs – is earlier (AD 857). So we’re supposed to believe that both the most outstanding masonry on the island and the shoddy semi-pyramidal platforms belong to the same late phase of the island’s history!
Fig. 6.6 Aerial view of fallen moai at Ahu Tahiri.3 (courtesy of John Flenley)
The official position is that all Easter Island’s platforms are simply variations of the marae platforms of central and eastern Polynesia, which were socio-religious centres and shrines to ancestral gods. Vinapu’s megalithic stone wall is said to bear only a superficial resemblance to the classic ‘Incan’ masonry because, unlike the solid block construction used in Peru, the Easter Island walls are merely a facing of slabs that mask a rubble core.
However, there are also striking similarities with the pre-Incan Andean style of masonry. Each slab is convex or pillow-shaped, with slightly bevelled edges, and stones with projecting edges are fitted into stones with receding edges. The blocks are irregularly shaped, fit together with the utmost precision, and small holes or chinks are filled with perfectly fitted stones. A block in one corner of the Vinapu wall has a projecting knob – just like many large blocks in Peru. The corners of the seawall are rounded, and its entire face is in fact slightly convex, again as in the Andes. Prof. Camila Laureani, a connoisseur of Tiwanaku- and ‘Inca’-type masonry writes: ‘Ahu Vinapu is an architectonic construction which combines the essential characteristics of the structures in the Altiplano of Peru-Bolivia in a manner so evident that one cannot doubt the arrival on the island of a contingent of these people.’4
|Fig. 6.7 Megalithic seawall of Ahu Tepeu.|
In addition to Ahu Tahiri, many other platforms have perfectly-fitted stone masonry, such as the 3-m-high seawalls of Ahu Tepeu and Ahu Vai Mata. The outer surface of the upright stones in the latter two ahu, like that of the slabs used in Ahu Tahiri, is pillow-shaped. Captain Cook was particularly impressed by the huge wall of perfectly dressed megaliths at Hanga Roa, which he compared to the wall at Vinapu. Although no cement was used, the joints were exceedingly tight, with enormous stones mortised and tenoned into one another.5 The wall was unfortunately destroyed by European settlers in a futile attempt to build a harbour.
Fig 6.8 Huge stones in the seawall of Ahu Vai Mata, 2.8 m high and 69 m long.
William J. Thomson, who spent 12 days on the island in 1886, described an ahu with a record number of 16 fallen statues that lay on an inaccessible terrace halfway up the cliffs east of Rano Kao, but it later fell into the sea. On the high plateau of the north coast Thomson’s party saw another ahu, known as Ahu Oahu, that later suffered the same fate. His drawing of this ahu shows the same masonry technique admired by Captain Cook’s party in Hanga Roa and Vinapu. Another impressive platform stood nearby.6
Fig. 6.9 Drawing of Ahu Oahu. The central stone weighed an estimated 6 tons. The upper row of stones has been turned over sideways to make a firm support for a later statue.
Cut stone blocks of megalithic proportions are found scattered around at Anakena, and are also found in the Ahu Nau Nau platform there, though they are not perfectly fitted. This suggests that another, superior platform used to exist there, which has been dismantled.
Fig 6.10 The seawall of Ahu Nau Nau shows at least six stages of construction.
Note the inclusion of a moai head.
During Heyerdahl’s expedition in 1987, excavations were carried out on the landward side of Ahu Nau Nau. A neatly fitted pavement made of boulders was found 7 ft below the surface. Three feet below it, a layer of soil full of human refuse was found, which was radiocarbon dated to AD 850. Trenches sunk along the landward side also uncovered a beautiful wall of megalithic slabs, perfectly hewn and fitted. According to Heyerdahl, this type of masonry
was unmistakably an Early Period product that had been buried in silt before the Middle Period ahu was erected. A closer inspection proved that these fine slabs had been part of an even older structure originally existing elsewhere, one that had been dismantled by man or destroyed by nature. The slabs had been dragged to this place from another site, and although perfectly polished and joined in the original wall, they had then been reworked to fit them together according to another plan.
This discovery demolished the popular theory that such walls had appeared at a late stage on Easter Island and represented the high peak of local evolution due to the lack of timber. This buried wall was clearly older than the Middle Period walls visible above ground. Nothing like it has been found on a single island in the whole of Polynesia, but it is typical of the megalithic walls of South America.7
Heyerdahl adds that the widespread belief that the splendid walls in Peru date from the late Inca period has been disproved, and that the Incas learned the craft of masonry from their predecessors in Tiwanaku. Excavations of the earth-covered pyramidal mound at Akapana in Tiwanaku have shown it to be a terraced pyramid from long before the age of the Incas. It is faced with accurately hewn and artistically jointed blocks, just as on Easter Island.
Fig. 6.11 Megalithic walls at Anakena (above) and Tiwanaku (below).
Around 20 ahu appear to have been oriented astronomically, so that the moai faced the rising or setting sun at the solstices or equinoxes. The inland ahu with astronomical orientation are generally linked with the solstices, especially the winter solstice, though the moai of Ahu Akivi face the setting sun at the equinoxes. Astronomically oriented ahu along the coast tend to be positioned so that the moai look straight east or west. This is true of Ahu Tahiri (Vinapu 1), whereas Ahu Vinapu 2 marks the summer solstice.1
Fig. 6.12 Ahu Akivi was one of the few platforms built inland. Its seven hatless moai stand about 16 ft tall and weigh about 18 tons each.
