Adrienne Kaeppler

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

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[Thor Heyerdahl's] ability to write for the general reader and to capture the imagination of all who have hidden desires to discover lost information about exotic peoples has endeared him to a public not overly concerned with scientific facts. After all, what could be more exciting than sailing on a raft from South America to Polynesia or dangerous rope descents to secret storage caves to discover small stone sculptures unknown to all who had gone before? These sculptures are the focus of Heyerdahl's new book The Art of Easter Island. The book's title, impressive size, and extensive illustrations excite one's hope that there might be a dispassionate analysis of art from an island that has always been shrouded in mystery…. How disappointing, then, to find that the book is not an analysis of these remarkable objects. Instead, it is a presentation yet again of his evidence in support of his view that Easter Island had direct contact from South America and that Polynesians came to Easter Island only in the final period of the island's history….

[Many] of the hypotheses which he presents here as facts have been challenged by archaeologists using Heyerdahl's own evidence, from Jack Golson in 1965 (in Oceania) to Kenneth Emory in 1972 (in the Journal of the Polynesian Society). These and the works of others, which demonstrate that Heyerdahl's prehistoric sequences can be turned upside down and that Easter Island script is equally likely to be post-European, undermine the whole theoretical basis of Heyerdahl's argument and render many of the conclusions in this new book suspect….

The most exciting section of the book is the long chapter on cave disclosures. Here Heyerdahl is at his best relating exciting tales of entering secret caves at midnight after chicken sacrifices and the recitation of sacred ritual formulae…. From such writing comes Heyerdahl's justly deserved reputation as an outstanding singer of tales. If only he would stop there and let us make our own inferences. But no, he goes on to draw endless parallels with South America and includes numerous plates and drawings calculated to convince. He does not, however, include examples from Polynesia, but states, often erroneously, that such do not exist. One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that he has not done his homework….

One is surprised by his dichotomy between "genuine art" ending at 1886 and "commercial art" after that time, which completely disregards European influence during 164 years; by the seeming arbitrariness with which he assigns undatable specimens to one of his early middle, or late periods; or by such things as his attribution of a Hawaiian stone image to Easter Island because it looks as though it comes from Easter Island…. And could not the Easter Islanders invent or evolve anything themselves—must it have all come from somewhere? Quoting outdated source material makes it all sound so logical but nearly every page will be challenged by Polynesianists.

But, more seriously, where is his analysis of art? A study of art does not lie in relating stories of finding stone images or in their dubious parallels with related or not so related peoples. If it is impossible to reconstruct native categories or concepts of art, one might at least expect a structural analysis of the artistic forms, the relationships of the art forms to each other, or an analysis of motifs…. Can it be that Heyerdahl is not really interested in art—but rather in proving his theories with art objects? In the end one does not have a deeper understanding of the art of Easter Island, but the book is nevertheless a valuable source for further study of that art.

Adrienne Kaeppler, "Cave Caches," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3877, July 2, 1976, p. 830.


Robert Trumbull


Jo-Ann D. Suleiman