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Historical accounts of European exploration and intervention in Polynesia during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries speak of the complex interpretative fields through which both Polynesians and Europeans came to understand each other. Here we employ the record of material practices on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to investigate the indigenous response to European contact from the island's ‘discovery’ by the Dutch in 1722 to the population's conversion to Christianity in 1868. Rather than seeing events on the island during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a simple trajectory of decline, we highlight how myriad new practices and social orders emerged through a creative agency that drew inventively upon the material and cosmological possibilities afforded by contact.
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Te Miro o'one
: the archaeology of contact on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Joshua Pollard; Alistair Paterson; Kate Welham
Online publication date: 05 November 2010
To cite this Article Pollard, Joshua , Paterson, Alistair and Welham, Kate(2010) '
Te Miro o'one
: the archaeology of contact
on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)', World Archaeology, 42: 4, 562 — 580
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2010.517670
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Te Miro o’one: the archaeology of
contact on Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Joshua Pollard, Alistair Paterson and Kate Welham
Historical accounts of European exploration and intervention in Polynesia during the later
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries speak of the complex interpretative fields through which
both Polynesians and Europeans came to understand each other. Here we employ the record of
material practices on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to investigate the indigenous response to European
contact from the island’s ‘discovery’ by the Dutch in 1722 to the population’s conversion to
Christianity in 1868. Rather than seeing events on the island during the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries as a simple trajectory of decline, we highlight how myriad new practices and social orders
emerged through a creative agency that drew inventively upon the material and cosmological
possibilities afforded by contact.
Rapa Nui (Easter Island); European contact; ships; canoes; rock art.
Through observations made at the time, the impact of European exploration and colonial
intervention in Polynesia during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is
relatively well documented. Authored by the crews of European ships, missionaries and
early scientists/observers such as Cook, La Pe
rouse, Banks and the Forsters (e.g. Cook
1777; Forster 1777; La Pe
rouse 1798; Lisiansky 1814), these records describ e first
contact between Polynesians and Europeans and their subsequent relations. Many of these
accounts are, naturally, asymmetric: comprehension of how Polynesians understood the
appearance of ‘these differently costumed and differentially ranked visitors in very large
canoes’ (Hooper 2006: 51) is often gained indirectly through the reflection of European
observation. This acknowledged, the indigenous perspective has been given voice by
sophisticated exercises in historical anthropology (e.g. Dening 1992; Kirch and Sahlins
World Archaeology Vol. 42(4): 562–580 Debates in World Archaeology
ª 2010 Taylor & Francis ISSN 0043-8243 print/1470-1375 online
DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2010.517670
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1992; Sahlins 1985; Salmond 1991; Thomas 1990, 2003), most notably Sahlins’ exposition
of the unfortunate convergence of British naval voyaging, the Hawaiian ritual calendar
and seemingly analogous structures of authority that led to James Cook becoming the
unwitting ‘victim’ of the logical extension of Polynesian mytho-praxis (Sahlins 1985).
Contact in Polynesia brought changes, including many detrimental effects through
introduced disease, alcoholism, firearms and missionary morality (Moorehead 1966).
However, characterizing contact as a ‘fatal impact’ is teleological inasmuch as it pre-
figures an outcome (Campbell 2003: 67). In other ways these events created local
opportunity, including changed political environments within which power relations could
be reworked and, through categorical distinction, an enhanced sense of what it was to be
Polynesian. As Campbell (1997) notes, far from weakening cultural selfh ood, successive
contact in Polynesia during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries may even
have strengthened and sharply defined local identities. For Polynesians, the novelty of
dealing with Europeans and their material worlds provided conditions in which new
practices and new forms of behaviour could emerge, and, by drawing upon existing
cosmological structures, distinctive cultures of contact were created (Campbell 2003).
For archaeology, interest lies in the material dimensions of contact. Relations between
Polynesians and Europeans were forged through often intense exchanges on ship and
shore. Both sides engaged in mutually productive acts of exchange that saw the flow of
materials like cloth and iron to Polynesians; while provisions and, less pragmatically,
curiosities, souvenirs and sexual favours were eagerly received by European crews (Hooper
2006). In the process those things were re-contextualized, or fed into different regimes of
value, and so took on lives independent of the agency of their creators (Thomas 1991).
Europeans did not initially understand how acts of exchange had entangled them within
webs of affiliation and social and ritual obligation, or how items from their world could
become so embedded in the performance of Polynesian cultural order (e.g. Thomas 1999).
The Rapa Nui story
While historical record and retrospective anthropologies provide depth of knowledge of
the unfolding events and contact-era processes in certain island groups that wer e subject to
frequent early visitation and missionary work, such as Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand,
the situation is not true for all of Polynesia. In the case of Rapa Nui (Easter Island),
archaeology plays a significant part in writing not just the story of its prehistory, but also
that of the time of contact (Kirch 2000: 270) (Fig. 1).
The remotest inhabited isl and in Polynesia , Rapa Nui has been subject to considerable
archaeological attention since the late nineteenth century (cf. Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1961;
Lavachery 1936; Routledge 1919; Thompson 1891; Van Tilburg 1994). Research has been
dominated by a number of themes: namely, the timing and nature of settlement of the
island; the develop ment of monumental ahu architecture and associated large stone statues
(moai); and ecological degradation and the apparent ‘collapse’ of traditional Rapa Nui
lifeways and culture post
AD 1600 (Bahn and Flenley 1992; Hunt and Lipo 2006; McCoy
1979; Van Tilburg 1994). One of the key signatures for this dramatic shift in life is the
abandonment of the tradition of monumental construction focused on the moai statues.
