Easter Island and East Polynesian Prehistory


EASTER ISLAND AND EAST POLYNESIAN PREHISTORY. Patricia Vargas Casanova (ed.) 1999. Universidad de Chile, Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo, Instituto de Estudios Isla de Pascua, Santiago, Chile. ISBN: 956-19-0287-7 Pb. Pp. 228 + xvii. $US25.00

James Coil (University of California, Berkeley, USA)


Easter Island is known throughout the world for its striking ‘giant stone head’ statues. These monolithic sculptures have at times held a Stonehenge-like attraction for those who have sought to attribute the origins of such remarkable prehistoric cultural achievements to visitors from other continents or even from outer space.

However, although the idea of some sort of prehistoric contact between Polynesia and South America is still valid (see, e.g., Green’s chapter in this edited volume), scholars of Pacific Island prehistory have also long established that one need not look to other regions or planets to understand the cultural origins of Easter Island’s extraordinary archaeological remains, but instead would point out the well-demonstrated connections between Easter Islanders and related groups throughout the islands of Polynesia, as revealed by archaeological, ethnographic, biological, and linguistic studies. From this perspective, the famous statues represent in fact a spectacular local elaboration of a deeply embedded regional tradition of ancestral image-making.

While the statues of Easter Island have been the focus of several serious research projects (see Van Tilburg and Vargas Casanova’s chapter in this volume for a review), Easter Island’s remote location at the southeastern apex of the ‘Polynesian triangle’, its restricted marine and terrestrial resource bases, and its clearly demonstrated history of environmental change, have allowed its study also to contribute significantly to some of the most pressing current research issues in Pacific Island archaeology. These include, for example, questions involving chronologies of initial discovery and colonization, cultural adaptation in ‘marginal’ insular settings, the ecological effects of land use and demographic growth, and the nature of continued contact and interaction between remote islands and archipelagoes following their settlement. For similar reasons, other nearby island groups also continue to play an important role in the study of the region’s prehistory.

However, as Roger Green points out in his foreword to this volume, the ability of researchers whose work is focused on these isolated Polynesian islands to collaborate and communicate effectively is often hindered by an analogous sense of insularity, based upon their own linguistic and geographical separations: “a number of distinct political entities and a variety of linguistic genres are involved: Polynesian and various of its languages, Chilean and Spanish, France (French Polynesia) and French, and New Zealand and Hawaii (USA) and several kinds of English” (p. iii). As such, the 1996 conference upon which this volume is largely based, which was organized by Chilean archaeologists and held on Easter Island, represented a notable second success in bridging these gaps by bringing together the ideas, advances, and works-in-progress of scholars from a variety of countries and sub-disciplines who are involved in the study of East Polynesian prehistory.

The range of countries whose institutions are represented by the authors of the seventeen chapters in this volume (Chile, USA, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Italy, Norway, and France) is matched by the wide variety of approaches which these researchers are bringing to the study of East Polynesia’s past. This collection of papers thus aptly demonstrates the continuing vitality of a holistic anthropological approach in the study of Pacific Island prehistory, and includes studies involving archaeology, historical linguistics, physical anthropology, ethnography, and, importantly, various combinations of these.

Papers contributed by Patrick Kirch and Marshall Weisler both point out, however, that despite the significant achievements of decades of holistic anthropological research in Polynesia, several key issues and areas have yet to fully benefit from these advances. As an example of this, Edmundo Edwards’ report on his archaeological survey work in the Austral Islands represents the first comprehensive description of this island group’s archaeological remains, which with further investigation may yet play a key role in addressing issues of settlement chronology highly at issue among the region’s scholars.

As with Edwards’ work in the Australs, other Chilean archaeologists have previously laid the foundations for ongoing international archaeological research on Easter Island, as revealed in Patricia Vargas Casanova’s summary of survey and excavation work completed under her institute’s auspices and the settlement patterns and developmental sequences this work has revealed. The almost 80% full-coverage survey of the island initiated in 1968 by William Mulloy, and largely carried out by the Chilean team, is remarkable by any standards, and has permitted more specific later projects, such as those described in several of this volume’s chapters involving land use, temple reconstruction, GIS, and, of course, the famous statues, to take place within a solid descriptive framework.

Marshall Weisler’s contribution regarding his archaeological work in the Pitcairn Islands as part of Cambridge University’s “Pitcairn Islands Scientific Expedition”, succeeds in providing a wealth of information on this previously little-known island group. Here and elsewhere, Weisler’s work using XRF basalt sourcing to identify prehistoric insular ‘interaction spheres’ has done much to dispel the image of remote Oceanic islands as hopelessly isolated unto themselves, and by extension casts doubt upon the ability of even the inhabitants of Easter Island to have remained entirely isolated after settling their extremely remote landfall. Also of interest, Weisler has found lithic and shell artifacts of imported materials on Henderson Island, whose archaeological contexts significantly pre-date the earliest known habitation sites on their source islands of Pitcairn and Mangareva. This may in fact reflect the perpetual difficulty of locating early sites in these geomorphologically dynamic insular settings, a problem also considered by Mark Eddowes in his chapter regarding his excavations at coastal sites in French Polynesia.

Weisler’s chronological and interaction data from the Pitcairn Island group further provides one critical link in Roger Green’s contribution to this volume, in which Green has methodically assembled a wide range of data sets – derived from the realms of ethnography, archaeology, historical linguistics, biological anthropology, and oral traditions – into a well-reasoned summation of Easter Island’s cultural foundations and subsequent developments. This piece leaves no doubt as to the efficacy of a holistic approach in addressing a wide range a critical research questions in the region.

Patrick Kirch’s chapter, an introduction to his long-term archaeological research project in leeward Hawaii, demonstrates the author’s long-standing theoretical concern with the relationships between culture and environment – specifically, in this case, the role of ‘marginal’ landscapes in influencing the course of Hawaii’s late pre-contact political developments. Kirch points out that despite the presence of a substantial contract archaeology industry in Hawaii, some basic research questions, such as the nature of the economic systems relied upon by the powerful proto-historic chiefs of Maui, have remained unaddressed.

These works mentioned above are augmented in this volume by the inclusion of several shorter chapters focusing on specific excavation projects or specialist analyses involving work on Easter Island and elsewhere in East Polynesia. Notable among these are Robert Suggs’ discussion of cultural origins and contacts in East Polynesia, based upon linguistic data involving the distribution of lunar calendar terminology, and the French-language contribution of Michel and Catherine Orliac. This latter work describes a preliminary attempt to utilize previously neglected evidence, in the form of carbonized plant remains, to address Easter Island’s controversial record of vegetative change, which was derived initially from lakebed sediment coring and pollen analysis. Also, a chapter co-authored by Daris Swindler, Andrea Drusini, and Claudio Cristino F., describes their discovery of an unusually high proportion of a genetically-controlled human dental characteristic (a three-rooted lower first molar) in an excavated archaeological sample from Easter Island. This may indicate that a significant genetic ‘founder effect’ had taken place amongst this island’s prehistoric population.

In all, this volume’s contributions seem to reflect the existence of a thriving community, comprising researchers whose work is focused on East Polynesia but whose homes are spread across the globe. While this is surely not a situation unique to this particular region, the editor’s success in bringing together and making available the work of this international group is testimony to the fact that geographical and linguistic barriers of this nature can be productively overcome.