The Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture

Easter Island - Conclusion



easter island moai 'In Polynesia, all serious enterprises were accompanied by religious activities to protect the populace from evil influences and to appeal to the gods through offerings and prayers.’ (Handy 1927:282-283).
In Polynesia, all serious enterprises were accompanied by religious activities to protect the populace from evil influences and to appeal to the gods through offerings and prayers.' (Handy 1927:282-283). Georgia Lee, in her publication 'The Rock Art of Easter Island - Symbols of Power, Prayer to the Gods', states that carving on rocks, which themselves contained mana (Handy 1927:179) was associated with such rites. In some parts of Polynesia, stones with carved faces were set in fields to serve as abiding places for protective gods and to promote the fertility of the land. These petroglyphs implanted mana in the area and protected the life principle of birds, fish, and land mammals.

A tradition of carving on stone can be traced westward through eastern Polynesia, central Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Malaysia. Wherever suitable surfaces were located, aboriginal populations tended to place petroglyphs or paintings on them. For many islands, no data are available; whether this means that rock art is absent - or simply not reported - is unknown.

New Caledonia has numerous rock art sites, including panels of cupules and vulva designs, as well as human faces that appear to be similar to those of Easter Island. In eastern Polynesia, the Hawaiian Islands have the largest number of petroglyphs. Both paintings and petroglyphs have been documented in the Marquesas, although petroglyphs [over 6,000] are by far in the majority. A few have been reported from the Society Islands; Tahitian motifs include stick-figure humans, turtles, a few canoes and representations of masks and mourner's headdresses. In New Zealand, sites with paintings are common, although a few petroglyphs have been reported.

The favoured petroglyph motif in the Hawaiian Islands is the stick-figure anthropomorphs, often in active poses. In contrast, not one human stick-figure motif has been found on Easter Island. There are, however, petroglyphs that bear a striking resemblance to the birdman figure of Easter Island. No direct contact with Easter Island is postulated; these artistic conventions appear to reflect common ancestry and belief systems leading back to Southeast Asia.

The rock art of the Marquesas, when compared with the rock art of Tahiti, Hawai'i, and New Zealand, provides more correlations with Easter Island. This seems reasonable because the Marquesas are the likely point of dispersal for the settlement of the rest of east Polynesia, including Easter Island (Bellwood 1978:365).

The state of rock art research in the rest of Polynesia is still "in process." Databases are growing as the result of ongoing archaeological fieldwork, and certain similarities, as well as divergences, are becoming apparent.

At this stage of research, Georgia Lee states that the rock art of Easter Island is far more elaborate and diverse than that found in other Polynesian island groups. However, it is distinctly Polynesian and clearly comes from a common artistic heritage and system of beliefs, legends, and myths. Nothing in the entire corpus of Polynesian petroglyphic art bears any resemblance to the rock art of South America.

The petroglyphs of crouching profile figures that are found in Hawai'i, the Marquesas, and Easter Island can be followed back across the Pacific into Southeast Asia. As if coming from a deep unconscious, this motif appears to be a key figure in our search for origins and connections.

In the same way that statues of human figures on Easter Island evolved from earlier Polynesian prototypes, there was parallel efflorescence in the creation of the petroglyphs on Easter Island. In typical fashion, there was a progression from simple to complex, from pecked lines to the elaborate bas relief figures that border on sculpture.

Wherever human beings have been, they have made their mark upon the landscape. With this mark, one declares that the place on which one stands is meaningful. In this way, humans show that they have a relationship with the world around them; a relationship whose sanction and purpose transcends the mere physical character of the place" (S. D. Gill 1982:20).

Georgia Lee's research on Easter Island has documented 4,000 examples of rock art and more than 4,000 cupules. A typology was derived from an inspection of motif types found in the database and, in turn, this typology provides distinctive patterns of distribution and development. These patterns show the evolution of certain motifs, such as birdman, and allow conclusions to be drawn concerning change in the culture and the rise of the warrior class. Distribution studies indicate that clan affiliations were being depicted; legends and prayers were tied to certain petroglyphs, and some sites with petroglyphs can be related to observations of the heavens. A few motifs can be explained by correlating information gathered by early ethnographers, and some have archaeological data that illuminate site functions.