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Following the palynological work of John Flenley (Flenley 1993; Flenley and King 1984),
which demonstrated dramatic changes in the ecology of the island post-settlement, and in
particular the eradication of the giant palm (a species related to Jubaea chilensis), it has
been forcibly argued that the driver for cultural change was the stress induced by over-
exploitation of the island’s environment by its human populati on (see Bahn and Flenley
1992; Brandner and Taylor 1998; Diamond 2005; Van Tilburg 1994). Recent work by
Jared Diamond has popularized the debate even furt her. In Collapse, Diamond talks of
‘ecocide’, and uses the Easter Island case as a parable for modern global environmental
degradation (Diamond 2005). The moai themselves are implicated in this scen ario. It is
argued that the resource demands generated by carving and moving the statues resulted in
wilful and negligent consumption of the island’s resources. With plants and animals driven
to extinction, there then followed starvation, warfare, social collapse and recourse to
It cannot be doubted that major political and religious changes took place on Rapa Nui
prior to
AD 1800. The statue cult came to an end, with those moai on ahu platforms being
toppled deliberately (Heyerdahl 1961: 39).
This can be read as a material correlate of the
decline of traditional modes of chiefly authority based around genealogically ascribed rank
(Kirch 1984: 274–7) . What are at issue are questions of causality and the timing of events.
Rainbird (2002) and Hunt and Lipo (2010) have presented cogent arguments against the
humanly induced ecological collapse model. Rainbird sees the Rapa Nui population as
actors knowledgeably altering the island’s environment, and points to inst ances elsewhere
Figure 1 Map of Rapa Nui showing principal sites mentioned in the text.
564 Joshua Pollard et al.
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in the Pacific where ecological change was both intentional and enhanced subsistence
potential. Hunt and Lipo highlight the impac t on Rapa Nui of introduced rats, which
devoured palm nuts and seedlings and may have been chiefly responsible for the decline of
the giant palm. While inconvenient, especially for large-wood construction projects such
as canoe building, the loss of the giant palm need not have been overly deleterious: people
can and do live quite successfully on islands without large trees (for example, the Northern
Isles of Scotland). High food yields were also maintained following palm forest decline by
innovative soil management technologies such as lithic mulching and the creation of rock
veneer pavements (Stevenson et al. 2006).
Critically, Rainbird and Hunto and Lipo attribute population collapse and political/
religious change to the arrival of Europeans: i.e. collapse as a contact period process.
Using the distribution of habitation sites dated by obsidian hydration (Stevenson et al.
2007), Hunt and Lipo note that the marked decline in population from its likel y maximum
of c. 3,000–5,000 occurs after c. 1750 (2010: 38–9). Based upon better-documented events
elsewhere in Polynesia, it is hypothesized that introduced diseases resulted in both a sharp
decline in reproductive health and a rise in mortality (cf. Moorehead 1966). Peruvian slave
raids during the 1860s further depleted the population, with subsequent reset tlement of
the survivors leading to the introduction of smallpox (Fischer 2005: 87–91). By 1877, the
population of Rapa Nui stood at 110 (Me
traux 1940).
Good evidence exists from both archaeology and the accounts of early European
explorers to support the views of Rainbird (2002) and Hunt and Lipo (2010). Most
striking are the observations by early visitors, which reveal a trajectory of dramatic change
from the eighteenth century. Notably, the statue cult appeared to be extant as late as 1770,
as recorded by members of the Dutch and Spanish voyages led by Jacob Roggeveen and
Don Felipe Gonza
lez y Haedo (Corney 1908). Yet in 1774 Cook describes statues being
toppled (Cook 1777: 281). Over the next half century visitors described both toppled and
standing statues; the Russian expedition of 1804 reported around thirty standing moai
(Richards, R. 2008: 26). The last to stand may have been the giant Paro on Te Pito te Kura
on the north coast of the island, which was pulled down in 1862–4 (Fischer 2005: 80;
Thomson 1891: 489).
Questions of chronology
Ultimately, identifying the agents and contexts of change has to be linked to the
production of secure chronologies. Whether key developments such as the end of moai
carving and erection; the emergence of new, performative leadership contests based
around the ceremonial centre at ’Orongo on the west of the island (Fig. 2); and a rise in
inter-group conflict indicated by the increased frequency of obsidian mata’a projectile
points (Smith 1961: 260–1) belong to pre- or post-contact horizons is at issue. Within
Van Tilburg’s four-period sequence for the archaeology of the island (1994: 50–3, based
upon Ayres 1973) the period of ideological inst ability and ‘collapse’ is located in a
‘Decadent/Restructure Phase’ that runs from c .
AD 1680–1722; thus placing the beginning
of the decline of traditional Rapa Nui culture towards the end of the prehistoric phase.
With sequences constructed largely from radiocarbon, there is a spurious precision here.
Many dates used to define the chronology of key ceremonial sites, especially those from
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the 1950s’ work of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition (Heyerdahl and Ferdon
1961), are on bulked charcoal samples. Without controls on sample residuality and old
wood effect, such determinations will tend to be earlier than the contexts they purport to
date and are best treated with caution (Martinsson-Wallin and Crockford 2001).
