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Friday, May 25, 2018
Easter Island is the most isolated island on earth. Less than twenty-five kilometers (fifteen miles) across, it is well over 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) distant from the nearest habitable land in any direction. Yet when Europeans first chanced across it (Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen arrived there on Easter Sunday in 1722, hence the name), they found it inhabited. In fact, Rapa Nui (which is the Polynesian name for the island) had been colonized well over a millennium earlier, in about C. E. 400. Whether only a single canoe or fleet of canoes ever reached this remotest corner of Polynesia, or whether for a period there was further contact, we shall probably never know. What is certain is that the inhabitants of the island soon lost contact with their forebears and spent many centuries in complete isolation. Both archaeologists and ecologists have been bequeathed an incredibly valuable case study of people interacting with their environment within a closed system, and it is one that has some sobering lessons for the population of the planet as a whole. Certainly environmental disaster loomed toward the end, when the population had increased dramatically and all the forests had been destroyed.
Among the fascinations of Easter Island are the famous large statues or moai. Several hundred of them came to stand imposingly on platforms (ahu), mostly ringing the island and facing inland, but with a few in other locations. Scores more lie or stand in what resembles a frozen production line in the volcanic crater Rano Raraku, in various stages of production from quarrying to transportation. Why would an isolated population on a small island have put such a significant proportion of its human resources into producing them? One possibility is that they were seen as protective presences, but their full significance for the population of this tiny island remains largely a matter of speculation.
The island has long attracted astronomical attention. As far back as the 1960s, publications appeared describing ahu that were solstitially or equinoctially aligned. But since there are over 250 ahu on the island, the question of bias in selection arose. Were the supposedly astronomically aligned ahu selected on the basis of a preconceived "toolkit" of targets? If so, it is possible that they had no statistical or cultural significance whatso ever. Attempts were made to resolve this question through systematic studies of ahu and moai orientations, both by an archaeologist (the Easter Island specialist William Mulloy) and later by an astronomer, William Liller. They provide only marginal evidence at best of any intentional orientations upon solstitial and equinoctial sunrise and sunset. The overriding tendency is for ahu to be situated close to the coast and oriented parallel to it, with the moai facing inland. Since such platforms are to be found all around the perimeter of the island, their orientations are scattered around the compass, with some falling inevitably within the solstitial and equinoctial ranges.
Perhaps the most noteworthy ahu from an astronomical point of view is one of a small minority that are not situated on the coast but a good way inland. Ahu Huri a Urenga is situated in a low saddle surrounded-unusually for Easter Island-by a hilly horizon with very little sea visible. Standing upon the platform is a distinctive and imposing moai. This is aligned not only upon the rising sun at the June solstice, but upon a prominent hill summit. Another hilltop marks equinoctial sunset. A number of apparently artificial depressions in boulders adjacent to the platform incorporate several so lar alignments and hence, it has been claimed, could have functioned as a solar-ranging device. All this evidence still falls short of conclusive proof, but it does at least raise the possibility that natural features in the landscape were used to mark the solar rising or setting positions at different times of the year. This is a possibility that has been raised elsewhere in Polynesia, for ex ample in the Nā Pali region of the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i.
One of the most significant astronomical alignments to the inhabitants of Rapa Nui may actually have been a natural one. The village of Orongo was placed in an extraordinary situation on a knife-edge ridge overlooking the spectacular but treacherous crater of Rano Kau, with its marshy lake on one side and the ocean on the other. This sacred place was the ceremonial base for the extraordinary annual "birdman" ritual in which contestants had to swim two kilometers (over a mile) out to a small rock, wait there for the return of a migratory sea bird, and collect its first egg. As seen from Orongo, the sun rose behind the summit of Poike, a prominent volcanic hill on a far corner of the island, precisely at the winter (June) solstice. As the rising sun moved away from this peak, the spring ceremony approached. It is hard to believe that priests at Orongo could have failed to notice that the peak of Poike marked the limit of the sun's movement along the horizon, especially given that the word poike, according to the anthropologist and Maori scholar Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), means "to be seen just above the horizon." However, the severe limitations of the topography make it unlikely that this was taken into account when the village was planned. Instead, the solstitial alignment of Poike from the crater-rim village may have been dis covered later. We would see it as a coincidence, but it may well have been taken by the Easter Islanders as something that confirmed and reinforced the already evident sacredness of the place.