Graham Hancock points out that Ra, the name of the Egyptian sun god, appears frequently in connection with Easter Island’s sacred architecture, its mythical past, and its cosmology. Raa means ‘sun’ in the island’s language. There were clans called Raa, Hitti-ra (sunrise), and Ura-o-Hehe (red setting sun), the crater lakes are named Rano Kao, Rano Aroi, and Rano Raraku, and Ahu Ra’ai was aligned to two volcanic peaks to act as a marker and observatory for the path of the sun on the December solstice.2
Traditions state that ages ago there existed on the island a brotherhood of ‘learned men who studied the sky’, the tangata rani. Katherine Routledge was taken to a northwest facing cave near Ahu Tahi and told it had been ‘a place where priests taught constellations and the ways of the stars to apprentices’. Near the eastern extremity of the Poike headland she was shown a large flat rock called papa ui hetu’u, or ‘rock where they watched the stars’, incised with a spiral design. Nearby there is another engraved stone on which 10 cup-shaped depressions are visible, which are said to have represented a star map.3
At Orongo, on the edge of Rano Kau crater, there are four small holes pecked through the bedrock just beside an ahu. Detailed observations at the solstices and equinoxes showed that the four holes constituted a sun-observation device. The season for the summer paina ceremony honouring the dead depended on the position of the three stars of Orion’s Belt.
Hare paenga are long, narrow houses resembling an upturned canoe, with a single narrow doorway in the middle of one side. The foundation stones of these elliptical houses were made of cut basalt. To make the pointed ends the right shape, the blocks had to be hewn to the correct curvature. The stones measure 0.5 to 2.5 m long, 20 or 30 cm wide, and at least 50 cm high; the largest weigh up to 10 tons. Small holes were bored in their upper surfaces, into which the islanders inserted thin branches to support the arched reed roof. The dwellings varied enormously in size; some could house more than 100 people, but others only half a dozen.
Fig. 6.13 Hare-paenga foundations.
The foundation stones must date to an early period of the island’s history, since they were often reused in later platform walls (they can be seen stacked on Ahu Tepeu, fig. 6.7). Thor Heyerdahl mentions that the excavation of the pre-Inca image platforms at Tiwanaku has uncovered stones remarkably like the paenga of Easter Island (fig. 6.13). We do not know what they were originally used for, only that they were reused in walls of a later period.1
Fig. 6.14 Tiwanaku.
But were the paenga stones originally intended for the foundations of thatched houses? As John Macmillan Brown said: ‘The timbers of their houses look ridiculous alongside the cyclopean stone-foundations, into the small holes in which they were stuck.’ The stones are of the hardest basalt, tooled to perfection, and ‘were evidently intended by their original architects to bear the framework of great structures’. He also says: ‘It is difficult to understand how they bored the inch-deep holes for the wooden posts in the adamantine basalt of the foundation stones.’2
During Heyerdahl’s excavations at Ahu Nau Nau, an enormous, stone-lined, boat-shaped enclosure immediately to the landward side was discovered. Although archaeologists assume that all such structures are the foundations of boat-shaped houses, some traditions refer to them as ‘boats of bones’ and associate them with a builder-god named Nuku Kehu who came to Easter Island with Hotu Matua. There are also seven boat-shaped platforms known as ahu poepoe, which were used as tombs. The best example, 21 m long and 4 m high, with the bow elevated over a metre above the stern, lies just west of Anakena close to the ocean, ‘as if it were ready’, comments Father Sabastian Englert, ‘to carry its deceased passengers to some far away coast’.
Graham Hancock says that the ahu poepoe and the ‘boat house’ foundations are reminiscent of the ‘boat graves’ associated with pyramids and tombs in ancient Egypt – which might be stone or brick replicas of boats or full-sized sailing vessels. The ancient Egyptian funerary and rebirth texts describe the souls of deceased kings passing between earth and heaven in such boats. An Easter Island legend about the god-king Hotu Matua says: ‘He came down from heaven to earth ... He came in the ship ...’3
Other noteworthy examples of exquisite craftsmanship are popoi pounders which, says Heyerdahl, ‘were so perfectly formed and balanced, with the slender lines, graceful curves and high polish that our engineers refused to believe that such work was possible without the modern lathe’. He also mentions examples of exquisitely fashioned basalt fish hooks, which the first European explorers never saw being used and which the natives refused to part with.4 These have not been found on other Polynesian islands.
Fig. 6.15 Basalt fish hook.
The basalt mystery
To carve the moai statues, huge amounts of rock had to be hacked away around each one of them. In theory, this work could have been done using the basalt picks that have been found in abundance at the Rano Raraku quarry – though no one in modern times has felt like demonstrating how a complete statue can be carved by such arduous and primitive means. The possibility that more advanced tools and methods were used at certain times for some of this immense labour cannot be ruled out.
Fig. 6.16 Is this how all the carving was done?1
Although the platforms are mainly composed of unworked basalt blocks, many have retaining walls made of skilfully cut and fitted blocks. Carving these slabs would have been a tremendous undertaking, and this also applies to the shaping and boring of the basalt hare-paenga foundation blocks, the carving of basalt statues, the cutting away of basalt to make the roads, and the carving of several thousand petroglyphs in relief on tough basalt rock. The working of basalt poses problems of an altogether different magnitude than the softer volcanic rock found at Rano Raraku. What tools were used for this purpose? And have any experiments been conducted to test the proposed methods, as in the case of statue carving, raising, and transportation?