The chronology of developments at the ceremonial centre of ’Orongo provides a case in
point. Located on the edge of the Rano Kau crater on the south west of the island, a series
of stone buildings reportedly served as temporary residences during an annual leadership
contest in which participants would vie to collect the first eggs of the sooty tern from the
outlying islands of Motu Kaokao and Motu Nui (Routledge 1917, 1919, 1920; Me
1940; Ferdon 1961). The winner, or tangata manu, became paramount warrior chief for the
year, though their resulting tapu status demanded that much of this time was spent
residing in seclusion. The emergence of these rites reflects an erosion of traditional chiefly
authority constructed around genealogically ascribed rank and its substitution with
performative leadership structures controlled by warriors and priests (Thomas 1990: 120,
178–9), a pivotal shift in the way power relations were enacted. While it is known that the
last tangata manu (‘birdman’) ceremonies were held at ’Orongo in 1866 or 1867 (the eve of
conversion), the period during which they emerged is somewhat ambiguous. Van Tilburg
and Lee place the political changes that gave arise to the birdman ceremonies in the early
Figure 2 The ceremonial centre at ’Orongo, showing the location of Trenches 1 and 2 of the
Norwegian Archaeological Expedition (after Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1961).
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to mid-sixteenth century (Van Tilburg 1994: 92; Van Tilburg and Lee 1987: 136). This
chronology is based upon radiocarbon dates on bulk charcoal samples recovered during
the 1955–6 Norwegian Expedition excavations at ’Orongo (Ferdon 1961: 221–55). Four
trenches were dug within Complex B, the main area of ana stone buildings connected with
the birdman cult. Trenches 1 and 2 produced deeply stratified deposits indicative of long
sequences of activity that included clearance deposits (thick charcoal-rich soils) and
settlement-related features (a series of pits in Tr ench 2), and it is from these that
radiocarbon dates were obtained whose calibrated ranges span the thirteenth to twentieth
centuries. The sequence for Trench 1, from which four dates came (K-520, K-514, K-506
and M-708), should stand alone. However, both the sequence and the dates were
extrapolated to argue for a central date of c.
AD 1540 for the construction of building R-12
in nearby Trench 2, and by extension for the whole complex (Ferdon 1961: 243) a
tenuous assumption. Taking a critical stance, all that can be reliably inferred from the
published sequence is that structure R-12 was created some time later, and potentially
much later, than a charcoal lined-pit from which a date of
AD 1412–1643 (T-194, at 95.4
per cent) was obtained on a bulk sample. Rather than lying within the later part of the
prehistoric period, it could equally be argued that the stone structures which form
Complexes B and C at ’Orongo, and which provided the focus for the tangata manu
ceremonies, belong to a hor izon of religious and political change that is post-contact. New
dates from appropriate contexts are clearly needed . If new dates were to support a post-
contact chronology, as we suspect, they would have profound impl ications for our
understanding of the timing and mechanisms of changing politico-religious practices on
the island, effectively moving key events out of the prehistoric sequence.
The character of European contact
The frequency of early contact events on Rapa Nui was not great. From 1722 to 1795 the
island was visited on only seven occasions by Europeans: the first four were the
exploratory voyages of Roggeveen (1722), Gonza
lez (1770), Cook (1774) and La Pe
(1786); the last three were commer cial sailings (in 1792, 1793 and 1795) out of Bristol. In
total, they represent only around two weeks of contact over an eighty-year period. Even
during the nineteenth century visits were sparse and fleeting (Richards, R. 2008). Between
1801 and 1861, eighty-five ships are reported to have visited the island, often stopping only
a day or two (McCall 1990). Rapa Nui was not a favoured ‘port of call’. The absence of
abundant fresh water and pigs made it a poor location for provisioning; there was no
natural harbour and over time fear of cannibalism grew as relat ions between islanders and
European crews deteriorated following shootings and attempted abductions (Richards, R.
2008: 24, 33, 38). The Peruvian slave raids of 1862 soured Rapa Nui perceptions of
strangers further and resulted in a decimation of the population. Indicative of outsider
perceptions, it was not until the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in 1864–6 that any European
attempted to live on the island (Altman 2004).
While abbreviated and frequently confined to ship-board or shoreline exchange, a
certain intensity of interest and interaction nonetheless accompanied enco unters between
ships’ crews and the Rapa Nui. Cloth, feathers and metal tools were much sought after by
the islanders. The considerable value afforded to cloth and clothing among Polynesians,
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through its intimate association with status and sacred power, made it especially desirable.
Early accounts detail how hats, handkerchiefs and neckcloths were appropriated through
theft (Corney 1908; Richards, R. 2008), actions that were difficult for European morality
to accommodate, but which resembled the kinds of unrestrained behaviour displayed in
Polynesian religious festivals (Campbell 2003: 71).
