PRINT April 1963

The Art of Easter Island

NO SINGLE ISLAND in the vast Pacific has held such a fascination in the popular imagination as Easter Island. How its people were able to develop such a complex material culture on such a relatively small and isolated piece of land, which is the most remotely situated of the islands of the Pacific, has always appeared a tantalizing mystery. Here, 2300 miles from the coast of South America to the east, and 1200 miles from Pitcairn Island to the west, the aboriginal Easter Islanders erected their enormous stone statues, developed an impressive megolithic architecture, a system of writing, and a highly sophisticated sculpture in wood.

The island itself, when it was first known to Europeans in the early 18th century, presented an inhospitable topography. Its coastline, 14 miles in length and 7 miles in width, affords only the poorest of sheltered anchorages.

The records and journals of many of the early explorers provides a wealth of information which vividly describes the Easter Islanders and their culture at the time of European contact. The first serious study, though, did not occur until W. J. Thomson’s visit of 1886. In the remarkably brief period of time available to him, he made a rather thorough recording of the major archaeological sites and also collected a representative sample of the art of the Island, including wood and stone sculpture, painted slabs, etc. During the next forty years there were other “expeditions” to the Island, but the only two of significance were that of Katherine S. Routledge in 1914, when some preliminary excavations were accomplished, and the ethnological study made by Alfred Metraux in 1934. While all of these researchers accumulated an immense array of factual information and local legends, they in no way really solved the “mystery” of the Island especially in regard to its prehistory. While anthropological studies, particularly in the area of linguistics and anatomy had demonstrated the kinship of the Easter Islanders to other Polynesian cultures to the west, there were still a number of cultural and esthetic traits which remained unaccounted for. Answers to these questions could only be provided by a thorough archaeological study of the Island. It is amazing that with all the popular and professional interest in the Island and its culture no full scale scientific archaeological excavations were carried out on the Island until the Thor Heyerdahl Norwegian Archaeological Expedition of 1955.

The motivation underlying Heyerdahl’s expedition was to uncover additional evidence bearing upon his earlier 1952 thesis (contained in his “American Indians in the Pacific”) that at least some of the peopling of the Pacific Islands had come from the Americas rather than from South East Asia, Melanesia and other areas to the west. While Heyerdahl was thoroughly committed to this thesis, he wished to examine the problem of Easter Island in as objective and detached a manner as possible, and with this view in mind he engaged a group of distinguished American and Norwegian archaeologists to carry out the work. These included Dr. William Mulloy, Professor Arne Skjolsvold, Dr. Carlyle S. Smith and Edwin N. Ferdon, Jr. A wide variety of studies and excavations were carried out by this group, and additional work was accomplished in 1960 when William Mulloy spent another year on the Island engaged in further archaeological research.

As an outcome of these studies a basic prehistoric chronology has been established, and the dating of the earliest occupation of the Island has been radically revised. Earlier writers had tended to date the settlement of the Island as rather late; thus, Metraux had suggested the 12th century A.D. and Englert had proposed a date as late as the 16th century A.D. Through the method of radioactive carbon (C-14) dating the Norwegian expedition was able to establish that the Island contained a complex civilization in the late 4th century A.D. (386+/—100) and that the prehistory of the Island falls into three periods: an Early Period (400?–1100 A.D.), a Middle Period (1100–1680), and a Late Period (1680–1868). With the present evidence available it would seem not at all unlikely that Easter Island was inhabited as early as the first century A.D.

As one would expect, the direct results of the Norwegian Expedition and William Mulloy’s subsequent work have raised more questions than they have answered. Obviously, more archaeological work must be carried on at Easter Island itself, and of equal importance, no real solution can be arrived at until more is known of the prehistory of the Pacific Coast of South America and of the other Polynesian Islands.

Of the varied art forms of Easter Island it is the large volcanic stone statues which have always held the public’s imagination. A majority of these statues now lie face downward, but originally many were situated, usually in groups, upon stone platforms, while many are still standing in the vicinity of the stone quarry. Almost all of these statues were quarried from the extinct volcano of Rano Raraku and many of them in finished and unfinished condition are to be found in the interior of the crater or on the external slopes of the volcano. Some statues consisted of two separate pieces, the body and head as one and a red scoria top knot which surmounted the head. The statues represent male figures, and according to local legends they depict “chiefs” or “kings,” and were one of the numerous expressive devices utilized in the ancestor worship of the Easter Islanders. The features of the figures were extremely conventionalized within their simple rectangular block-like forms. Secondary elements such as arms and hands were delineated only in low relief carving. Stylistically the large statues display a considerable uniformity. This sameness of quality has made it difficult for past researchers to discover any evolutionary pattern. The Norwegian expedition, though, brought to light a number of aberrant types which help to convey a picture of how these forms evolved to their final classic shape.

