Island voices

by Victoria James

The Mayor

Pedro Pablo Edmunds Paoa, or “Petero” as he is known, has been mayor of Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui’s only settlement, for 12 years, and won re-election last November. He has an open-door policy at his office on Hanga Roa’s main street, and welcomed this writer dropping by to talk about the preservation of Rapa Nui’s cultural heritage.

“As a society of 3,000 people, plus 30,000 tourists a year, we have health problems, education problems and social problems with drugs, alcohol and violence,” he explained. “For us, the preservation of our cultural heritage is way down our list of priorities. People around the world say, ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’ I say, ‘What more can we do?’ For us, this is number 20, 25 on our list.

“So our call is to the hearts of world governments to make an example and help us. We need help, and we need it permanently. Japan, for us, is friendly, really understanding what we have here. Through decades it has helped us. It’s thanks to Japan that the government of Chile is just a little bit interested in us.

“Imagine if other countries could think that way — we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about this.

“Perhaps with that support we could go to museums around the world and reclaim our things. People came here and took our artefacts, but the Rapa Nui people of that time didn’t understand that they should be paid for. We want these things back; we want them all back where they belong. I think the world today owes Rapa Nui an apology for taking away our artefacts.

“More than this, there are many, many of our artefacts in museums that aren’t even on display. I say give them back, so we can display them. The task we face is huge. We have a site on the other side of the island that needs urgent help. Every year, fire goes through it. It heats up the stone and it cracks. We need to restore that, but it will cost about $300,000. And I can name you another site: Orongo. Orongo is falling down. In just a little more time it’s going to be down the cliff. I estimate it’ll take $2 million to prevent this. We need to get under it, reinforce it, conduct scientific studies, but all that costs money, money, money.

“Those are just two examples out of 1,000. Put aside the moai and we still have 1,000 sites. I believe the world must pay attention to what we have here. There is no person yet born who can tell us the meaning of what we have.”

The archaeologist

Jo Anne Van Tilburg is the world’s foremost authority on Easter Island’s statues. As head of the Easter Island Statue Project, based at the University of California, Los Angeles, she has conducted annual fieldwork on the island for nearly two decades. This year she published “Among Stone Giants,” a biography of Katherine Routledge, the first European anthropologist to conduct extensive fieldwork on the island. Routledge’s 1913-14 research captured the memories of a dying generation that was the last to witness and participate in the Orongo Birdman rituals.

“The Easter Island Statue Project is the longest running, most comprehensive project here on the island. We have 10,000 documents on more than 210 sites, and have about another 80-100 to go,” Van Tilburg explained. “It’s a marvelous example of interchange between science and anthropology, outsiders and insiders. One site we’ve studied — it was a cool thing — a little boy just told us about it. We went straight off and investigated, and there it was. So this will be a living database. The database has expanded beyond statues to include sculpture in museums around the world.

“I have a kind of design timeline now that has grown from documentation of the monolithic statues to the whole spectrum of design. These objects are part of the way the Rapa Nui people interpreted their spiritual and natural worlds, so it seemed essential to have an artist as part of the team to interpret that.

“What Katherine (Routledge) achieved during her own excavations was remarkable. She was intuitive, insightful, a woman of the bigger picture. She was tough on herself, but also just tough. Everything about her life on the island was clear to me. I didn’t stumble; I understood what it was like to be an investigator on the island. I also understood many things about being a woman in a man’s world: Archaeology is still a man’s world. And yes, I loved Katherine. I cried when I was writing about her death.”

Van Tilburg has clear views on the theory advanced by Jared Diamond and others who claim that the islanders brought about their own downfall by overexploitation of their resources, principally the island’s forests. I just think [that theory] is too facile. We don’t know enough — the history of climate change, the cycles of drought. We don’t even have a handle on the population. [Such conclusions] may be jumping the gun, given that this is the most studied island in the Pacific.

“The catalog evidence points to a successful, thriving culture that’s motivated, that needs food. Well, that may mean overdepletion of resources, soil erosion. One point Jared makes is the fragility of the island, so you have an environment that wouldn’t favor a society that would practice [destructive behaviors like that].

“Everyone thinks it’s deforestation, that you need the trees to transport these statues. But deforestation wasn’t required to build these statues. One theory is that gradually things got worse, that the chiefs didn’t have enough food to give. But the statues are not what killed the island, they’re evidence of cooperation. Tongariki [a large ahu with 15 moai] is evidence of cooperation. [The Birdman cult of Orongo, from a period postdating the statue-building culture] is evidence of environmental stress and weakening of the ruling classes — of responses to challenges, whether they’re environmental, political or social. The environmental disintegration thesis is still under discussion, it needs to be refined more.”

The Artist

Christian Pakarati is a Rapa Nui-born artist and descendent of Juan Tepano, who was Katherine Routledge’s guide and right-hand-man during her sojourn on Easter Island. History has repeated itself, as Pakarati now works as part of Van Tilburg’s team. His technical and field illustrations for the Easter Island Statue Project database are an invaluable way to record details that photographs don’t always capture clearly. They are also remarkably beautiful works of art.

“The drawings I’ve done have been getting better and better each year,” Pakarati said. “I’m a painter, but the good thing here is that through Jo Anne’s knowledge, I’ve been able to refine my art. Half of that came from my ancestors, but now I’m getting to be complete — I’m half scientist, and half part of a cultural tradition. And that tradition isn’t always true. Half the information you get from your grandparents was wrong, it’s just the way the Rapa Nui people are, with all the religion, the tradition.

“The question is, how to balance the scientist side with all the spooky things — Jo Anne has taken me even through that. You enrich yourself in knowing the two worlds are compatible.”

Pakarati and Van Tilburg have lively exchanges about the theories surrounding the collapse of Rapa Nui’s statue-building culture. The artist favors the view that environmental depletion led to increased status competition between chieftans — rejecting the theory that the Rapa Nui people precipitated their own decline by wholesale cutting down of trees to transport their statues.

“This is a society that respected trees. When they cut down a tree to make a canoe, there was a celebration, so I don’t think these were crazy people just cutting down trees. What happens to a person like a chief if you’ve had people serving you for generations, then you can’t give them what they need anymore? You have to show your status somehow. The biggest moai are still in the quarry; that suggests increasing competition.

“Even now, in ordinary life, Rapa Nui people are very competitive. And Rapa Nui people are still keeping their natural ways. We can leave the island wide open to tourists because there are so few of them.”