Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
Much of Heyerdahl’s evidence concerning the statues and the history of the island comes from native legends. The natives tell legends of ancestors who would rather eat members of their own species than fish or fowl. They have also persistent legends of a still-earlier time of greatness when another people,...
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Much of Heyerdahl’s evidence concerning the statues and the history of the island comes from native legends. The natives tell legends of ancestors who would rather eat members of their own species than fish or fowl. They have also persistent legends of a still-earlier time of greatness when another people, the long-ears, had lived at peace with their ancestors, the short-ears. The long-ears demanded too much labor of the short-ears, however, and in the end there was a war in which nearly all the long-ears were burned in a ditch. From that day, no more statues were made, and many of those standing were pulled down with ropes. Civil war, family feuds, and cannibalism marked the years that followed, right up to the time when a missionary named Father Eugenio landed two generations before and collected the inhabitants peacefully around him in the village of Hangaroa.
When Heyerdahl asked the local residents if they could tell him how these stone giants could have been carried about in old times, one answer was that they went by themselves. Another reply was a legend about a witch and a lobster. An old witch lived at Rano Raraku at the time when the sculptors made the great figures. It was her magic that breathed life into the stone giants and made them move. One day, the sculptors ate a big lobster. When the witch found the empty shell and realized that none of the lobster had been given to her, she was so angry that she made all the walking statues fall flat on their noses, and they have never moved since. When Heyerdahl discovered a people from a land with generations of experience in maneuvering monoliths, he believed that he had solved the mystery presented by the movement of the colossal statues. His more practical solution involves speculation about seafaring men using rigs.
Heyerdahl reports that the history of Easter Island had three distinct epochs. First came a highly specialized culture with a South American type of masonry employed on Easter Island. Buildings had no parallel in the later history of the island. Gigantic blocks of hard basalt were cut like cheese and fitted carefully to one another without a crack or a hole. These constructions, with their elegant, steep walls, stood for a long time, resembling altar-shaped and partly stepped fortresses all round the island.
In the second stage, most of the classical structures had been partially pulled down and altered, a paved slope had been built up against the inland wall, and giant figures in human form had been brought from Rano Raraku and erected with their backs to the sea on top of these rebuilt edifices, which now often contained burial chambers. It was while this gigantic task was at its height in the second epoch that everything came to an unexpected standstill. Little more than a century before the Europeans came in 1722, a wave of war and cannibalism swept over the island.
With the arrival of the Polynesians, all cultural life came to an abrupt end and the tragic third phase of Easter Island’s history began. No one chiseled great stones, and the statues were pulled down without reverence. Boulders and shapeless blocks were flung together to make funeral mounds along the walls, and great fallen statues were often used as improvised roofs for new burial vaults. The work was makeshift and utterly lacking in technical ability.
Dutch explorers landed in 1722 on Easter Day, giving the island its name and spending only a day before leaving. Next, the Spaniards arrived in 1770; after a ceremony declaring ownership of the island, they promptly left. The next visitor was Captain James Cook in 1774. Twelve years later, in 1786, the next European visitor was the Frenchman Comte de La Pérouse, who brought pigs, goats, and sheep and sowed a quantity of seed. All the animals and seeds were eaten by the hungry natives before they had time to propagate, however, and the island remained unchanged.
For Heyerdahl, the history of Easter Island was for the first time beginning to have depth. He knew that the specialized South American technique of mural construction was brought to Easter Island in a fully developed form; it was used by the people who had first landed on the island. This discovery took the expedition a step closer to solving the riddle of who constructed the colossi but failed fully to answer the question of the first sculptors. The mystery surrounding the identity of the long-ears who carved the gigantic statues was resolved when the local mayor, a descendent of the long-ears, demonstrated his ability to reproduce and move the statues.