Less known among the art forms of Easter Island are its remarkable megolithic architecture, its rock drawings and pictures, and its small stone and wood sculpture. Examples of the latter have been gathered for over 150 years, and are to be found today in museums and private collections throughout the world. With a few exceptions almost all of these small wood and stone figures now extant are recent (that is, do not date before the mid 18th century), yet they represent a long, conservative and traditional mode of expression which most likely dates into the Island’s prehistoric periods. Like the large stone figures, many of these small sculptures appear to have been involved with ancestor worship. The first mention of the wood figures was by Cook, who wrote that they were “. . . based upon ancient artistic tradition,” and that they were freely traded and bartered from the earliest times. George Forster who accompanied Cook wrote in 1777 of “several human figures, made of narrow pieces of wood about 18 inches to 2 feet long, and wrought in a much neater and more proportionate manner than we could have expected, after seeing the rude sculpture of the statues. They represented both sexes; the features were not pleasing, and the whole figure was much too long to be natural; however, there was something characteristic in them, which showed a taste for the arts.”

The wood sculpture was made through the skillful manipulation of the adz and chisel. According to Mulloy all of the present day male members of the community can produce these figures, although certain more skillful individuals obviously acquire a reputation which places a high demand for their products. An examination of various specimens of this sculpture in numerous collections reveals an impressive uniformity in style, together with a tremendous variation in quality of execution. Such an examination suggests that the art passed through a period of degeneration in the latter 19th century and since that time has undergone a considerable revival of excellence and development. Among other changes in the newer figures is the uniform tendency to enlarge the head in proportion to the rest of the body.

There are 12 most frequently encountered forms of the wooden sculpture plus a number of composite and variant forms. These classic forms are the “Moai Kava Kava” (most frequently a male human figure rendered as a desiccated corpse), the “Moko” (lizard form), the “Tahonga” (ball-like gorget often with attached human head or heads), the “Tangatamanu” (male human birdman), the “Rei-Miro” (wooden neck insignia, usually with profile of human head at both ends), the “Ao” (clubs), “Paoa” (long club used as rank insignia), “Ua” (dance paddle), the “Moai Paepae” and “Moai Tongata” (standing female or male figure), the “Ika” (fish), and the “Manutara” (bird, sooty tern).

The classic and most often discussed example of Eastern Island wood sculpture is the “Moai Kava Kava.” These figures representing a standing emaciated corpse were malevolent spirits. They were kept in the houses usually wrapped in tapa cloth and on occasion were worn about the neck of their owners in public ceremonies and in the dance. The older statues were made of Toro Miro wood (mimosa wood), while with the scarcity of this wood the more recent figures utilize Miro Tahiti. A typical figure has eyes of inlaid shark vertebrae with obsidian centers, and the older examples were partially painted in certain details: especially the teeth and nostrils which were covered with a red-orange to red-yellow pigment and occasional rectangular designs on the cheeks. In size these figures vary from 2 or 3 inches to 5 feet, the average being 10 to 20 inches.

The body of the “Moai Kava Kava” figure emphasized the emaciated character of the figure through an emphasis on its rib structure, collar bone, shoulder, vertebrae and pelvis. The head and face exhibit a prominent aquiline nose, a short stylized beard, projecting eyebrows, a prominent grinning mouth with teeth showing, and the artificially extended ear lobes with a well marked slit and round ear plugs. The tops of the head generally have a low relief glyph representing human forms, the double bird motif, the lizard or the fish, or more frequently stylized hair. A small circle is often carved in low relief at the base of the spine and there is frequently a protruding pierced hanging lug placed at the back of the neck. This is often absent or only partially present in modern figures.

As with all Easter Island sculpture, and for that matter much of primitive art throughout the world, the “Moai Kava Kava” figure was conceived of as a series of distinct, individual parts, and parts within parts. These figures, and also the “Moko,” “Tangatamenu,” and “Tahonga” forms have been thought of in a much more three dimensional sense than is generally the case with primitive sculpture. The “Moai Kava Kava” form declares itself as two 180° curved planes: one the front and the other the back. A side or profile view is only meaningful when the figure or the viewer turns to comprehend either the front or rear of the figure. The basic segmented parts of the “Moai Kava Kava” are the head, the neck, the body itself, the two arms and the two legs. Each of these parts is in turn divided into distinct elements; thus on the head of the figure the nose, eyes, elongated ears, the mouth and the glyph exist first and foremost in their own right and only secondarily as minor descriptive elements of the larger part. To one degree or another a similar esthetic predilection runs through all of the Easter Island sculpture, whether it be the large stone figures or the smaller portable wood and stone sculpture.

Our understanding of the connective links of Easter Island art is still in its infancy. That many of the ideas derived from Polynesia would seem to be undeniable, although it is significant to note that there is nothing similar in Polynesian art to the schematic “Moai Kava Kava” figures. The only marginal exception to this are the large tree carvings of the Chatham Island and the wooden ancestor figures of the upper Sepik region of New Guinea, but there would seem to be as many differences between Polynesian art as a whole and that of Easter Island as there are similarities. Whether this simply indicates a variation within the broad complex of Polynesian culture or reveals features derived (as Heyerdahl believes) from the New World is difficult to assert. An impressive array of features such as the prepared plaza with ceremonial structures on both sides, stone ramps, fitted masonry blocks, masonry houses with corbel vaulting, and the weeping eye motif—to name only a few—are shared between Easter Island and the New World. Thus the “mystery” of Easter Island and its art is still very much with us, though with continued archaeological research its solution may not be too far distant.

David Gebhard is Director of the Art Gallery at the University of California in Santa Barbara.