Easter Island is not big. 15 miles long, and 7 miles wide, its closest neighbor is
Pitcairn Island (home of the descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty) 1,289 miles away, as the crow flies. Not that a crow would fly that way, because its all vast Pacific ocean, with no place to rest. That’s one dead crow.
There’s only one flight a day, back and forth from Santiago, but the plane is nice, with those fancy self-tinting windows, since there is nothing to look at but water for four and a half hours.
We were met with fresh flowers and our local guide, Sofia. We drove through
Honga Roa, the one settlement on the island, and then to the hotel. It wasn’t a long detour. Our room was off of the outdoor swimming pool (I did end up swimming once in there). As I caught up on my journal, I could hear drumming and occasional human cries, punctuating a passage of syncopation. It was awesome. Mary Joy and I both loved the fresh flowers, cool around our necks.
We drove up to Orongo, the archaeological location of the Birdman cult. So let me lay down some history for you:
Everyone knows about the stone statues, called moai. Those were built by the
first incarnation of the Rapa Nui people. They had come to the island after conflict in Heva (Tahiti), led by a red-headed chief named Hotu’matua. They began carving these statues somewhere around the 10th century or so, becoming more and more stylized as time went on, getting bigger and bigger, until–! Collapse. Well, not really collapse. Starvation-induced revolution seems to be the most accurate way to describe it.
See, Hotu’matua was a really smart guy, as were others of his social class. They had knowledge of calculus, advanced maritime navigation, and ocean-faring boat-building techniques. They kept the
knowledge to themselves, hoarding information to reinforce class divisions and keep control. When resources became scarce, and the trees were gone (both from deforestation, and the rats they brought with them ate the tree seeds, so new trees were not growing of their own accord), then the lower class revolted.
After the collapse of this first iteration, a second iteration came about, which
was the rise of the Birdman cult. The clans would come together, selecting their strongest and
fastest warrior to participate in the feat of strength of gathering the first bird egg of the season from the islet off the coast. The fastest warrior to return with the bird egg would earn the right for his clan’s chief to become
the Birdman that year.
With the complex petroglyphs, the collapse of their ecological structure, the violent upheaval of their social system, we couldn’t help but speculate that the lack of value they placed on women in their hierarchy was an indicator of the
collective blindness; an inability to see the whole of a system. I asked our guide, Sofia, a number of oddball questions, trying to get a better idea of the feminine aspect of this very macho society. She had few answers to give. I asked if this was because women’s culture wasn’t recorded (the lives of women often aren’t, as they are often songs and rituals performed in the most mundane times of cleaning, cooking, and childbearing, and are therefore not assigned worth for posterity). She
told us that because women were taken from their own clans early on when picked for marriage, it was difficult for a culture to take root for these women, as they were displaced at an early age.
Mary Joy and I spent the evening discussing our thoughts on this. We came to the conclusion that a geographical location such as a remote island makes People the worst resource to have in abundance. Because women make people, there is no reason to honor or value this ability to incubate a person. With an abundance of people, why choose a woman to become a craftsman? Their society was highly specialized, craftsman being an entire subset of workers, as were fisherman, as were builders, etc.
The other warning sitting inside this ecological morality tale (which I haven’t even told you the worst of–more of that in tomorrow’s post) is how revolutions come to be. There is a wide gap between the upper class and the lower class. The poor can’t eat. The upper class demand more. Violent revolution ensues. On Rapa Nui, without livestock or a wide agricultural variety, cannibalism occurred. Like I said, more on that horrible portion of the tale tomorrow.
But in the backdrop of the primaries, Mary Joy and I speculated about political climates and campaign promises, and how the issue of rich getting richer and poor getting poorer is the refrain of all societies, and all societies fall at some point. Perhaps we could avoid the violent collapse they saw on this particular island.