John Flenley and Paul Bahn argue that although there are still plenty of ‘intriguing questions’ to be answered about Easter Island, there are no genuine mysteries, though that doesn’t stop them entitling their book: The Enigmas of Easter Island. Interestingly, the problem of working basalt does not merit a single mention anywhere in their informative but conservative book! When asked by email how the basalt was cut, John Flenley said he had no idea, and Paul Bahn replied: ‘a good question, and one which, I think, has never really been tried out with experiments. Obviously the basalt can only have been worked with stone of equal or greater hardness, which can only mean basalt from the island.’2
But as Macmillan Brown pointed out, most ahu blocks are ‘of a vesicular basalt that European masons would find hard to work even with tools toughened by admixture of the rare metals’. Believing however that the masons had nothing but clumsy stone tools at their disposal, he says that each of the scores of immense shaped stones, weighing from 2 to 20 tons, ‘must have taken a workman with his stone implements, aided by sand and water, years to cut and groove’.3 It seems unlikely, though, that such skilled work would have been undertaken with such patently inadequate tools. The reason no one has ever conducted any experiments to see whether basalt can be precision-cut using basalt tools is very simple: no one is dumb enough to even try!
The Poike ditch is a deep and possibly entirely artificial ditch separating the eastern headland from the rest of the island. Although largely filled with silt today, it has a rectangular bottom, 3.7 m deep, about 12.2 m wide, and is about 3.5 km long. The tough basaltic rock removed could easily have supplied building blocks for all the platforms on the island with cyclopean masonry. Ahu Tahiri, Ahu Tongariki, and many more platforms were constructed from blocks of black basalt of a similar type. The ditch was a considerable feat of excavation, and is unlikely to have been chipped out with small basalt picks!
After the initial excavation of the lower trench through the lava flow, a considerable period appears to have elapsed during which a layer of inwash from the surrounding area, at least 1.8 m thick, accumulated in the ditch. There is evidence that some time after the original cutting, partial reexcavation took place, but exactly when is unclear. Carbon dates obtained so far do not tell us when the trench was first excavated, only that it could have been no later than 200 AD – and possibly ages earlier.4
- José Miguel Ramírez and Carlos Huber, Easter Island: Rapa Nui, a land of rocky dreams, Alvimpress Impresores, 2000, p. 25.
- John Macmillan Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited, 1996 (1924), p. 1.
- Ibid., pp. 257-8.
- John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, plate xiii.
- Quoted in Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, New York: Random House, 1989, pp. 230-1.
- Ibid., pp. 43-4.
- Ibid., pp. 105-7.
- Ibid., pp. 230, 233.
- Ramírez and Huber, Easter Island, pp. 53, 110.
- Graham Hancock and Santha Faiia, Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the lost civilization, London: Michael Joseph, 1998, p. 242.
- Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1998 (1919), p. 235.
- Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, pp. 56-7.
- Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, pp. 162, 241.
- Hancock and Faiia, Heaven’s Mirror, p. 233.
- Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The secret of Easter Island, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1958, p. 340; Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 114.
The basalt mystery
- Catherine and Michel Orliac, The Silent Gods: Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, pp. 6-7.
- Emails of 24 May 2004.
- Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, p. 2.
- Christian and Barbara Joy O’Brien, The Shining Ones, Kemble, Cirencester: Dianthus Publishing, 1997, p. 518.
Even orthodox researchers have to admit that the Easter Island script – Rongorongo – constitutes a genuine enigma. Rongorongo now survives only as markings on 25 pieces of wood scattered around the world’s museums, though other tablets might still be hidden in the island’s sacred family caves. Some signs also survive on paper in makeshift ‘books’ from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The glyphs contain about 120 basic elements – human figures in a variety of positions, birds, animals, plants, celestial objects, and geometrical shapes – but these are combined to form between 1500 and 2000 compound signs. Many of the motifs are also found in the island’s rock art, but none are found on any statues or platforms.
The writing was inscribed on the rongorongo boards in neat rows a centimetre high. Alternate lines are written upside down, with the end of one line running into the beginning of the next – a system known as boustrophedon (‘as the ox ploughs’). This means that, starting from the bottom lefthand corner of a tablet, the writing proceeds from left to right but at the end of each line the tablet has to be turned round.
The precise nature of the rongorongo script is uncertain. The prevailing view today is that
the motifs represent a rudimentary phonetic writing system, in which picture symbols were used to express ideas as well as objects. In other words, the individual glyphs do not represent an alphabet or even syllables, as in other scripts, but are ‘cue cards’ for whole words or ideas, plus a means of keeping count, like rosary beads. Each sign was a peg on which to hang a large amount of text committed to memory.1
According to legend, Hoto Matua brought 67 rongorongo tablets with him containing traditions, genealogical tables, and other records of the past, and he was accompanied by learned men who knew the art of writing and reciting the inscriptions. Some researchers have argued that the rongorongo script is not ancient but was invented by the islanders after the Spanish visit in 1770, when a written proclamation of annexation was offered to the chiefs and priests for them to sign. Some of the symbols used by the natives in signing the proclamation resembled the rongorongo hieroglyphs. We’re supposed to believe that the rest of the script was invented later! It’s possible that all the existing rongorongo tablets are no more than a few hundred years old; one, for instance, consists of a European oar. But the inscriptions could have been copied from earlier specimens.