A remnant of Easter Island astronomy of a rather different nature may have been bequeathed to us in the form of Rongorongo script, a system of symbols used on Easter Island that seems to have provided a series of triggers for the reader rather than actual words or syllables. One fragment of Rongorongo has been interpreted as a lunar calendar.
References and further reading Barthel, Thomas. The Eighth Land: The Polynesian Discovery and Settle ment of Easter Island. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai`i, 1978. Fischer, Steven Roger, ed. Easter Island Studies, 122-127. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1993. Flenley, John, and Paul Bahn. The Enigmas of Easter Island. Oxford: Ox ford University Press, 2003. Liller, William. The Ancient Solar Observatories of Rapanui: The Archaeoastronomy of Easter Island. Old Bridge, NJ: Cloud Mountain Press, 1993. Mulloy, William T. "A Solstice-Oriented Ahu on Easter Island." Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania 10 (1975), 1-39. Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 148-152. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.
The official dating of the arrival of the first humans at Rapa Nui – between 700 CE and 1100 CE – is not based on any genetic data but exclusively on archaeological evidence. If Dr Schoch’s analysis of the island is even slightly correct, it is also based on selective archaeological evidence, whilst ignoring the sedimentation around the moai and lack of granite quarries, as either of these would push the date back quite significantly. Another example of this selective evidence would be the reliance on a change from palm to grassland around 1200 CE – contiguous with the presumed first arrival of the Polynesians – whilst ignoring the same palm-to-grassland change that occurs at 450 BCE.
It may be the case that 100 CE was indeed when the first people arrived at Rapa Nui. The hypothesis that Polynesian cultures were the most likely to retain elements of the Sunda and Sahul cosmologies remains in play. It is, however, considerably strengthened if it transpires the islands have been, or were once, occupied significantly earlier. The reason for this is Rapa Nuian star lore is astoundingly similar to the emergence of star lore with the first ‘civilisations’ of the Near East and Indian subcontinent. It has the highest degree of ritual overlap out of anywhere in the Pacific which could be explained by using an earlier date of first settlement, contemporaneous with the proposed influence on points west, after which point in time the Rapa Nuians remained in the most splendid of isolations out of anywhere in Polynesia. We shall return to this suggestion following an analysis of their star lore.
Rapa Nui provides the best example in the Pacific of the use of astronomy and star lore for reasons other than navigation. It was home to a powerful priesthood who used their knowledge of observation of the stars to set a yearly calendar of ritual and domestic activities. Most of the information regarding the sacred astronomy of this priesthood was collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, probably the very last time any of these practices remained in living memory, and sometimes only as remembrances of tales told by grandparents. In fact, a lot of the star lore lay forgotten in dusty boxes in the Royal Geographic Society until 1983, when the unpublished field notes of ethnographer Katherine Routledge’s 1914–1919 studies were located. She managed to find two elderly inhabitants who could allegedly read some of the mysterious rongorongo script, although their description of the meanings differs markedly.
Carved onto wooden tablets and seemingly kept in the majority of Rapa Nui homes, this script was only first discovered by Europeans in the 1860s, at which point missionary zeal led to the fiery destruction of most of them. Now only a few dozen remain and many of these are scattered across western museum collections. These tablets are a couple of centuries old and likely copies of earlier tablets or carvings.
Currently undeciphered, the rongorongo glyphs repeat in a way that leads some researchers to suggest they are or were sacred chants. But, as we shall see, there is a good case to be made for suggesting these are depictions of stars and sky phenomena. One interpretation does not preclude the other, of course. Indeed, it seems likely they are sacred chants of star lore, which is not at all without precedent across Polynesia.
Some of the symbols are very similar to glyphs found on other Pacific islands, particularly in Hawaii and Micronesia. Quite suggestively, there is also a stylistic overlap with the also undeciphered Indus script. If these similarities are anything other than accidental, then they may well point to a shared origin, perhaps even a Sundaland one. Even more intriguingly, Dr Schoch sees similarities with both the Nazca Lines and carvings found at Göbekli Tepe. For all of these to have a common origin, we are indeed back in the early days of Southeast Asian colonisation, which is the last time the ancestors of all these cultures were in the one place.
