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Vol. 14, no. 6
Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012


Rethinking Rapa Nui 

Story by Samson Reiny


photo courtesy: Pacific Collection, Hamilton Library, Univ. of Hawaii-Manoa

In 1774 Commander James Cook
and his men were traversing the Antarctic Circle on the HMS Resolution. They were engaged in a futile search for the fabled super-continent of Terra Australis, and after two months of wandering landless, frigid waters their ship began to run perilously low on supplies; because of the privation, the men were suffering from scurvy. Recalling accounts of the existence of a small island to the north, Cook ordered the ship in that direction so that it might stock up on desperately needed provisions. On March 11 he and his men sighted Rapa Nui (also known in contemporary times as Easter Island).


Once ashore Cook and his men surveyed the land’s resources and concluded that their venture was a bust. Cook lamented that “nature has been exceedingly sparing of her favours to this spot,” remarking that the land was barren and that both fresh water and wood seemed almost nonexistent. Given these circumstances, the crew reasoned, it was no wonder the native population stood at a scant 700: A place as uninhabitable as this could not have supported a larger community. And even these people, according to Cook, appeared “small, lean, timid, and miserable.”


Yet the scarcity and hardship on the island presented a glaring paradox in the form of several hundred imperious stone statues standing at attention along the shoreline. Some of the statues were more than forty feet tall and weighed tens of tons. How, the explorers wondered, could such a stunted population have gathered the energy and resources to erect these monoliths? A German-born naturalist on the ship, Johann Reinhold Forster, reasoned that these statues, or moai, represented a more auspicious era, when the inhabitants were more numerous and their society more vibrant. Then, he concluded, something tragic must have happened.


He left it at that. “It is not in our power,” the naturalist wrote, “to determine by what various accidents a nation so flourishing could be reduced and degraded to its present indigence.”