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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

Easter Island

Easter Island

Easter Island, situated in latitude 27° 10' S. and longitude 109° 20' W., is the most easterly land settled by the Polynesians. It is a lone volcanic island 1,600 miles from Mangareva and 2,230 miles from South America. The island contains a number of extinct volcanic craters, between which are low lying plains formed by old lava flows. The soil is shallow, dry, and stony with meager vegetation and a scarcity of good timber. Rocky islets off the coast provide breeding places for migrating sea birds.

Native tradition attributes the discovery of the island to Hotumatua, who, after sending some scouts ahead, arrived in his double voyaging canoe, of which the hulls were named respectively Oteka and Oua. He was accompanied in another canoe by the master craftsman Tukoihu. The genealogies are too uncertain to arrive at an approximate date. There is no traditional evidence that a name was applied to the island as a whole, but in later times Rapanui has come to be accepted as the native name.

The Polynesian settlers introduced a number of food plants and the domestic fowl, but the coconut and the pandanus are absent. As substitutes for pandanus leaf, the outer skin from the trunks of banana plants and a coarse rush were used in plaiting mats and baskets. Large timber was nonexistent, hence the canoes were small and poorly made and paddles were made in two pieces which were lashed together. Large images made of volcanic tuff from one of the craters were characteristic of the local culture, as were wooden tablets incised with rows of conventional motifs which included human figures, birds, and ornaments. A complex was developed around the introduced fowl in which stone fowl houses were built, carved skulls used to increase the egg laying capacity of the poultry yard, and the quantity of chicken distributed at feasts denoted social status. An annual competition was connected with the arrival of sooty terns on the islet of Motunui. The chief whose retainer procured the first egg, became the bird-man for the year.

The European discoverer was the Dutch navigator Roggeveen, who sighted the island on Easter Sunday, 1722. He named it Paaschen, hence the English form of Easter Island and the French Iie de Pâques. Behrens, who accompanied Roggeveen, wrote an exaggerated account, but subsequent visitors, such as Cook and La Pérouse, gave more reasonable accounts of what they saw. As many of the early voyagers passed round the Horn, it was convenient to call in at Easter Island to view the statues.

The proximity of the island to South America made the inhabitants an easy prey to slavers, who forcibly carried off large numbers to work in the page 80Guano Islands off the coast of Peru. When the atrocities led Great Britain and France to exert pressure on the Peruvian Government, the survivors, who numbered about 100 out of an original 1,000, were returned. Eighty-five died of small-pox before Easter Island was reached, and the remaining 15 were cast ashore to infect the population, who died in such large numbers that survivors were unable to bury them.

The first white settler was Eugéne Eyraud, a layman of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Picpus. He found it difficult at first to convince the natives that anything good could come from the white people who had wrought them so much harm. Fathers Hippolyte Roussel and Gaspard Zumbohm entered the field, and their teaching made progress. They introduced new fruits, vegetables, and animals. Bishop Jaussen, at Tahiti, was the first to draw attention to the carved wooden tablets which were collected for him by the missionaries in Easter Island. Missionary work was interrupted in 1870 by a French adventurer named Dutroux-Bornier who made their position so intolerable that the priests and their flocks left the island for Mangareva and Tahiti, leaving about 175 natives on the island. After the deserved slaying of Dutroux-Bornier in 1877, the Easter Islanders returned. Alexander P. Salmon, of good family on his Tahitian side, took over the sheep ranch which had been established, and the people had a happier time with a man who understood their feelings.

H.M.S. Topaz visited the island in 1868 and took away the two statues which now adorn the portico of the British Museum. Palmer, the ship's surgeon, was the first to describe the statue quarry in the crater of Ranoraraku. The French warship La Flore touched briefly in 1872 and obtained a statue for the Trocadero Museum, Paris, and Pierre Loti, a midshipman, wrote a work which was more fanciful than accurate. The German sloop Hyane called in 1882, and its commander, Geiseler, made the most complete collection of native artifacts. The U.S.S. Mohican visited for a number of days in 1888, and Paymaster Thomson's report forms a good summing up of the information available at the time. He received much of his information from Alexander P. Salmon.