Returning to Katherine Routledge, she was told there were several classes of astronomer priests, each trained to and then tasked with recording the movements of specific asterisms, principally Orion, the Pleiades and Sirius/Canis Major from certain ahu, or sacred platforms. Although the earliest interpretation of these ahu were that they were aligned to solstices and equinoxes (western antiquarians having a tendency to overemphasise the sun), it turns out that those that do have sky alignments are better matches for the rising of specific constellations. And it is those with stellar alignments that are the best constructed out of all the ahu. Caves and natural rocks were also used as observation points. One promontory on the Poike Peninsula is called Papa ui hetu’u, ‘the rock for star-gazing.’ Near to the promontory was a rock Routledge identified as having a cup hole ‘star map’ of the Pleiades. Cup holes are common in megalithic sites across Western Europe and also feature on the tops of the T-shaped pillars at Göbekli Tepe.
Like we find in Western Polynesia, the Eastern Polynesian year began with the rising of the Pleiades, called Matariki. However in the east, they are more explicit about what this entails. During Matariki, the gods descended from the skyworld, ao, to mingle with humans in the realm of the living, called kainga.
Matariki inaugurated the ‘bountiful season,’ called Hora Nui. Beginning at this point and proceeding through the year, the ritual marking of the annual cycle was called ‘the Work of the Gods.’ This calendar was lunar, rather than solar, which is another overlap with early Indian culture. In order of importance, the preeminent asterisms and constellations should be familiar by now.
Orion has three separate names in Rapanui star lore. They are Tautoru, the Three Handsome Ones, which are the belt stars; E tui, ‘The Expelled,’ which is the constellation itself; and Tau ahu, ‘Beautiful Firebrand,’ the name for Rigel and the wife of one of the belt stars. Along with the Pleiades, Orion’s Belt was the most important asterism.
Immediately following the first lunar month of Hora Nui, marked by the Pleiades’ arrival into the sky, was the lunar month of Ruti, where Orion’s Belt was high in the sky and rituals were held to honour the chiefs and ancestors. The next three months deal principally with the location of the Pleiades and Orion’s Belt in the sky and their relationship to Mars, Canopus and other important stellar objects. The month of Tara Hau, when the Pleiades disappeared beneath the horizon, signalled a time of calamity for man until the next Matariki festival in several months’ time. Again, this is curiously redolent of Ancient Egypt.
Other Important Stars
Other stars, planets and constellations of significance recur. Chief among them are Sirius, Te pou o te rangi, the Post of the Sky; Canopus, Po roroa, the Great Darkness, used in conjunction with Orion’s Belt to time the planting season; Mars, Matamea, Red Eye, observed from Routledge’s observatory on Poike and probably considered a bad omen. Vega, Antares, Alpha Centauri, Beta Centauri, Venus and Aldebaran were all named, tracked and calendarised in the ‘Work of the Gods.’
Other Ritual Activity
Turmeric, which is native to southeast India, was made into a body paint called renga during the Matariki festival. Offerings of turmeric were also made to the high chief. If this is not an historical development – which is unlikely – then we are left to wonder how a member of the Indian ginger family ended up on the most isolated island on earth, more than half a world away.
Rapa Nui’s astronomer-priests were known as tohunga. The exact same word in Maori means expert or wise man, equivalent to the Hawaiian kahuna. In New Zealand there were tohunga specialising in navigation, medicine, stars, canoe building and so on. On Rapa Nui, it was the tohunga who read the sacred chants of the rongorongo script. According to what Katherine Routledge was told, these tohunga lived in circular stone towers called tupa. The majority of these tupa are clustered in the northern part of the island, where we also find ‘the rock for star-gazing’ and plenty of ahu. A 2010 Explorers Club Flag Expedition to Rapa Nui found that all but one of these tupa had entranceways that were oriented to a star or asterism in some way involved in the ‘Work of the Gods.’ It may be that measurements were taken when the stars appeared in the doorway or it may even have been a way of drawing down a particular asterism into its tower. Again we immediately think of Egypt.
