Writer Amanda Christmann Larson
On a bright day in April 1722, while Johann Sebastian Bach was at the height of his career and Boston, with a population of 12,000, was enjoying its status as the hub of the American colonies, a 62-year-old Dutch lawyer-turned-navigator named Jacob Roggeveen led an expedition through the wilds of the Pacific Ocean.
Nearly 2,200 miles west of Chile, he was hundreds of miles from populated land and was headed for the famed “Terra Australis,” or “The Unknown Land of the South,” a name conceived by Aristotle and carried on by explorers during the dynamic Age of Discovery.
Rough surf forced his ships to anchor off the newfound island’s north shore for a week, but when Roggeveen and his crew finally disembarked, they discovered a sight that would intrigue the world for centuries to come.
Great monoliths lined the shores of the island, their carved faces illuminated by fires. Aboriginals, their earlobes slit and hanging to their shoulders, prostrated themselves in worship at the statue bases.
Soon after they stepped ashore, a misunderstanding broke out and the Dutch sailors fired their guns on the unarmed locals. More than a dozen islanders were killed and several more were wounded.
It was April 5, 1722: Easter Sunday. Roggeveen named the land “Paasch Eyland,” or “Easter Island.” Though Roggeveen’s stay was short-lived, it was the beginning of many years of hardship for the inhabitants of the 15-mile-long, seven-mile-wide volcanic island, called Rapa Nui by the Polynesians.
a culture lost
Just over 50 years after Roggeveen’s venture to the island, during which he’d reported a population of about 3,000 to 4,000 people, British Captain James Cook landed there and found only 600 to 700 men and fewer than 30 women remained. Whether they were killed by war, disease brought by Dutch and Spanish explorers or a combination of both is not clear.
What is clear is that, by the time Cook arrived, some of the huge statues, or moai, which were believed to hold sacred spirits of ancestors, had been toppled. By 1825, when another British ship arrived, there were no monoliths left standing.
In 1864, the first Catholic missionaries arrived and swiftly and brutally put an end to local religious practices, burning crops and eradicating cultural traditions. Tuberculosis, brought by foreign visitors, began to ravage the population as well.
At about the same time, Spanish slave traders looking for labor workers for Peru’s guano industry captured about half of the island’s inhabitants, including the delegation of elders and the king who greeted them as they arrived.
A year later, a bishop convinced the French government to intervene, and 100 slaves – some from other Polynesian islands – were repatriated back to the island. They brought smallpox with them however, and of the 100, only 15 survived.
A dubious French mariner, Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier, arrived, accompanied by a Catholic missionary, after wriggling out of a death sentence in Peru for arms dealing. He managed to purchase all of the land that didn’t belong to the missionaries from the Rapanui people – mostly by force – and turned much of it into a large sheep ranch. He kidnapped a local man’s wife and made her his own, and he sent hundreds of Rapanui people to Tahiti to work as indentured slaves for his backers. He kidnapped and violated young girls, and violently proclaimed himself governor of the island.
Catholic missionaries, who had fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier partly because he allowed some of his “enforcers” to resume their traditional religious practices, began sending Rapanui people to the Gambier Islands. Only 172 Rapanui were believed to have remained, mostly against their will, on the island. When Dutrou-Bornier was murdered in 1876, the population had dwindled to a startlingly low 111 Rapanui.
Chile later annexed Easter Island to use for sheep farming income and then pronounced it a special Chilean territory.
Rapanui are now citizens of Chile, which is nearly 2,200 miles away. As of 1995, Easter Island has become a UNECO World Heritage site.
Through what can only be called genocide of the Rapanui people, oral traditions and understanding of written documents were lost. Elders and royalty, who were the only islanders who could read the language of sacred texts, died in capture. The meanings of these texts and the secrets they hold remain impenetrable today.
Archaeologists and cultural anthropologists still debate the significance of the over-700 tremendous monoliths, including why they were made, how they were transported, and what their meaning was to Rapanui people.
Perhaps most significant of all, the Rapanui themselves have been robbed – literally and figuratively, as statues have been pillaged and stolen by researchers and tourists alike – of their own cultural heritage.
looking back to look forward
Northern Arizona University Professor Dr. Britton Leif Shepardson, author of “Moai: A New Look at Old Faces,” has been conducting research on Easter Island for 14 years.
“I started off strictly conducting analytical research on stylistic variations of the monolithic statuary,” Shepardson explained. “Once I actually strapped on a backpack and began my field research, I was blown away,” he added.
He soon found there was more to what he wanted to accomplish than what his mathematical training and analytical thinking anticipated. “The more time I spent on the island and the more cultural awareness I developed, the more I realized that I have a responsibility to the people of the island to help create a sustainable educational outreach.”
Shepardson is one of a growing number of archaeologists whose sense of social consciousness creates a solid foundation for his work. As the last archaeologist to receive permission to document and analyze all of the statues on the island, he feels a sense of obligation to share his findings with a very special group of people: the Rapanui themselves, who have been stripped of their own heritage for far too long.
“One of the most enjoyable things I do is work with local high school kids, raising awareness about, partly, the archaeological significance there, but also about how fragile the local culture and local ecology are,” he explained. To do so, in addition to his continuing research, Shepardson started a grassroots organization called Terevaka.net Archaeological Outreach (TAO), aiming to build a bridge between the island inhabitants’ past and their present.
Through TAO, students take part in a two-week program of archaeological and cultural research. TAO engages them in their own unique history and fills a generational gap growing wider because of loss of the traditional language, introduction to technology and Westernization.
Most recently, the organization has partnered with Chilean hotel chain Explora. Through the collaboration, students are not only learning their own history; they are gaining important insight into the tourism industry, which brings an estimated 80,000 visitors and their dollars to the island each year.
“My goal is to see if I can turn the entire research model on its head,” Shepardson said. “I want to put research a little lower on the priority list and really put education of the local community on the top of the priority list. I think we’re doing that, and we’re developing a sustainable model that can be applied anywhere.”
But more important than economic impact, says Shepardson, the future of Rapa Nui and its people may once again be back in the hands of the people themselves.
“The students in the program are the decision-makers for the future,” he explained. “They need to understand the importance of their culture and of their environment, and exactly what’s at stake in their future.
“Education is the only solution.”
The Arizona Archaeological Society – Desert Foothills Chapter will host Dr. Britton Leif Shepardson May 14 at their monthly meeting at Good Shepard of the Hills Episcopal Church, 6502 E. Cave Creek Rd. in Cave Creek. There is no charge. Refreshments begin at 7 p.m.; presentation begins at 7:30 p.m.