The last truly literate islanders died either as a result of the 1862 slave raid or the subsequent smallpox epidemic. Natives who later claimed to be able to read Rongorongo appeared to be either reciting memorized texts or merely describing the figures rather than actually reading them, and sometimes gave different renderings of the same text. The script has still not been deciphered, despite claims to have done so. In 1995, for example, Steven Fischer announced that most of the tablets were religious chants taking the form: god A copulated with goddess B begetting a particular animal, plant, or natural phenomenon. However, his claims to have deciphered the script have been roundly attacked by other researchers.2
Thor Heyerdahl argued that Rongorongo was related to several South American scripts. He mentioned the pictographic writing of the Cuna Indians of Panama and northwest Colombia, who recorded songs by painting on wooden tablets. Some of the symbols are identical with those of Easter Island, and the script was written in boustrophedon style. The writing systems found among early historical (post-Columbian) Aymara and Quechua tribes of the Lake Titicaca area also used boustrophedon. Even the Incas reportedly had a writing system: their history was recorded on ‘boards’, which were passed down through the generations of rulers and guarded by learned men.3 The Spaniards found some stored in the Temple of the Sun and burned them, being more interested in the gold frames.
Conventional researchers believe that the rongorongo script is Polynesian, with its signs reflecting the local environment and culture. They acknowledge that boustrophedon was used in Peru but say that there is no affinity between the signs used in the two places, though there might have been some influence in either direction. Some see far more significant similarities between certain rongorongo motifs and designs employed in the Solomon Islands in Melanesia, though a direct migration from there to Easter Island is no longer considered tenable. Rongorongo specialist Thomas Barthel speculated that the script originated on the Polynesian islands of Huahine or Raiatea and he believed it came to Rapa Nui with Hotu Matua.
Putting modern preconceptions aside, Rongorongo may reflect a variety of influences. In the 1930s Guillaume de Hevesy identified similarities between the rongorongo signs and 130 signs used in the at least 4500-year-old script found in the towns of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley. The orthodox view is that any similarities have been exaggerated and are purely coincidental.4 The Indus Valley script was usually written from right to left, but there are a few early cases of boustrophedon. (Some Etruscan and Hittite texts are also written in boustrophedon style, as are some Greek ones from about the 6th century BC.)
The seals used in the Indus Valley were made of soapstone. It is noteworthy that one Easter Island legend says: ‘The first race invented the Rongo-Rongo writing: they wrote it on stone. Of the four parts of the world that were at one time inhabited by the first race, it is only in Asia that this writing still exists.’5 Interestingly, Mohenjo Daro and Easter Island lie almost exactly 180° apart: the former is situated at 27°23'N and about 69°E and the latter at 27°08'S and 109°23'W.
Other writers have pointed to resemblances between rongorongo signs and about 40 archaic Chinese ideographs, mostly dating from before the 8th century BC. Jean-Michel Schwartz asserts that there are resemblances not only in the form of the characters, but also in their meanings.7
Three symbols of knowledge:
Rongorongo is often said to be the first script to be found in Oceania. However, in 1913 John Macmillan Brown found a script of some 60 characters on Woleai Atoll in the Caroline Islands (fig. 7.4).8 Whereas the Easter Island script is largely ideographic, the Woleai script was syllabic, but unlike any other in the world. It was used by the young chief of the island and was known only to five people on it, though it was also in use on Faraulep, a small island about 160 km to the northeast. In 1908 an expedition to Faraulep collected a number of symbols forming part of a counting system. The numbers ranged from 100,000 to 60 million and would have had no use in daily life. It seems unlikely that the Woleai script originated on a small isolated island.
Also worthy of mention are the pictographs that have long been known in the Chatham Islands east of New Zealand. They may have been related to some writing system, and were said by natives to have long predated the Morioris, the island’s early Polynesian inhabitants.
- John Flenley and Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 187.
- Jacques B.M. Guy, ‘The Easter Island tablets’, www.netaxs.com/~trance/rongo2.html; www.rongorongo.org.
- Graeme R. Kearsley, Mayan Genesis: South Asian myths, migrations and iconography in Mesoamerica, London: Yelsraek Publishing, 2001, pp. 536-7.
- W.R. Corliss (comp.), Ancient Man: A handbook of puzzling artifacts, Glen Arm, MD: Sourcebook Project, 1978, pp. 616-9.
- Francis Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Collins, 1969, p. 207.
- Jean-Michel Schwartz, The Mysteries of Easter Island, New York: Avon, 1975, p. 164.
- Ibid., pp. 93-9, 179, 181.
- John Macmillan Brown, The Riddle of the Pacific, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited, 1996 (1924), pp. 52-3, 84.
Radiocarbon dating shows that Easter Island was inhabited by 690 AD, and possibly by the 4th century. This fits in with the tradition that there had been 57 generations of kings since Hotu Matua; allowing an average of 25 years per generation, this takes us back to 450 AD. Some archaeologists suspect that the island must have been settled several centuries earlier. There is of course no evidence – only theories and assumptions – to rule out the possibility that the island was inhabited millennia before this; as mentioned in section 2, some native traditions point to pre-Polynesian settlement. However if ‘unacceptably’ early carbon dates were obtained they would most likely be dismissed as ‘contaminated’.
As already explained, the standard view is that Polynesians discovered Easter Island by chance and that after its initial colonization it was not visited by anyone else until the Europeans began to arrive in the early 18th century. Archaeologist José Miguel Ramírez, however, holds that the variety of vegetal species introduced by the initial settlers shows that a systematic, planned colonization was involved, and adds: ‘It would also not be logical to hold that this amounted to a single contact with the people involved, who thereafter remained in absolute isolation until historical times.’1
Thor Heyerdahl argued that the island was originally settled by South Americans, and centuries later by Polynesians (though probably brought there by South Americans). As shown in section 3, the evidence is ambiguous but is certainly consistent with some sort of South American influence alongside the prevalent Polynesian influence. The island could have received settlers or visitors from both east and west on many occasions. There is clear evidence of different phases of development in statue carving and platform construction, and the insistence that all the archaeological remains must be crammed into a history spanning just 1500 years is theory-driven. The rongorongo phenomenon is also difficult to fit into conventional theories about Easter Island.