GATHERING UP THE STARS
What are we to make of Rapa Nui, then? It is apparently the last island in Polynesia to have been colonised, as recently as only a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago. Yet it has geological, archaeological and potentially ritual evidence to suggest activity in much earlier times. Rapa Nui may have been an outpost of the Nusantao Maritime Trading Network that arose immediately after the end of the Ice Age. Or it may have even been a holy island that was not permanently occupied and used as a sacred or holy site, both before and after this point. Perhaps it was a combination of sacred site and sailing stop-off point, never permanently occupied and visited at intervals determined by the stars and the seasons, such as was the case with Göbekli Tepe. One of the names for the island means ‘navel of the world,’ hinting it may have had a ritual value far in excess of its comparatively meagre resource value.
If such a scenario is accurate, it provides a ‘solve’ for the otherwise incongruous data suggesting both very early and very late occupation: it was a site that was used and known during a time when the sea levels were much lower, then it was abandoned or the original inhabitants died out. Then it was recolonised by the descendants of these first occupiers in the first millennium CE and some of the remaining megalithic infrastructure, such as the basalt moai, were repurposed.
Whatever the scenario, the island is the most challenging and most rewarding place to look for where, in the words of Dr Oppenheimer survivors of a sunken landmass may have ‘retained their original culture with the least dilution.’
Right across Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia we have the demonstrable continuity of Gondwana star lore being developed into a highly sophisticated form of Laurasian astronomical knowledge used for navigation and the precise measurement of a ritual year. We find the Gondwana/Laurasia crossover of star lore in the same part of the world – Sunda and Sahul land – where linguistic evidence records the first rise in cultural complexity since we left Africa, which also seems to have stepped, pyramidal hills built before the end of the Ice Age. This part of the world also has genetic, archaeological and potentially linguistic links to the ‘first cilivisations’ of Harappa, Sumer and Egypt, as well as probably South America (although we are now heading in the opposite direction).
Over the last one hundred and fifty years, historians have looked for singular, linear answers: cities started here. The people next door learned from them and then built cities. Pyramids started there and then their neighbours copied the form. This linearity simply does not match what we now know about early human population movements or the ‘overlap analysis’ of world mythology that points to much, much older shared origins of specific gods and cosmologies. This book does not suggest that all culture and civilisation came from the scattered survivors of Sundaland, setting out in ships to become the world’s wisdom teachers. It seems increasingly clear that early communities across Eurasia had hugely sophisticated cosmologies and even architectural capacities by the end of the Ice Age, the original elements of which they may have brought with them as human populations moved up into Eurasia and Europe from South Asia during a brief warm period as the mtDNA evidence suggests. Instead, this book suggests that survivors of the sinking of Sunda and Sahul brought technological and magical techniques with them to populations across central and western Asia that were already in situ and likely even had vaguely recognisable pantheons and practices. It is also fairly likely that the Sunda survivors knew of these scattered communities if the evidence for transoceanic and transcontinental trade is considered.
Moving from Wendy Doniger’s microscope back to her telescope, we find in the star lore of the Pacific a concept of divine kingship descending from the night sky, the magic of immortality and human origin associated with particular asterisms and the belief that actions or architecture ‘below’ are in some way aligned with that which is ‘above.’
Even more than that, we have specific asterisms such as Orion and even god names that recur in both description and magical function for the next five thousand years. We can now posit that creating a map or replica with specific points in the night sky, a concept we see executed throughout dynastic Egypt and continuing into the hermetic traditions of the Classical Age, seems to be a very long-lived one. The development of this star map with ever more precision is, I believe, the ‘wisdom of the sages come down to us from a time before the Flood,’ as it is commonly described. It grew in a highly specific incubator: the interactions with the spirit world conducted by a culture or cultures of highly proficient open ocean navigators for whom precision was a literal matter of life and death. And the proof of their supreme competence is the very fact of the existence of their descendants living on every piece of habitable land in the Pacific, an ocean which covers half our planet’s surface.
It must have been quite an event to set these ancient Argonauts on such a journey.