Folk-Lore/Volume 31/Review/The Mystery of Easter Island

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The Mystery of Easter Island, by Mrs. Scoresby Routledge. London, 1919. Pp. xxi, 404.

This book gives a popular account of the results of the expedition of Mr. and Mrs. Routledge to Easter Island, of which a more detailed record is to follow. Much of the book deals with the voyage of the Mana to the island whose mystery it was the object of the expedition to discover. This part of the book is full of entertaining matter with occasional items of anthropological interest, especially in the account of Pitcairn Island, but it is the part dealing with Easter Island itself in which the readers of Folk-Lore will be especially interested.

It may be stated at once that while the work of the expedition has gone far to dispel the cloud of mystery which has hung around the island, it has at the same time brought to light new mysteries as great as that presented by the monuments of stone. This result has come from the work which fell especially to the lot of Mrs. Routledge, who has succeeded in opening up new ground in a field where the prospects seemed far from bright when the expedition started.

The book contributes greatly to our knowledge of the statues of Easter Island. We now know where the stone was quarried and how it was sculptured, though the mode of transport of the statues to their final sites still remains obscure. The excavation of images which had been almost completely buried has given us much new knowledge concerning their nature and their relation to other features of culture. It is of especial importance to learn that the monuments are of two distinct kinds. Those covered by the mass of tufa representing a hat were erected on the stone platforms of the ahu or burial places, while those without these head coverings were isolated or stood on the roadways.

Perhaps the point of greatest importance from the comparative point of view is the discovery that the platforms on which the statues of the burial places were erected often had a pyramidal form. This discovery reveals in Easter Island an association of stone images and pyramidal platforms which goes far to bring the monuments into line with other examples of the megalithic art of Polynesia and Melanesia. The special feature of Easter Island is the great labour and care devoted to the making of the images and the relatively rough nature of the platforms on which they were erected. The special mystery of Easter Island resolves itself into the problem why the megalithic settlers should have expended such efforts in the manufacture of images which elsewhere in Oceania are so much less prominent features of their handiwork.

Quite as important as the contribution made to our knowledge of the stone-work are the new facts, due especially to the work of Mrs. Routledge herself, concerning the less material aspects of culture about which until now we have been almost wholly ignorant. One mystery of Easter Island, that presented by the engraved tablets and the script, Mrs. Routledge failed to elucidate, though she came so tantalisingly near progress in this direction as to suggest that if the expedition had taken place a few years earlier another striking success would have attended its work. The most important result of the investigation into the customs and beliefs of the people was the discovery of the cult of the sooty tern and of the first egg of the season, but the readers of Folk-Lore are already acquainted with this topic, and attention may here be directed to the facts concerning the social organisation, the modes of disposal of the dead, and other rites which help to bring the culture of Easter Island into relation with that of other parts of Polynesia.

In dealing with this portion of the book I must be content to point out the remarkable similarity between the social organisation of Easter Island and that of another outlier of Polynesian culture, the far distant Tikopia. In each case we have the people of a tiny island living in two districts more or less hostile to one another, and the people of each district divided into smaller groups who live in settlements round the coast. The resemblance in this respect is especially striking if the map opposite p. 233 of Mrs. Routledge’s book is compared with Mr. Durrad’s map of Tikopia given on p. 335 of the first volume of my History of Melanesian Society. The difference between the two is that while the social groups of Tikopia are definite examples of exogamous totemic clans, those of Easter Island bear no signs of a totemic character, and seem to take no part in the regulation of marriage. They are local groups comparable with those of other parts of Polynesia rather than clans, as in Tikopia.

In a final too short chapter on the present position of the problem of Easter Island Mrs. Routledge recognises the existence of two elements in the population. The physical variation of the inhabitants, especially as shown by the skulls, the tradition of a feud between the long-ears and the short-ears, and the dissociation of the bird-cult from the chiefs of the important Miru clan led Mrs. Routledge to the hypothesis that the earlier of the two strata was formed by a negroid people who distended the ear-lobe and practised the bird-cult, these practices being adopted by the later arrivals who conformed more closely to the usual Polynesian type. It is left an open question which of these two elements furnished the makers of the statues. The presence of distended ear-lobes in the statues, however, can leave little doubt that the makers of the monuments practised distension of the ears, while the presence of a bird carved upon the statues also points strongly to the association of these two elements in culture. There are several doubtful assumptions in the argument by which the bird-cult is assigned to the earlier culture. It is an open question whether the negroid element in the population of Polynesia is early or late. It may have been introduced at any time by the arrival of migrants who had passed through Melanesia and brought with them children resulting from unions with the women of that region. There are facts pointing to this explanation of the negroid element in the Maori,[1] and it is a possibility which must be borne in mind in any discussion of Polynesian ethnology.

Still more doubtful is the assumption that the bird-cult is early because it has parallels in Melanesia. There is much reason to believe that the bird-cults of Melanesia, and especially that form of totemism in which the totems are birds, are late. These cults are especially definite in the more northern parts of Melanesia, and there is a definite association between bird-totemism and cremation, this being almost certainly one of the latest forms of disposal of the dead in this region, due indirectly to Hindu influence which reached Melanesia by way of Indonesia. It is a very doubtful argument that because a Polynesian practice is found in Melanesia it therefore belongs to the earlier stratum of Polynesian culture. The special value of this book, however, is that it does away with much of the isolation in which the culture of Easter Island has hitherto stood, and the relative chronology of the constituent elements of its culture can only be determined by a wide survey in which Easter Island is treated in relation to the rest of Polynesia.

In concluding this inadequate review of a noteworthy book one of its most important lessons must be emphasized. From all that was known when the expedition left England it seemed unlikely that much would be learnt concerning aspects of culture other than those gained through archaeological methods. To a large extent these prognostications have been justified, but such fragments as Mrs. Routledge has been able to obtain are of very great importance. The point I wish to emphasize is that the expedition was only just too late to obtain more extensive results. Its experience with the last expert in the knowledge of the engraved tablets shows that even a few years earlier this element in the mystery of Easter Island might have been dispelled. My own experience in the Hawaiin Islands showed[2] that much may even now be recovered from places in Polynesia where the indigenous culture has almost disappeared. There are still many parts of Polynesia, such as the Marquesas and Rarotonga, where immediate exploration will certainly give results of the greatest value, but every year reduces the chances of success. If the task is not undertaken soon, investigators will too often repeat Mrs. Routledge's experience with the tablets of Easter Island, and find themselves too late in their attempt to unravel mysteries, quite as important, though not perhaps so imposing, as that presented by the statues and tablets of Easter Island.

  1. Man, vol. xviii. (1918), pp. 97-98.
  2. History of Melanesian Society (Cambridge) vol. i. (1914), p, 374.