On Easter Day of 1722, the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen sighted an island on the horizon as his ship sailed through the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Upon reaching the island, they found it was inhabited by a large population. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he told stories of an island where the inhabitants had raised fantastically large statues depicting people staring out to sea. Though the islanders called it Rapa Nui, Roggeveen called the island “Easter Island“, inspired by the day he came across it. However, Europeans did not understand the civilization they had just met, and within two centuries, this great civilization would be a shell of its former self.
The classic theory of the decline of the Rapa Nui held that the islanders were responsible for their own downfall. This theory held that deforestation by the natives led to an ecological collapse, causing starvation and war. However, modern analysis has revealed this story to be largely baseless. In fact, the evidence now indicates that the downfall of the Rapa Nui began from that very first European contact. During Roggeveen’s visit, antsy soldiers, perhaps influenced by the recent publication of Robinson Crusoe, fired upon a crowd of villagers, killing more than ten. And, unfortunately, this was just a taste of things to come. Over the next two centuries, disease, slavers, and colonization efforts reduced the population from its high of up to 3,000 people pre-contact all the way down to a mere 111 in 1877. And of those 111, only 36 had children, meaning that all native Rapa Nui today are descended from just those 36 people.
One mystery left behind which may never be solved is that of the Rongorongo tablets. These wooden objects are covered in glyphs, which may be a written form of the Rapa Nui language. If so, this could be one of the few examples of an independent development of writing, and the only first written Polynesian language. However, with the destruction of the Rap Nui people, nobody knows how to translate them. It is believed that reading the tablets was the job of a small group of elites, and attacks by slavers in the 19th century resutled in the deaths of the only people who could read them. To date, only 26 tablets have survived, and only one of them has been even partially deciphered. Known as Rongorongo text C, it appears to contain a calendar.
Perhaps the worst part of this story is that none of the 26 tablets are on Easter Island. They are all in the hands of museums and private owners. None are in the hands of the Rap Nui. Even the moai, for which Easter Island is famous, have not been spared this indignity. At least 12 moai have been removed from the island and are in museums around the world. The British Museum has one which is named Hoa Hakananai’a, which can be translated as “our stolen friend”.
This has been a bit of a sad post, but there is something you can do to help. The NGO Toki Rapa Nui operates programs to help connect Rapa Nui children with their cultural heritage. Through their efforts, they are able to keep this ancient culture alive. You can donate to support them, or visit their school of music and arts on Rapa Nui to learn about their traditions.
The inspiration and much of the background for this topic came from an excellent podcast I recently discovered. The Fall of Civilizations documents the rise and decline of various civilizations throughout human history. It’s a fantastic podcast, and I highly recommend it.
Once again, I must apologize for this post being late. This time, however, I can blame illness. Stay safe out there everyone – wash your hands and wear a mask when you go out.
If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected]. And if you are angry about all the things the British Museum has stolen, let me know and I can take you off the list.