Monday, January 25, 2010

Rapa Nui

I have long been interested in the story of Easter Island (Rapa Nui). For those unfamiliar with the story and history of Rapa Nui, it is worth looking into for the sheer wonder/horror that it represents. It is truly another version of a paradise lost.

In a nutshell, Easter Island is an isolated island in the Pacific which was originally settled by humans about 1500 years ago. It is located thousands of miles from any other inhabited place, so once discovered, the island was pretty much the center and extent of the earth to its inhabitants. A comparison could be made to another small dot in the middle of a vast, inhospitable space - the earth. The people of Rapa Nui quickly came to believe that they were the only people on earth and that the island was all there was to earth. The population never exceeded a few thousand people, but for an island 15 miles by 7 miles, this was plenty. The island was very rich when found, forested and with great resources. The people thrived at first and developed a class based society built around the worship of the ancients. This resulted in the iconic statues that Easter Island is known for.

There have been a total of 887 Moai found on Easter Island. Most were either never completed or never transported to their intended destinations. About a quarter were. These were placed along the shore areas around the entire island and placed on rock stands called Ahu. The statues always face inland with there backs to the sea. What this meant you could speculate on for days. Many of the statues are still located in the central island quarries in various stages of completion, some still embedded in the rock. The civilization that built these statues apparently collapsed at once.

At the time of European discovery in the early 18th century, the society had descended into a decentralized mess with pretty savage customs. The island was now treeless and only limited agriculture took place on the rich, but eroded volcanic soils. (The scene in the movie where they chop down the last tree - "Someone has to chop it down. It might as well be me" - is horrifying) With the trees gone, so was all chance at building canoes or boats, houses or towns. All were instantly poorer and with a much bleaker future. So many options and choices instantly disappeared The religion was the "Birdman" cult described in the movie "Rapa Nui" (available on Netflix instant viewing).

Modern parallels can quickly be seen. Maybe the comparisons are too simplistic, but here go a few.

  • We like the Rapa Nui, too often see ourselves as the center of the universe and its only purpose.
  • We are also surrounded by an unfathomably large amount of space, separating us from any other possible explanations as to how we fit into the universe or our place in the bigger picture.
  • We also, even though we conceptually see that the only thing we have is our island, seem intent on degrading or destroying her. She is our lifeboat, yet we seem to be chopping holes in her hull and cutting down her masts as quickly as we are able. The main difference seems to be only one of scale, not one of material difference in our eventual course or intentions.
  • We also seem organically bound to divide ourselves into classes or groups based on arbitrary assigned differences like skin color or language or birth place. The Rapa Nui divided themselves into a ruling class (the long ears) and a labor (slave) class (the short ears). And the only thing that kept the society functioning was this system. When it fell apart, society degraded into chaos. This says something about who we are and I don't think it is too nice.
In my perfect world, we could see these parallels and the dangers and ultimate destinations that these comparisons would lead us to believe we are heading. But we can easily see what we are doing to our home. And we can easily see the eventual outcome. And we have always consistently chosen to pretend that it isn't so. The end of this story is already written. And we will not make any changes until changes will not matter. Just like the Rapa Nui.


  1. Very interesting post. I wish you would write more like this all the time! You put my blogging prowess to shame.

  2. PS -- Though we may act like termites, I refuse to believe the page is quite written. In TFA speak, focus on your locus of control. :) All we can do in life is positively influence those around us. The world will end, yes, but when and how cannot be seen. As my buddy Nelson said... "Everything seems impossible until its done." :)

    Your Idealist