A great deal of excavation work still needs to be done. At Anakena the present surface of the sandy plains lies 4 m above the bedrock. At Rano Raraku the ground on which the giant statues were set up is often 6 m below the present surface. As Heyerdahl says: ‘Nobody could tell what kind of monuments and information a coat of soil as high as a house might still conceal.’2 Francis Mazière put it in a nutshell: ‘The ground of this island will have to be dug deep to discover the true beginnings ...’3
All Easter Island’s giant statues were supposedly made within the space of a few hundred years. Different phases are clearly discernible, and may be separated by far longer periods than orthodox opinion allows. It is significant that the statues do not bear the slightest resemblance to the Polynesians, and in terms of size, appearance, and number are unique in the Pacific.
In addition to the famous stone giants, there are smaller statues, between about 1 and 2 metres tall, with more rounded and naturalistically-shaped heads that were never designed to wear topknots. They have short faces and deep eye cavities, and none have long ears. They are made of red tuff, black basalt, or the yellowish-grey Rano Raraku stone. They have little in common with the giant statues except that they usually hold their hands on their stomachs with their fingers pointing towards one another. These are generally thought to be oldest carvings on the island, and to have preceded the Rano Raraku figures, as some have been found buried beneath thick layers of earth, and also built into later platforms. However, some of them appear to be recarved fragments of Rano Raraku tuff that used to be statues of the classical type. So some may be ‘early’ and others ‘late’.
The average height of the platform statues is 4 m (13 ft), whereas that of those not on platforms is 6 m (20 ft). It is usually argued that the tallest of the giant statues were the last to be made, as these are still found at the quarry. But some or all of these may date from another, earlier era altogether, and may not have been intended to be taken to the island’s platforms. There are in fact striking differences between the statues at Rano Raraku and those that once stood on the platforms around the coast. As several writers have remarked, the latter seem to be later: the general appearance remained the same but degeneration had set in: their features are less harsh, their arms and hands are atrophied, they no longer have the slender delicacy of the first statues, and they sometimes have no symbols on their backs.
Fig. 8.1 Statues on Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena, restored in 1978.
Pierre Loti, who visited Easter Island in 1872, assigned the statues standing at Rano Raraku to a very early period.
They are the work of less childish artists who knew how to give them an expression. They frighten. ... What human race do they represent, with their pointed noses and their thin lips that show a pout of disdain or mockery? ... According to the tradition conserved by the old people they were earlier than the arrival of their own ancestors. The migrants from Polynesia ... found the island deserted, guarded only by these monstrous visages. ... Gnawed by lichens they seem to have the patina of fifty centuries like our celtic menhirs.1
Fig. 8.2 One of the early, purest statues on the outer slope of Rano Raraku.
Francis Mazière, too, distinguishes between two periods of sculpture. He believed that many of the statues at Rano Raraku, including nearly all the raised statues at the foot of the volcano, belonged to the first period. During a huge excavation at Rano Raraku, he uncovered two 10-m statues, undamaged by erosion, which were completely white and very highly polished. The wings of the nose and the trace of the muscles in the upper lip were handled with striking delicacy and technical skill. Their elegant hands, joined at the height of the navel, in a meditating posture, ended in prodigiously long, tapering nails. The top of their heads was very narrow and clearly not designed for a cylindrical red hat. More such statues were subsequently uncovered.
There are also marked differences among the Rano Raraku statues themselves: in general, the statues inside the crater are smaller and less carefully made than those on the outer slope. Mazière wrote that on the outer slope ‘the great majority of the sculptures are very highly finished, whereas those on the crater side are decadent – much coarser: they are the work of another set of people altogether’. He said that the statues on the inner side of the volcano were of ‘commonplace technique’ and ‘commonplace stone’ – ‘debased copies’ of the outer-slope statues.2
Fig. 8.3 Statues on the inner slope (above) and outer slope (below) of Rano Raraku.
Mazière wondered why the lower statues on the outer slope were covered with rubble and earth, while for over 60 m above them lay other figures, free from the rock and ready to leave their hollows.
Either the men had begun by cutting into the cliff at the top and had brought the statues down the slope, in which case the lower statues were inexplicable. Or they had started at the bottom, in which case why had they not taken away the statues that we had just discovered, why was each not taken away as it was finished and ready to go?
A more thorough analysis showed us that all the statues carved at the top of the cliff – and this applied to the whole rim – were far less carefully made and above all were cut out of a distinctly poorer stone. They belonged to the second period.
This tended to strengthen our opinion: there had indeed been two periods, two migrations, and in between the quarry had been abandoned for years and years. During this time erosion covered the first series of overlapping statues that began at the foot of the cliff. The second migration, seeing the standing giants, took over that splendid art, changing and debasing it. The newcomers built the ahu, and by a curious anomaly they set up these adopted gods on their platforms, in the Polynesian manner.3
But perhaps there have been more than just two migrations and two periods of carving. And why assume that the Polynesians were the first inhabitants of Oceania to set up statues on platforms?