Viewed from the island, early encounters with Europeans were profound events with
the capacity to elicit cosmogoni c crisis (Campbell 2003; Sahlins 1985; Van Tilburg 1994:
29–32). The sh eer isolation of Rapa Nui may have amplified the impact. Without the
materials to construct large canoes the capacity for Rapa Nui voyaging was severely
curtailed, and Roggeveen’s arrival in 1722 may have been the first contact with others in
several generations. How the islanders viewed Europeans is of critical concern. Strangers
from across the sea were often afforded a semi-divine status within Polynesian mytho-
practice, and it is telling that words first used to describe Europeans implied their
supernatural provenance (Campbell 2003: 71). High-ranking chiefs, who possessed divine
linkage and were an embodiment of considerable mana, were regarded as strangers or
invaders (Thomas 1991: 92). As beings of extra-local origin, European crews were perhaps
conceived as the embodiments of gods, divine chiefs or, at the very least, as very powerful
beings. Here we should not con fuse the categorically rigid Judaeo-Christian concepts of
divinity with that of the Polynesian (Sahlins 1995). In a world view where the sacred and
supernatural is utterly inseparable from all aspects of life, men can at times be gods, as can
be animals, birds, fish and objects (Campbell 2003: 76). Their status as such is fluid and
highly contextual, as illustrated by the annual transformation of Hawaiian chiefs into the
living embodiment of the gods Lono and K
u during the times of their annual ceremonies
(Sahlins 1985).
The material trappings and actions of the first European voyagers to visit Rapa Nui
must have confirmed any pre-conceived notions of the power of strangers. During the first
two encounters in 1722 and 1770 both sides engaged in pomp and ceremony, though
mutual comprehension of the intention of these events was seemingly limited. Following
an on-board welcome by an individual of likely priestly status, Roggeveen was greeted by
thousands of islanders offering gifts of food (Corney 1908: 133), the prime medium
through which social relations were initiated. Once on shore, undue panic among the
Dutch led them to open fire upon a group of islanders. Relations were soon restored,
leading to intense and spectacular exchanges during which over 500 chickens and many
vegetables were offered to the Dutch, who in return gave a length of cloth wi th coloured
print 50–60 ells (c. 35–40m) in length (ibid.: 134). Awestruck by the largess of the gift of
this most special of materials, the islanders measured the cloth ‘fathomwise more than a
hundred times over’ (ibid.: 134).
Arriving nearly fifty years later, Gonza
lez claimed the island for Spain with an
incredible piece of political theatre that had considerable impact (Corney 1908: 47–104).
Three wooden crosses were carried in full procession, accompanied by drums and flying
colours, and planted on the three hillocks of Poike on the far east of the island. Once
erected, a proclamation was read and a triple salute fired, Gonza
lez’s frigate and ship
responding with twenty-one guns. As Van Tilburg notes, such ‘military and religious
pomp and ceremony . . . made a profound impression on the deeply ritualistic Rapa Nui’
(1994: 30–1). Contemporary Spanish accounts speak of 800 islanders (perhaps one quarter
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of the population) assembling at the event, of Rapa Nui assisting in carrying the crosses,
singing, dancing, making offerings of barkcloth and chickens (Corney 1908: 100–4). The
religious and political import of the ceremony was understood, albeit through the lens of
eastern Polynesian cosmology. Van Tilburg makes the astute observation that the erection
of upright poles and crosses would have constituted an act of domination, such objects
being both symbols and implements of sacred and chiefly authority (1994: 31). Only four
years later, Cook observed toppled moai, the material signature of internal conflicts that
had been set in train by the politically destabilizing actions of the Spanish (Cook 1777:
281). Perhaps in acknowledgement of the power seen to reside in these irregular strangers,
his party was led in solemn procession around the island by individuals of chiefly or
priestly status (Cook 1777: 281–3; Van Tilburg 1994: 31).
The archaeology of contact
Bottle glass, buttons and items of copper and iron, sometimes reworked into beads and
fishhooks, are the ‘small things forgotten’ of contact-period Rapa Nui. Other aspects of
the archaeological record speak of the profound changes that followed the arrival of
European ships and crew. The increased frequency of mata’a projectiles and events at
’Orongo have already been mentioned. Toppled moai statues are a striking mate rial
manifestation of ideological changes that swept the island during the later eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries. There existed a distinct technology to these acts of ancestral
sacrilege, with moai being pulled forward onto their faces (Plate 1), exposing and violating
the most tapu part of a chiefly person, the back of the head and neck (Linton 1925: 86; Van
Tilburg and Lee 1987: 137). Boulders were positioned in such a way as to break the statue
necks upon their fall, thus severing their supernatural power (Ayers 1973: 132; M cCoy
1979). Many image ahu were modified, being turned into dwellings and structures for
burial, as at Vinapu (Mulloy 1961: 112; Van Tilburg 1994: 53). Oral testimony suggests
ahu continued to be constructed well into the nineteenth century (Routledge 1919: 230),
but by this stage they took different forms, principally pyramidal and canoe-shaped
Ships and boats
Boats and ships feature conspicuously in iconogra phy and religious performance during
the contact period (Figs 3–5). Telling of an interest in the physical manifestation of
strangers, and perhaps the connections real and cosmogo nic they were perceived to affor d,
are a number of petroglyphs and paintings of European-style ships. These remain the only
European objects to be depicted in the isl and’s extensive repertoire of rock art (Lee 1992:
112), although painted images of horses and sheep may once have existed at ’Orongo
(Palmer 1870: 176). Around fifteen images of ships are known, located along the south
coast of the island (Lee 1992: 32, 112–13). Potentially a product of differential
preservation, a particular association exists with caves and the stone buildings at ’Orongo:
nine painted ship images are known from the latter site alongside designs depicting sooty
tern and semi-anthropomorphic ao and rapa dance paddles used in performances at the
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site (Fig. 3). Other ship designs occur carved on a boulder near a cave entrance at Ana
Tu’u Hata, in a cave at Hanga Te’e/Vaihu (here comprising a painted ship and small boat:
Heyerdahl 1961: 478–9) and at Ana Kai Tangata, where a painted ship is partially
obscured by later bird images (Routledge 1919: fig. 102). In addition, isolated ship
petroglyphs are known on stone structures at Rano Kau (sites 1–43 and 1–118), carved
onto the front of moai 263 at Rano Raraku and on the back wall of ahu Vinapu 2 (Mulloy
1961: 117, pl.12a).