Of other writers, William Churchill made an exhaustive study on the language which was published by the Carnegie Institute. J. Macmillan Brown, whose work is cited in the general literature, built up a theory that Easter Island is the unsubmerged peak of a larger land mass. The Routledge Expedition remained on the island for 16 months in 1914-1915, but, except for Mrs. Routledge's popular work, the published results have been disappointing. The Franco-Belgian Expedition of 1934-1935 (p. 54) has resulted in published papers on archaeology by Henri Lavachery and on ethnology by Alfred Métraux, whose work includes a summary on physical characteristics by H. L. Shapiro.

page 81

Literature on Easter Island

Early Voyagers (see chronological list, pp. 66-75)

  • Beechey (1825-1828)
  • Behrens (1721-1722)
  • Chamisso (1815-1818)
  • Choris (1815-1818)
  • Cook (1772-1775)
  • Du Petit-Thouars (1836-1839)
  • Gonzalez (1770-1771)
  • Kotzebue (1815-1818)
  • Langsdorff (1803-1806)
  • La Pérouse (1785-1788)
  • Lisiansky (1803-1806)
  • Moerenhout (1828-1834)
  • Roggeveen (1721-1722)
Other Writers

Churchill, William, Easter Island: the Rapanui speech and the peopling of southeast Polynesia, Washington, 1912.

Eyraud, F. E., Lettre du F. Eugène Eyraud au T. R. P. Supérieur général: Annales de la propagation de la foi, vol. 38, pp. 52-71, 124-138, Lyon, 1866; vol. 39, pp. 250-259, Lyon, 1866-1867.

Geiseler (Kaptänlieutenant), Die Öster-Insel, Berlin, 1883.

Jaussen, Tepano, L'Iie de Pâques: historique et écriture: Bull. de Geogr. Hist, et Descriptive, no. 2, pp. 240-270, Paris, 1893.

Lavachery, Henri, Iie de Pâques, Paris, 1935.

Lavachery, Henri, Les pétroglyphes de l'Ile de Pâques, Parties 1-2, Anvers, 1939.

Loti, Pierre (Julian Viaud), Reflets sur la sombre route, Paris (n.d.).

Olivier, Pacôme, Lettres du R. P. Pacôme Olivier … au T. R. P. Supérieur général: Annales de la propagation de la foi, vol. 38, pp. 45-52, Lyon, 1866; vol. 39, pp. 250-259, Lyon, 1867.

Palmer, J. Linton, A visit to Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in 1868: Roy. Geogr. Soc., Jour., vol. 40, pp. 167-181, London, 1870.

Roussel, Hippolyte, Vocabulaire de la langue de l'lle de Pâques ou Rapa nui: Le Muséon, nos. 2-3, pp. 159-254, Louvain, 1908.

Roussel, Hippolyte, Iie de Pâques: Ann. des Sacrés Coeurs, nos. 305-309, pp. 355-360, 423-430, 462-466, 495-499, Paris, 1926.

Routledge, C. S., The mystery of Easter Island, London, 1919.

Thomson, W. J., Te Pito te Henua or Easter Island: U. S. Nat. Mus. Ann. Rept., pp. 447-552, 1889.

Zumbohm, Gaspard, Lettres du R. P. … au Directeur des Annales sur la mission de l'Iie Pâques: Ann. des Sacrés Coeurs, vols. 5-6, Paris, 1879-1880.

Bishop Museum Publications

Drapkin, I., Contribution to a demographic study of Easter Island, Occ. Papers, vol. 11, no. 12, 1935.

Métraux, Alfred, Ethnology of Easter Island, Bull. 160, 1940.

Shapiro, H. L., The physical relationships of the Easter Islanders, Bull. 160, pp. 24-30, 1940.