If the statues at Rano Raraku were carved at different periods, then the fact that unfinished statues lie all over the inner and outer slopes would mean that work came to a sudden end more than once, indicating that history does indeed repeat itself.
Dating the statues and platforms
During excavations at Rano Raraku, Katherine Routledge noted that thin lines of charcoal, resulting from grass or brushwood fires, were found at various depths and marked old land surfaces, subsequently covered by later landslips. These successive descents of earth and debris made it virtually impossible to apply stratigraphic dating, which is based on the principle: the deeper the layer, the older it is.
Heyerdahl’s belief that the finest statues were carved and erected on platforms during the ‘middle period’ was partly based on his interpretation of radiocarbon dates of 1467 and 1206 for two charcoal samples from mounds of quarry cuttings on the flanks of Rano Raraku. However, as geologist Christian O’Brien points out, a section through the mound ‘shows clear evidence of land slip formation with some added dumping of coarse stone debris’. He thought it quite conceivable that charcoal from a fire which occurred in the mid-19th century, by reason of one earth tremor, could have been buried deep beneath stone-chippings from an age a thousand years earlier. He concludes that the erect statues were in place when the charcoal was formed from which the samples were taken: ‘Their carving, then, pre-dates 1476 A.D. ± 100 years, and this is the only deduction that can be made from the evidence.’ He says that to work out by how much requires an examination of the state of preservation of the statues and platforms.1
Many statues are severely weathered and others far less so. This does not automatically prove that they were produced over a long timespan since the volcanic tuff from which they are carved is of uneven quality. As already mentioned, the rock of which some statues are made is extremely hard: one statue was struck with a hoe which rebounded in a shower of sparks. Referring to the statues standing at the foot of the volcano, Mazière wrote:
How long have they stood there? And why are some of them carved from a different stone, one unweathered by the wind? For there they are, unchanged by rain, wind or sand, while others are eaten away and covered with moss. The natives say, ‘The ones lichen does not grow on are still alive.’ And perhaps this is true, as it is for many objects that are called magical because they receive vibrations and retain them.2
One of the statues at Rano Raraku bears a carving of a ship, which is crudely executed and clearly a piece of later graffiti (fig. 8.4). Heyerdahl found the top of the masts above the then ground surface, while the rest of the carving was buried below it. O’Brien points out that the weathered parts of the masts are only marginally less clear than the parts of the masts which had been buried – probably for at least 400 years. He concludes that, if this is a measure of the weathering that has taken place over 400 years, the deep and extensive weathering of the head must have taken considerably longer, perhaps 2000 years or more.
Hard sandstone and limestone, blocks and statues, in other parts of the world, have survived for millennia with no more weathering than the better Easter Island statues, and those made from igneous rock have survived far longer with scarcely a change. ...
Knowing the composition and state of preservation of the cyclopean blocks at the Greek sites of Mycenae and Tiryns, which are 4000 years old, and have been exposed to a climate not greatly different from that at Easter Island, we could not contemplate any age range less widely spread than 3000 B.C. to 500 A.D. for both the earliest ahu and the statues.3
Even this estimate may yet turn out be extremely conservative.
A further clue to the chronology of Rano Raraku is the fact that since the earliest statues were carved, a layer of debris, eroded soil, and wind-blown dust 6 m or more thick has accumulated, burying the raised statues at the foot of the slope up to their necks. Nearby there are smaller statues lying on the surface, which must clearly date from a far later time. During the carving process and immediately after work was abandoned (which appears to have happened more than once), there would have been no protective, stabilizing vegetation cover at worked areas of the slope. Since charcoal layers indicate several former vegetation-covered land surfaces, the enormous volume of soil and debris around the statues does not seem to have accumulated before vegetation had taken hold. Once this had happened, subsequent changes in ground level would have proceeded very slowly, except as a result of earth tremors and very severe rainfall; during the past 150 years hardly any silt from the quarry uphill has been deposited. Careful study of the degree of erosion at different heights of upright statues could shed more light on this matter.
As regards the platforms, Heyerdahl assigned the initial construction of the finest ahus to the ‘early period’ (pre-400 AD to c. 1100 AD). However, the workmanship displayed at Vinapu and other ‘early’ platforms stands in marked contrast to the inferior statues that he assigned to the same period. In Heyerdahl’s view, the platform masonry of the ‘middle period’ shows neither the technical perfection nor the artistry of the earlier masons. The main aim was to create strong platforms capable of supporting ever taller and heavier statues, in the quickest and most practical way possible. But again there is an incongruity in his position, because although the platform builders of the middle period used small, easily moved and usually uncut stone, ‘their work with statue bases, statues, and topknots shows skill and willingness to handle large stones at least equal to that of the Early Period’.4
The orthodox position is that the finest masonry dates from the latter part of the ‘middle period’ (1100-1680). However, the shoddy semi-pyramidal platforms were certainly a very late development, and it is highly unlikely that the finest platform masonry dates from the same period. Even with metal tools the very precise cutting of such tough basalt would have been a tremendous achievement, and the later natives are not known to have had any metal tools.
It is quite clear that a great many platforms have been rebuilt and modified several times. This applies, for example, to the platform at Anakena, and the evidence suggests that earlier finely carved blocks were fitted together less precisely in later versions of it. The megalithic wall found during Heyerdahl’s excavations at Anakena also predates the present platform, and its beautifully hewn slabs appear to have originally been part of an older and finer structure. Given the toughness of the basalt used to build the platforms (which poses major problems that conservative researchers simply ignore), the oldest parts of the ahus could have stood for countless millennia without suffering serious weathering. If the earliest statues and platforms were in fact the most skilfully made, this raises the question of where the unknown sculptors and builders learned their craft.
The Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island were certainly capable of building large structures with uncut basalt rocks or rebuilding structures from older cut blocks, but there is no solid evidence that they had the means to precisely cut large basalt blocks themselves. As already noted, the basalt hare-paenga foundation stones and basalt statues, which were sometimes built into later platforms, may also belong to a very early period. As regards the carving, moving, and raising of gigantic statues made of volcanic tuff, we have no way of knowing for certain what the early Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island were capable of. But much of the work currently attributed to them may belong to long bygone ages.
Conventional researchers proclaim that it is ‘insulting’ and even ‘racist’ to suggest that the Polynesian ancestors of the present islanders were not responsible for all the archaeological wonders we admire today. But emotive name-calling hardly amounts to a rational argument!
It is commonly said that no volcanic activity has taken place during the human occupation of Easter Island, since the island’s folklore contains no references to this phenomenon. However, during the Chilean expedition of March 1936, some islanders did in fact relate a legend that an ancient race had been wiped out by a cataclysmic eruption of two sacred volcanoes.5 Geologists think a minor volcanic eruption may have taken place only 12,000 years ago, but there have been many large-scale eruptions over the past few hundred thousand years.
H.P. Blavatsky describes Easter Island as a portion of a submerged Pacific continent.1 According to theosophy, the main portions of the ancient continental systems of Lemuria and Atlantis sank many millions of years ago (in the late Mesozoic and early to mid-Cenozoic respectively), but remnants of various sizes are said to have continued to exist for a long time afterwards. For instance, Ruta, a large island in the Pacific Ocean, was destroyed between 850 and 700 thousand years ago, and Daitya, a fairly large island in the Indian Ocean, sank about 270 thousand years ago. The last remaining ‘Atlantean’ island of noteworthy magnitude, Poseidonis, about the size of Ireland, which was situated in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, was submerged in a great cataclysm in 9565 BC.2
Thus the fact that Blavatsky links Easter Island’s civilization with both the Lemurians and Atlanteans does not mean that its present archaeological remains must be millions of years old! As well as saying that the Easter Island statues represent the last descendants of the Lemurian race,3 she writes:
The Easter Island relics are ... the most astounding and eloquent memorials of the primeval giants. They are as grand as they are mysterious; and one has but to examine the heads of the colossal statues, that have remained unbroken on that island, to recognise in them at a glance the features of the type and character attributed to the Fourth Race giants. They seem of one cast though different in features – that of a distinctly sensual type, such as the Atlanteans (the Daityas and ‘Atlantians’) are represented to have in the esoteric Hindu books.4
One of the stanzas of Dzyan states that the Atlanteans built great images 27 ft (8.2 m) tall, the size of their bodies. Blavatsky adds that most of the gigantic statues discovered on Easter Island are 20 to 30 ft high, and those found by Captain Cook were nearly all 27 ft tall and 8 ft across the shoulders. She dismisses the standard view that they were made by the Polynesians and are not very old as ‘one of those arbitrary decisions of modern science which does not carry much weight’. She goes so far as to say that the statues could only have been made by giants of the same size as the statues themselves!5* It should be borne in mind, however, that the statues range from under 2 m to nearly 22 m in height.
*Katherine Routledge cited this statement, together with several inaccurate descriptions of the present archaeological remains on Easter Island (largely the result of Blavatsky using inaccurate contemporary accounts), as evidence that nothing Blavatsky said on the subject needed to be taken seriously.6 But no writer is infallible. Another example is the following very feeble argument for the existence of a large Pacific continent in the remote past: the present inhabitants of the different island groups in the Pacific tend to speak similar languages and to have similar beliefs and customs, yet ‘according to every testimony’ they could never have communicated with one another before the arrival of the Europeans, as they did not have the compass or the necessary boats and navigational skills!7
Blavatsky indicates that Easter Island (i.e. the land then existing at that location) once formed part of the gigantic Lemurian continent.8 She writes:
... we find the Lemurians in their sixth sub-race building their first rock-cities out of stone and lava. One of such great cities of primitive structure was built entirely of lava, some thirty miles west from where Easter Island now stretches its narrow piece of sterile ground, and was entirely destroyed by a series of volcanic eruptions. The oldest remains of Cyclopean buildings were all the handiwork of the Lemurians of the last sub-races ...