Certain features identify these images as those of European ships rather than Polynesian
canoes. Most are shown side-on as distinctively non-Polynesian three-masted and square-
rigged vessel s, the single-mast vessels at ahu Vinapu 2 and ’Orongo perhaps representing
end-on views, the latter with a studding sail running off one of the yardarms (Fig. 3). On
visiting ’Orongo in 1882 Geiseler noted freshly painted European vessels with sailors ‘lined
up hands to hips’ (Ayres and Ayres 1995; Heyerdahl 1961: 79), while Routledge (1920:
433) records one vessel with two figures depicted in the rigging, one wearing a red shirt.
The most realistic depiction of a European ship is the painting in a cave at Hanga Te’e/
Vaihu discovered by the Norwegian expedition (Heyerdahl 1961: 478–9). It is sufficiently
detailed and faithfully represented to enable its identifi cation as a barque of eighteenth- or
early nineteenth-century date (Marquardt 1992). Here, attempts at strict similitude stop.
The other ship images are in fact curious hybrids, displaying features of both European
ships and Polynesian canoes. Equivalence between European ships and Polynesian
Plate 1 Toppled moai at Ahu Akahanga.
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voyaging canoes may even be stressed in the curious combination of curved hulls without
foremasts and square-rigged triple main masts seen with the Rano Raraku and ’Orongo
images. Images of a European-style ship and large Polynesian canoe were even combined
at Ana Tu’u Hata (Lee 1992: 113). The hull of the more obviously Polynesian vessel
incorporates a series of komari (vulva) engravings along its length, implying an association
with the commemoration of adolescent initiation rites (Routledge 1919: 263). That a large
Figure 3 Ship paintings inside the buildings at ’Orongo (after Heyerdahl and Ferdon 1961).
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voyaging canoe should itself be represented is of interest, given that by the eighteenth
century such vessels had long gone out of use on Rapa Nui (Thomson 1891: 474). This
part of the image may be more ancient, but it is equally possible that it dates to the contact
period and indicates perpetuated memory of the form of historically important vessels that
first brought settlers to the island including the mytho-historic founder and ariki mau
(supreme chief) Hotu Matu’a.
The ship image carved on moai 263 at Rano Raraku (Fig. 5) is again highly
schematized/hybridized, leading Skjo
lsvold (1961: 353) to uncertainty over whether it
represented a European ship or not. Its square-rigged form shows inspiration at least from
European vessels. Most perplexing is the attachment of a turtle to the anchor cable, and
the termination of this close to the statue’s navel. It is almost as if the ship is joined to the
Figure 4 Rapa Nui petroglyphs showing European and hybrid vessels (after Heyerdahl and Ferdon
1961 and Lee 1992).
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Figure 5 European/hybrid vessel engraved on moai 263 Rano Raraku (after Heyerdahl and Ferdon
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statue via an umbilical cord. Here, the image of a vessel belonging to powerful
and partially comprehended visitors was literally worked ont o the body of an ancestral
European ships are not the only vessels to be depicted. Petroglyphs of Polynesian canoes
are very well represented on the island, especially in the region from Ra’ai to ‘Anakena on
the north coast, and on pukao (scoria topknots) at the Puna Pau quarry (Lee 1992: 104–12;
Van Tilburg and Lee 1987). Although these designs may be long-lived and part of a rock
art tradition that goes back to the early settlement of the island, many are superimposed
on pukao that have been toppled from moai statues, suggesting that the frequency of
carving increased dramatically during the contact period (Lee 1992: 122). The distribution
of carvings contrasts with the south co ast focus of depictions of European/hybrid ships,
perhaps implying a division in ceremonial practices that reflects the existence at this time
of competing clan confederations.
Miro o’one
The large outriggerless canoes of ‘glorious beings’ (Driessen 1982) were commemorated
not just in images, but in a series of remarkable performative acts that took place in special
ceremonial structures. During fie ldwork on the island in 1914–15, Katherine Routledge
recorded the oral testimony of a popular religious performance.
She also discovered
archaeological evidence for the ritual in the form of a 42m-long platform of rounded
pebbles upon which a thatched house had stood. When Routledge enquired of its
significance among her local guides she was told that it was a hare a te atua (house of the
god or deified ancestor), and that the beings praised during ceremonies here were ‘the men
who came from far away in ships’ (Routledge 1919: 239). She goes on to describe simpler
forms of celebration on long earth mounds known as miro o’one (boats of sand). Surviving
earthworks of miro o’one are known on the south side of the island at Hanga Poukur a (site
6–14), on the ridge of M aunga Ori (site 6–411) and on low ground to the east of the latter
at Miro O’ one (site 7–252). In plan they are of boat form, c. 30–54m in length and c.5min
width dimensions close to those both of European sailing ships of the eighteenth and
early nineteen th centuries and of some of the larger Polynesian war canoes of the period
(Hooper 2006: 18). Depressions within these mounds most likely correspond to the
locations of wooden and thatched superstructures.
