Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Rapa Nui and the classic rock of apocalyptic thinking

Moai "Hoa Hakananai'a"
from Rapa Nui  (Easter
Island), British Museum.
Photo by your humble

Fashions change in apocalyptic villain-mongering as they do in clothes. Yesterday's communists or Japanese or American capitalists are today's Taliban or Chinese or American capitalists (though Jews are classic and always in style when it comes to scapegoating).

The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (2011), by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, sets out (and succeeds, it says here) to debunk the theory that ecological catastrophe wiped out Easter Island's population, that the island was denuded of trees to make apparatus with which to haul the island's famous moai, one of which appears at right.

Rather, the archaeologist authors point out, based on geological and archeo-botanic evidence, deforestation began before humans populated the remote Polynesian island. In the process, they cite experiments demonstrating that the islanders could well have moved the massive stone statues by rolling them slowly on their bases a step at a time, the way one might move a refrigerator across a room. The resulting rolling and lurching movement, they suggest, supports folklore about the statues walked; hence, the book's title.

Hunt and Lipo argue that disease and other social ills brought by Europeans starting in 1722, rather than "ecocide" (the authors put that term between inverted commas, and I like to think they do so to mock its voguishness), decimated the island's population, driving it as low as 110 from possibly 3,000.  What's interesting is that the white-man-spreads-disease-and-exterminates-darker-skinned-peoples explanation topped the apocalyptic blame charts for so many years (never mind that the Black Death originated in China), displaced in recent years by fears of environmental apocalypse: You know, climate change, as if climate change were not and had not always been constant.

Hunt and Lipo take an unfashionably optimistic view of Rapa Nui's potential to meet their latest challenges, those posed by tourism and development. And their displacement of one culturally fashionable apocalypse scenario with another that was equally fashionable just a few years before. It's like those albums the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix kept releasing and topping the charts with for years after they died, broke up, or both.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Blogger Unknown said...

Fascinating! But I doubt the mysteries will ever be solved. Come to think of it, we need unsolvable mysteries. Ever since we got kicked out of Eden it's been one damned thing after another -- almost always our own fault. We kill ourselves and others one way or another, leaving plenty of mysteries in our wake

July 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One such mystery is why we are driven to try to solve mysteries. But I do think this set of guesses is a good deal more plausible than what went before--though the authors avoid belittling the theories of others.

July 11, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Peter this has nothing to do with Rapa Nui, but I thought you might like the opening lines of a recent newspaper article for their lurid noir quality. I don't know if it's good journalism or bad journalism, but it is definitely enjoyable journalism.

Police Probe Harbor Hooker's Trail of Dead Beaus

July 11, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You had me with "hooker's trail of dead beaus." Thanks.

July 11, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Great. I thought you might like that.

July 11, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The "lede" (what we call the first paragraph) is a nice bit of lurid understatement. Reminds me a bit of James Ellroy's Crime Wave.

July 11, 2014  
Anonymous mystery stories said...

I'm a big fan of Easter island and the statues. I was very happy when I saw one of them in British museum.

July 15, 2014  

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