She goes on to say that the stone relics on Easter Island are in the cyclopean style, and have been compared to the temple of Pachacamac in Peru and the ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.9
Referring to Atlantis, Blavatsky writes:
This continent was raised simultaneously with the submersion of the equatorial portions of Lemuria. Ages later, some of the Lemurian remains re-appeared again on the face of the Oceans. Therefore, ... the Fourth Race Atlanteans got some of the Lemurian relics, and, settling on the islands, included them among their lands and continents ... Easter Island was also taken possession of in this manner by some Atlanteans; who, having escaped from the cataclysm which befell their own land, settled on that remnant of Lemuria only to perish thereon, when destroyed in one day by its volcanic fires and lava. This may be regarded as fiction by certain geographers and geologists; to the Occultists it is history.10
Easter Isle ... belongs to the earliest civilisation of the Third Race. Submerged with the rest, a volcanic and sudden uplifting of the Ocean floor, raised the small relic of the Archaic ages untouched, with its volcano and statues, during the Champlain epoch of northern polar submersion, as a standing witness to the existence of Lemuria.11
The end of the Champlain was dated in Blavatsky’s time at about 200,000 years ago.12
The last quotation implies that at least some of Easter Island’s statues were immersed in seawater for a considerable period, unless all the present statues postdate the cataclysm referred to. Charles Ryan stated that although most statues were made of friable conglomerate material, some were carved from very hard volcanic rock. He thought that the hard ones may be immensely older than those made of soft breccia, or that the latter may once have been much harder, and are disintegrating because they are so old. He also argued that if, as Blavatsky hints, the statues had been submerged for a long time, they would not have been subject to weathering or violence. But he admitted that ‘this theory raises other difficulties’.13
G. de Purucker stated that he ‘could not accept a very enormous antiquity for the statues, though they might be as old as the Egyptian Sphinx, whatever the age of that famous monument may ultimately be discovered to be’.14 No definite age is given for the Sphinx in theosophical literature, but it is suggested that the great pyramids, probably including all the three main Giza pyramids, were built about three precessional cycles (78,000 years) ago, during the precessional cycle that began 87,000 years ago.15 Since a temple beside the Sphinx is connected with the Second Pyramid of Giza by a causeway, the Sphinx may be about the same age. As already mentioned, however, the statues seem to date from very different eras.
De Purucker also writes:
How about those wonderful platforms out in the Pacific built with uncemented stone, which have stood for ages, so old that they are not merely weather-beaten but weather-worn; and in the mild climate of the Pacific Isles you can understand that stones would last longer than they would in the northern countries where frost and hot sun and rain and wind and beating sand will wear down rocks easily. How many thousands of years have those platforms on Easter Island stood, mute witnesses of a banished knowledge of some kind?16
Ryan points out that whereas the statues could have been sculptured with primitive stone tools, the platforms were made of large blocks of adamantine basalt. The seawall at Vinapu consists of beautifully cut and dressed blocks, comparable with the famous casing stones of the Great Pyramid, and equal to the finest pre-Incan cyclopean structures in Peru, but no tools adequate to such a task have been found.
In some of the ahus the irregularities in shape of the faces of the colossal polygonal stones that meet one another are so cut that the surfaces exactly fit together, like those at Cuzco in Peru and Cosa in Etruria. There was no mortar to fill gaps, and the extremely hard stones must have been cut and tooled to exact measurement with great precision in order to fit so well.17
How could primitive artisans have worked these stones so beautifully – or at all? The Easter Islanders had no metal tools and their small, weak stone tools would be about as effective as a knitting needle to cut out and shape blocks of the hardest basalt ... One archaeologist calculated that it would take a man’s life-time to carve one stone of such intractable material, even if it were possible without modern power machinery. The ahus are a far greater mystery than the statues so far as their fabrication is concerned.18
It is not impossible that the ahus are immensely older than the statues, and represent the work of the extremely ancient inhabitants of the land of which Easter Island is a remnant, while the statues are far more recent – perhaps copies of older ones. The basalt-stones are so hard that they might have been in place for hundreds of thousands of years or more without crumbling ...19
- José Miguel Ramírez and Carlos Huber, Easter Island: Rapa Nui, a land of rocky dreams, Alvimpress Impresores, 2000, p. 20.
- Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, New York: Random House, 1989, p. 239.
- Francis Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, London: Collins, 1969, p. 148.
- Quoted in John Dos Passos, Easter Island: Island of enigmas, New York: Doubleday, 1971, p. 92.
- Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, pp. 127, 212.
- Ibid., pp. 142-3.
Dating the statues and platforms
- Christian and Barbara Joy O’Brien, The Shining Ones, Kemble, Cirencester: Dianthus Publishing, 1997, pp. 513-5.
- Mazière, Mysteries of Easter Island, p. 127.
- The Shining Ones, pp. 521, 523-4.
- Heyerdahl, Easter Island: The mystery solved, p. 196.
- The Theosophical Forum, March 1938, pp. 207-8.
- E.g. H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press (TUP), 1977 (1888), 1:439, 2:316fn, 331, 337; H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings (vols. 1-14), Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1950-85, 7:292-3.
- See ‘Theosophy and the seven continents’, http://davidpratt.info/continents.htm.
- The Secret Doctrine, 2:339-40.
- Ibid., 2:224.
- Ibid., 2:331, 336-7.
- Katherine Routledge, The Mystery of Easter Island, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1998 (1919), p. 290fn.
- The Secret Doctrine, 2:788-9; Blavatsky Collected Writings, 2:434-5; H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, TUP, 1972 (1877), 1:594-5fn.
- The Secret Doctrine, 2:323-4.
- Ibid., 2:317, 336-7.
- Ibid., 2:326-7.
- Ibid., 2:327-8.
- Charles Gould, Mythical Monsters, San Diego, CA: Wizards Bookshelf, 1981 (1886), pp. 98-9fn.
- Charles J. Ryan, ‘The latest news from Easter Island’, The Theosophical Path, Nov 1925, pp. 474-82; The Theosophical Forum, May 1946, pp. 233-6.
- Charles J. Ryan, ‘New light on Easter Island’, The Theosophical Forum, Feb 1949, pp. 86-96; also The Theosophical Forum, May 1946, pp. 233-6.
- See ‘The Great Pyramid’, http://davidpratt.info/pyramid.htm.
- G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, TUP, 1945, p. 136.
- The Theosophical Path, Nov 1925, pp. 477-8.
- The Theosophical Forum, May 1946, pp. 234-5.
- The Theosophical Path, April 1927, p. 357.
Easter Island: Part 4
Easter Island: Contents