Ships, canoes and cosmological possibilities
So why such an inter est in ships, and what was being represented by these images and sites
of performance? Lee suggests the miro o’one ceremonies were components of a cargo cu lt,
intended to ‘bring more ships to the island’ (1992: 113). In such a perspective, Europeans
were valued as powerful conduits through which prized materials such as cloth and iron
were transported to Rapa Nui and for which rites were necessary to ensure continued
contact. While historical accounts suggest a desire on the part of the Rapa Nui population
for contact with European voyagers, there is interpretative danger in assuming this was
driven by hunger for material goods alone, and that Western commodities exerted ‘some
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irresistible attraction that is given the status of an inexorable historical force’ (Thomas
1991: 103). It is, after all, the ships and their crews that are depicted on the paintings at
’Orongo and in cave sites, on petroglyphs and through the remarkable performances at the
hare a te atua and miro o’one. Perhaps the interest lay as much, if not more, in these
curious and powerful strangers, their actions and the vessels they travelled in as in the
cargo they carried.
There can be little doubt that a fascination with ships existed.
The first islander to climb
aboard one of Roggeveen’s ships took a particular interest in its construction (Corney
1908: 8), and the same level of intense curiosity about these incredible pieces of floating
technology was expressed during the Spanish visit in 1770 (ibid.: 120). Hooper (2006: 18)
makes the pertinent point that boats were central in these encou nters because they were an
artefact type held in common; they constituted a material field within which Europeans
and Polynesians sought similitude. Ships were canoes, and canoes were ships. The master
of the Dolphin, George Robertson, recognized the utility in thinking of European vessels
as ‘great canoes’ (1948: 156), while the Tahitian chief Tu named one of his war canoes
Britannia at the request of his exchange partner, Captain James Cook (Hooper 2006: 19).
Striking similarities also existed between the hierarchical order within European naval
organization and that of Polynesian chiefdoms (Dening 1992): both communities shared a
concern with status and its material performance through dress and prowess in conflict
and voyaging.
We would argue that it helps to collapse the distinction between canoes and ships, things
that were Polynesian and things that were European. The world of culture contact is
characterized by mutability and re-contextualization of practices and materials (Thomas
1991), and we should be wary of reading outward form as a simple index of a spurious
inherent quality to any thing. Taussig (1993) makes the point eloquently in his study of the
colonial wooden figurines of the Cuna. While outwardly depicting white colonial figures,
the Cuna categorically stress that the figurines do not represent such; rather they are
powerful media through which magic and medicine can be performed.
As with the Cuna, mimesis on Rapa Nui needs to be viewed through a Polynesian lens,
albeit one reshaped by the experience of contact with outsiders. When the Spaniards
erected three crosse s on the hillocks of Poike in 1770 the islanders recognized these as a
material manifestation of a divine presence. Europeans did not always recognize how
potent wooden poles could be, as objects of genealogical connection to the land and the
divine, but learnt through Hone Heke’s repeated attacks on the flagpole at Kororareka,
New Zealand, and the parading of the mast-and-sail-like staff of Lono on Hawaii (Dening
1992: 163–6; Sahlins 1985: 60–5). One might therefore wonder whether the triple masts of
European vessels, repeatedly depicted in ship paintings and petroglyphs, were
conceptually linked to the triple Poi ke crosse s, to the poles that separated earth and sky
and so to a sense of sacred origin.
As Colin Richards (2008) observes, within Polynesia voyaging was deeply implicated in
the formation of identity, with descent often traced back to named canoes within which
mytho-historic founders had travelled. Canoe/ship imagery on Rapa Nui might thus
express the feat of Hotu Matu’a, who according to legend originally brought settlers to
Rapa Nui in two large canoes (Van Tilburg and Lee 1987: 146), or to other voyaging
exploits, real or mythical, including that of the first Europeans. Voyaging was also a
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transformative practice, and one that might take on a supernatural dimension
(C. Richards 2008: 212–5). It is reported that old canoes placed in caves on Rapa Nui
were used as burial cases (Thomson 1891: 474), here expressing a metaphor of spirit
journey through the conduit of a liminal landscape location. Much the same notion of
supernatural travel and journeying back to an ancestral homeland (Po, where spirits of the
ancestors dwelt: Fischer 2005: 58) could lie behind the inclus ion of ship imagery in the
caves at Ana Tu’u Hata, Hanga Tee/Vaihu and Ana Kai Tangata, and the ana (cave)
houses at ’Orongo. Transformation from corporeal to spirit state and journey to other
realms are certainly implied by the tangata manu imagery at ’Orongo. Could the
‘umbilical’ line running from the ship engraving on moai 263 at Rano Raraku be
accommodated within similar structural terms, as an expression of linkage through birth
back to distant lands was the ancestor materialized by the moai conceptualized as
someone who had travelled to Rapa Nui on such a vessel? Specific interpretation has
always to engage with the complex and richly textured layers of metaphor, allegory,
mimicry and allusion that constitute Polynesian cultural practices from art and dance to
politics and religious performance (Kaeppler 2001, 2008; McLean 1999; Sahlins 1985).
