Easter Island - Conclusion
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 | A-M | N-Z |
Easter Island Conclusion| Page | 1 | 2 |