The designs carved or painted on rocks were neither idle nor casual markings. They had significance, meaning, and purpose, even though this information is rarely available to us today. When we see the repetition of certain rock art motifs that display little variation of design, we know they functioned as a precontact communication system that contained levels of meaning understood by (at least) a certain segment of the population, with the ultimate meaning hidden beneath layers of other meanings.

Animal imagery played a vital role in the ancient society. The important symbology that incorporates majestic seabirds throughout Polynesia is well described, as is that of fish and other sea forms. The combined forms are particularly interesting because they represent creatures of the mind and imagination mental conceptualizations that lead us to question the relationship between those creatures and the culture.

It seems significant that, in all those instances where we were able to record legends associated with sea creature petroglyphs, the highlight of the stories was a magical ability to fly or swim away. These petroglyphs and their accompanying lore appear to be expressions of intense feelings of isolation and the desire to leave this lonely, confining island.

The image of the birdman appears in the rock art around AD 1550, a time of great stress and upheaval in the society. Because there is no precursor for this symbol either as an artifact or in myth and legend prior to this time, Georgia Lee suggests the symbol arose from the collective unconscious of the people. Its presence in the unconscious no doubt is con-nected to the symbol of man-bird in all its various guises throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia, arising from a pan-Oceanic belief in, and fascination for, birds as messengers of the gods or spirits of dead ancestors. This religion, perhaps fostered by a powerful priesthood, was an attempt to rejuvenate a dying society.

An important feature of the prehistoric culture is the well-documented rise of the warrior class, as well as the power of high priests who seemingly wrested control from the hereditary chief. It is suggested that not only did the matatoa achieve secular control of the island, but that they were in league with, or under the control of, a priesthood that assumed enormous power as the fertility of the land declined and the traditional mana of the king was thought inadequate to prevent disaster.

Master carvers enjoyed an elevated social status, rank, and mana, and it was these gifted individuals who were probably responsible for many of Easter Island's excellent bas relief carvings. The technique of bas relief is a later development that required expertise of the sort likely to be found in the repertoire of tufunga who, coming from a sculpting tradition, were well aware of the subtleties of light and shadow provided by bas relief carving. The later phase bas relief birdmen are so conventionalized and stylized that it is apparent they were made by experts who strove for uniformity. A progression in time and ideology is clear: the earlier birdman petroglyphs gradually disappeared as boulders were recarved with the new version of the warriors' emblem. It is possible that each birdman petroglyph represented a specific winner.

Despite the efforts of the prehistoric Easter Islanders to alter their destiny through ritual and prayer, sacrifice and warfare, the fertility of the land continued to decline and resources became scarce. Wood for canoes disappeared, affecting the fishing in offshore waters and preventing emigration. Cannibalism was practiced. In the end, the culture disintegrated. Contact with the Western world caused further disruption as Peruvian slavers, smallpox, and then missionaries impacted the remnants of the old culture. At some point toward the end, suggested by the presence of komari, a cult dealing with fecundity arose. However, before the catastrophic end point of the society was reached, the Rapa Nui "attained a level of advancement that resulted in one of the most highly evolved technologies in the world at a Neolithic level" (McCoy 1979:135).

The astonishing technical skill and artistic ability reflected in the rock art of Easter Island is found nowhere else in Polynesia. That it has remained relatively unrecognized is, for Georgia Lee, yet another of the many mysteries for which the island has become known. For a small isolated population restricted to stone tools, the petroglyphs are extraordinary in their scope and quantity.


Easter Island Introduction
Sentinels in Stone - Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture | Page | 1 | 2 | 3 |
The Rock Art of Easter Island
The Birdman Cult / Motif of Easter Island
Sea & Marine Creatures in Easter Island Rock Art
Designs & Motifs of Easter Island's Rock Petroglyph Carvings
Dr Georgia Lee - Publications on Easter Island
Moai Location Map & Islanders
Contemporary Easter Island Art
Easter Island Glossary
Easter Island Conclusion

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