The notion that contact bro ught profound changes to life on Rapa Nui is not a new one
(Lavachery 1936: 60; Routledge 1919: 300–1; Van Tilburg 1994: 29–32, 2006). To date, this
episode of the island’s human history has not received the attention from archaeologists
that it deserves, no doubt because the intellectual appeal of Rapa Nui’s archaeology has
always lain in the lure of origins (first settlement), an understanding of the island’s
remarkable monument traditions and explanations of cultural evolution and collapse.
There also exists a tendency to see events on the island during the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries as a simple trajectory of decline (cf. Fischer 2005), a sad postscript to
a vibrant prehistoric sequence. We have highlighted the ways that myriad new practices
and social orders emerged through a creative agency that drew inventively upon the
material and cosmological possibilities afforded by contact. There developed ‘cultures of
contact’ (Campbell 2003) that, while created out of pre-existing symbolic structures,
possessed their own distinct dynamic identities. Ship imagery and ship performances
belong to fields of practice that are obviously of this period, but we would argue that many
of the political and religious changes that are currently accommodated somewhat
uncomfortably at the very end of the island’s prehistoric sequence, such as the
performative leadership contests at ’Orongo, are also an outcome of the peculiar
circumstances of contact. To demonstrate or refute this reading of the sequence is a
challenge that only archaeology can address.
We would like to thank Sue Grice for preparing the illustrations, Stephanie Wynne-Jones
for commenting on an earlier draft of this paper and Louisa Pittman and Sue Hamilton
576 Joshua Pollard et al.
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for information. A special gratitude is owed to the two anonymous reviewers who helped
correct many errors of detail and interpretation.
Joshua Pollard
Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol
Alistair Paterson
Archaeology, School of Social & Cultural Studie s, University of Western Australia
Kate Welham
Bournemouth University, Archaeology Group, School of Applied Sciences
1 Moai were also toppled through the action of tsunamis. A particularly powerful tsunami
that struck the south-east coast of Rapa Nui in May 1960 washed fifteen moai up to
100m inland from the Tongariki ahu (Fischer 2005: 208).
2 As Van Tilburg has highlighted (2003), the conditions under which Routledge collected
her oral history on pre-conversion practices were far from ideal, and so the detail should
be treated with a degree of caution.
3 Rapa Nui was not the only place in Polynesia where indige nous ritualized appropriation
and manipulation of European ships occurred. Thomas (1991: 109–10) notes the case of
the Samoan Papalagi (foreigner) ship recorded by Commodore Wilkes of the US
Exploring Expedition in 1839. A ‘replica’ vessel was observed in a clear ing, made from a
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Joshua Pollard is a Reader in Archaeology at the University of Bristol. His research has
previously focused on the British Neolithic, depositional practices and landscapes of
Alistair Paterson is the Chair of Archaeology at the University of Western Australia. His
research interests include the archaeology of recent Aboriginal Australia, historical
archaeology, the archaeology of colonialism, cultural landscapes, historical rock art and
maritime archaeology.
Kate Welham is Head of Archaeology at Bournemouth University. Her research interests
lie in historical archaeology and archaeological science. She is a member of the ‘Rapa Nui
Landscapes of Construction’ project.
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... Seventh, there is no evidence for widespread lethal weapons or skeletal trauma resulting in mortality (e.g., Gill and Stefan, 2016;Lipo et al., 2016;Owsley et al., 2016). Finally, critical reexaminations of ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts point to a misunderstanding of the island stemming from the impact of European diseases, slave raids, and island-wide sheep ranching (e.g., Boersema, 2018Boersema, , 2015Hunt and Lipo, 2011;Lipo and Hunt, 2009;Mulrooney et al., 2009;Peiser, 2005;Pollard et al., 2010;Rainbird, 2002). Many, however, continue to present a collapse narrative in one form or another as if it were fact (e.g., Bahn and Flenley, 2017;Brandt and Merico, 2015;Kirch, 2017;Kolb, 2020;Ramírez Aliaga, 2019;Reuveny, 2012;Roman et al., 2018Roman et al., , 2017Scheffer, 2016). ...
... Precisely what caused the moai to fall remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that most certainly fell post-contact ( Figure 6; Edwards et al., 1996;Fischer, 2005, p. 80;Pollard et al., 2010). The first two European visits by the Dutch in AD 1722 and Spanish in AD 1770, for ex- Journal of Pacific Archaeology -Vol. ...
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Warfare is widely accepted as a transformative factor in human history. However, as warfare is not inevitable in human groups, archaeologists must critically assess the empirical evidence for war and its importance in the past. Here, we reevaluate the culture history of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), often interpreted as a case of warfare resulting in social upheaval. Common accounts hold that, prior to European contact, clan groups eventually ceased making moai statues and statue platforms (ahu), battled with obsidian spears, sought refuge in fortified caves, and toppled rivals' moai in a prolonged period of internecine warfare termed the 'Huri Moai' phase. Examining this culture historical framework and evidence for warfare and monument destruction, we find a lack of support in archaeological or historical records for a pre-contact Huri Moai phase. Overall, these findings highlight how archaeologists must carefully evaluate assumptions about the prevalence of violence and war in the past given the evidence for each case. In the case of Rapa Nui, our prior understanding of the island's culture history is in need of fundamental revision.
