Rapa Nui: Easter Island

January 6, 2009By Heidi EllisonArchive

Islanders Vindicated

rapa nui
Moaï Papa. © Galerie Louise Leiris

Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, has always exerted a strong fascination: a tiny “lost” island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 kilometers from the nearest land, it was home to few humans when “discovered” in the 18th century, yet was populated with mysterious signs of a highly developed society: gigantic stone heads, called “moai,” lined up on ceremonial platforms near the shore facing inland or standing in or around the crater of one of the island’s volcanoes.

The scoop of the current exhibition at the Espace Fondation EDF in Paris, “Rapa Nui: Ile de Pâques,” is that the reason the island’s trees disappeared in the 17th century was not because the islanders had destroyed their own environment by chopping them down to make wooden sleds to transport the moai, as some theorists have claimed, but was the result of a decades-long drought that left this seafaring population with no wood to build boats, effectively turning them into prisoners on their island. The exhibition, however, is strangely reticent about the importance of this theory, based on the research of French archaeologists Michel and Catherine Orliac. It is presented matter of factly, as if to avoid attracting much attention or arousing controversy.

We learn that the island was probably first populated by Polynesians around the year 1000. The people seem to have thrived (they even developed a system of writing, rongorongo, a rarity among Polynesian cultures, which has yet to be deciphered) until the deforestation disaster occurred in the 1600s. The lack of wood put an end to the carving of stone moai, since they could no longer be transported. The inhabitants survived precariously until Western explorers arrived in the 18th century and, as is so often the case, contributed to the further demise of the population by introducing diseases the islanders had no resistance to.

Adding insult to injury, in 1862, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped and sold around 1,100 people, half of the island’s population. By 1877, only 115 people were left on the island. In 1879, it was repopulated with sheep, which destroyed most of what was left of its vegetation. It was only in 1950 that sheep were banished from the island, now a national park belonging to Chile. Today, it has 4,000 inhabitants, half of whom claim some Rapa Nui ancestry. They cater to the needs of 400,000 annual visitors.

The treasures of the exhibitions are the wonderful carved wooden figures, with their sad expressions and staring eyes, and other ritual objects on display upstairs. The male figures (moai kavakava) have bird penises hanging from their rib cages, symbolizing the metamorphosis of an ancestor into a bird (the island people worshipped a hybrid bird/man), and one has two heads, for unknown reasons. Another mystery is why the female figures hold one hand over their genitals and the other across their stomach.

Ultimately, this exhibition is an unfocused hodgepodge, with some interesting scientific, historic and anthropological information; some interesting artifacts; and some nice photos of the island (by Micheline Pelletier), but you leave feeling dissatisfied. It provides too much information (often in tiny letters, and only in French) on some things that would be better covered in a book, while not providing enough on others. Anyone curious about Rapa Nui will enjoy it, however, especially for the marvelous wood carvings.

Heidi Ellison

ratpEspace Fondation EDF: 6, rue Récamier, 75007 Paris. Métro Sèvres Babylone. Tel.: 01 53 63 23 45. Open Tuesday-Sunday, noon-7 p.m. Free admission. Through March 1. http://fondation.edf.com

© 2009 Paris Update

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