This is the second in a two-part series from Easter Island published on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014 in the Ventura County Star.
In a 1956 broadcast of Robert Nathan's satirical "Report on the WeUns," we learned that anthropologists in 7956 CE unearthed the ruins of an ancient civilization identified only by the hieroglyphic symbols "USA."
The scholars attempted to piece together a theory about the people from words on a deteriorating monument and from curious artifacts buried deep in rubble.
For example, from finding a number of small golden idols in a region known as "Holy-Wood," they concluded that the population worshipped a god named "Os-Car."
Further, they insisted that the evidence for this deity demanding human sacrifice were the permanent imprints of victims' hands and feet that had been left in front of a highly ornate temple.
I was reminded of the same scholastic hubris so gleefully skewered by Nathan in "Report on the WeUns" as I read the various books (all containing the word "mystery" in the title) about Easter Island.
So what do we really know about the Rapanui culture? Short answer? Not much. The written record in the form of Rongo Rongo script (pictured above) has proven untranslatable and any oral history died out around the same time (18th Century) the population was decimated and the Moai (iconic faces) came tumbling down.
What remains for anthropologists and other scholars to study is located at some 35,000 archeological sites including nearly 1000 Moai, 300 Ahu (long platforms on which statues are mounted), hundreds of petroglyphs, Hare Moa (rock houses for chickens), Manavai (rock enclosures for gardens), Hare Paenga (thatched houses shaped like overturned canoes), Umu (volcanic rock-lined earth ovens), Taheta (red scoria urns carved from Moai topknots) and a number of still extant Kava Kava statues (carved wooden representations of the spirits supposedly glimpsed by Tuu Hoiku, the eldest son of Hotu Matua'a).
We do know that a population that had, at one time, peaked at 20,000 was reduced to only 111 after Peruvian slave raiders visited in 1862 and that previous European intruders had also brought fatal diseases from smallpox to syphilis to the Rapanui.
If the stowaway Polynesian rats (who devoured all the palm tree seeds) weren't enough, from 1903 to 1953, the introduction of 70,000 sheep by the Scottish firm of Williamson, Balfour & Co. did manage to wipe out the rest of Easter Island's vegetation.
When Captain James Cook landed in 1774, the Huri Moai (statue-toppling) was already in progress and would continue until 1838 when the last one---the largest and only "named" Moai ("Paro")---ended up face down.
Nobody has yet been able to definitely explain the giant "living faces" with respect to: cultural significance (ancestor worship or expensive memorials), the mode of transportation (sled, rollers or rocking steadily forward as if "walking"), the abrupt halt to production or the reason the statues were unceremoniously toppled (war, earthquake or loss of religious faith).
Two outsiders who earned the trust and appreciation of the Rapanui were Father Sebastian Englert, who managed to trace the Rapanui lineage back more than 50 generations, and Katherine Routledge, whose interviews of the remaining elders provided information about the Birdman Competition, a meritocracy-based government and cult that replaced monarchical rule (by descendants of Hotu Matua'a) and the mysterious monoliths.
In order to stabilize the culture,the warrior class (as opposed to the priests and king) came up with a belief system based on an ancient god called Make Make.
A yearly competition would determine which chief (of one of the 12 villages) would rule all of Rapa Nui for the next 12 months.
The Hupu Manu (athletic competitors) representing each village were required to descend a thousand-foot cliff at Orongo, swim through shark-infested waters to the farthest islet (Motu Nui) and capture the first egg laid by a Manutara (Sooty Tern).
At that point, the winner signaled his chief that he would be the new ruler---provided his egg remained intact.
The victorious chief was required to do two things I think all future US presidents should consider: to shave their heads and eyebrows in an act of humility and to live alone for the first five months of their tenure.
Of course this 150-year-old tradition was terminated by missionaries once they arrived circa 1860.
Several myths have been busted by carbon dating, DNA and forensic anthropology: the sweet potato (as Thor Heyerdahl contended) did not prove Easter Island was settled by South Americans, the Kava Kava (with sunken eyes and exposed ribs) did not prove that a famine was caused by over-exploitation of natural resources and caves filled with bones did not prove warfare and cannibalism ever existed on Rapa Nui.
The so-called experts aren't always right. Consider this scenario: some 6000 years hence, alien anthropologists discover the fragment of a cross in the strata below the crumbling ruins of a stadium.
Couldn't they just as erroneously surmise that Christianity gave way to a new religion known as the NFL?
Just something else for you to think about.