... Regardless of who and what came on them, and the far-reaching repercussions thereof (cf. Campbell 2003;Pollard et al. 2010), the people of this remote island are described to have had a deep fascination for those giant vessels that first appeared on their shore on Easter Sunday of 1722. The big and complex sailing ships of Europeans were a stark contrast to the small indigenous Rapanui canoes made of sewn-together pieces of ...
... Ship petroglyph on the chest of moai 263 at the Rano Raraku statue quarry. Modified fromPollard et al. (2010) afterHeyerdahl and Ferdon (1961). ...
... It is generally thought that chickens were domesticated first for cultural purposes in the south or southeast Asia at least 8000 years ago (i.e. for cockfighting or as items of religious significance), and only then were their meat and eggs used as a food resource (Carter 1971;Crawford 1990). However, by the time they were transported as far as Rapa Nui, separating their use in cultural practices from that as a food source is somewhat difficult; early accounts by Dutch and Spanish explorers to Rapa Nui suggest that the main medium by which social relations were initiated were largely food-related (chickens, plantains, sweet potatoes were all seen as high status and traded for European items; Corney et al. 1908:13,121;Pollard et al. 2010). As chickens appear to have been a part of the diet throughout the entire period prior to European contact, their importance as a food source is undeniable (Commendador et al. 2013). ...
Rapa Nui is one of the smallest, most remote, and isolated landmasses in the world to have already been settled when European explorers arrived in the eighteenth century. The first people to arrive on Rapa Nui were Polynesians thought to have island-hopped from east Asia (mitochondrial origin in southern China, Ko et al. 2014; Bellwood et al. 2017; language origin in Taiwan, Gray et al. 2009, Klamer 2019; nuclear genome origin in southern China, Yang et al. 2020) over many generations across Oceania to arrive on Rapa Nui approximately 750 years ago (Wilmshurst et al. 2011). The navigational achievements of the Polynesians simply to reach Rapa Nui, let alone persist on it, were extraordinary. Whether or not further eastward exploration included contact with pre-European South America, with accompanying gene flow between the Rapa Nuians and South Americans or only the trade of goods, is still up for debate. Either way, the transportation of animal and plant species undoubtedly proved essential to early Polynesian survival in both Near Oceania (defined as a region of the Pacific that includes New Guinea, the Bismarck archipelago, and the Solomon Islands that was settled 35,000 years ago) and Remote Oceania (defined as the islands east of the Solomon Islands that were settled from 3000 to 3500 years ago).
... Similarly, the pre-Routledge archaeological collections offer a unique point of entry for the study of early visitors to Easter Island (Altman 2004;Corney 1908;Palmer 1870;Salmond 1991), and the archaeology of contact (cf. Pollard et al. 2010), for instance through examining the provenance of the material in the PRM founding collection and connections with HMS Topaze. The history of the encounters of the Bounty mutineers and their descendants with the archaeological remains of Pitcairn remains an unexplored episode in Pacific history. ...
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The Pitt-Rivers Museum holds c. 667 artefacts from Rapa Nui and c. 93 from Pitcairn Island, most of them collected by the Katherine and Scoresby Routledge expedition of 1914/15. Together they provide a key resource for the study of the prehistoric material culture of the two Islands.
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A digital survey, combining photogrammetry and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), offers significant new insights into the British Museum’s Easter Island statue called Hoa Hakananai’a. These include the likelihood that it was made with a tapering base to stand in the ground, as seen by the crew of HMS Topaze in 1868, and that a nearby stone described a century ago was a pukau, a stone ‘hat’. Petroglyphs consisting of two komari (stylised female genitalia) were subsequently added. Succeeding these were bas-relief carvings, here interpreted as a single composition that narrates the island’s birdman myth as recorded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This reading is supported by photographs of Hoa Hakananai’a taken in Chile in 1868. A new model is presented for the relationship between the statue and the birdman cult. As it now stands, in a nineteenth-century plinth, Hoa Hakananai’a appears to lean slightly from its intended placing
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Drawing on their own primary research, Hunt and Lipo argue that Easter Island's population did not collapse from human exploitation of the environment.
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Journals, instructions, minutes, and despatches, transcribed, translated and edited, with an extract from the 1825 journal of Lieut. George Peard, of H.M.S. Blossom. Preface by Cyprian Bridge. Includes a bibliography of 'Easter Island and the Pacific Ocean', pp. 147-58. This is a new print-on-demand hardback edition of the volume first published in 1908.
When Western scholars write about non-Western societies, do they inevitably perpetuate the myths of European imperialism? Can they ever articulate the meanings and logics of non-Western peoples? Who has the right to speak for whom? Questions such as these are debated in this text. Marshall Sahlins addresses these issues head on, while building a case for the ability of anthropologists working in the Western tradition to understand other cultures. In recent years, these questions have arisen in debates over the death and deification of Captain James Cook on Hawaii Island in 1779. Did the Hawaiians truly receive Cook as a manifestation of their own god Lono? Or were they too pragmatic, too worldly-wise to accept the foreigner as a god? Moreover, can a "non-native" scholar give voice to a "native" point of view? This volume seeks to go far beyond specialized debates about the alleged superiority of Western traditions. The culmination of Sahlins's ethnohistorical research on Hawaii, is a reaffirmation for understanding difference.