Folk-Lore/Volume 31/The Statues of Easter Island

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The recent work of Mr. and Mrs. Routledge[1] has given a fresh stimulus to the perennial interest of anthropologists in Easter Island and its statues. The additions to our knowledge concerning the statues and their manufacture, which this work has made, allow us to formulate more definitely than before the relation of these objects to other expressions of Oceanic workmanship.

The first point to notice in Mrs. Routledge’s description of the statues is that they are of two kinds; one, associated with the burial-places or ahu; the other, either lining roads which may have had some ceremonial function, or situated in isolated spots about the island. A point which is probably of great significance is that only the statues of the ahu or burial-places are surmounted by the objects for which Mrs. Routledge uses the convenient term “crown.” The statues on the roads and those in isolated situations do not possess these crowns.

I propose at first to confine my attention to the statues of the ahu, and I will begin by calling attention to another significant discovery of the Routledges. There are two chief kinds of burial-place with three less frequent varieties, including one in the form of a canoe. The statues only occur on one of the two chief kinds where they stand on stone platforms to which lead sloping structures of stone, containing vaults, upon which were placed the wrapped bodies of the dead. The burial-places of the second chief kind are semi-pyramidal in form, also containing vaults, and made of smaller stones. Some of the old platforms upon which images stood have been reconstructed in pyramidal form, but Mrs. Routledge tells me that the semi-pyramidal ahu never sustained images and from their structure could not have done so. I propose to return later in this paper to the relation between the two chief kinds of ahu and content myself now with pointing out the presence of the two features of pyramidal form and stone images in the burial-places of Easter Island.

Let us inquire whether this association is found elsewhere in Oceania. Statues comparable with those of Easter Island occur in Pitcairn Island and Lavaïvaï, and according to Moerenhout[2] they once had a wider distribution. In Pitcairn Island the Routledges studied[3] some remains which resembled one of the semi-pyramidal ahu of Easter Island. This was said once to have been occupied by three statues, and the trunk of one of these, which has been preserved, resembled, though crudely, the workmanship of Easter Island.

Several statues with points of resemblance to the remains of Easter Island have been found in the Marquesas. In Nuku-hiva Porter[4] saw a statue of stone, about the height of a man but “larger proportioned in every way,” round which the dead were exposed in canoes. This figure differed from those of Easter Island in being in the squatting position, but a greater similarity is present in a statue found by Christian[5] in the island of Hiva-oa. This was about eight feet high and in the position of the arms and general character of the features definitely resembled the statues of Easter Island.

Images, sometimes of stone, but more frequently of wood, were also habitually made in the Marquesas to represent the dead, but we do not know of the presence of pyramids in these islands. The me’ae or sacred places had two or more platforms, but there is no evidence of a pyramidal form. The nature of these structures in the Marquesas may have been due, as Tautain suggests,[6] to the nature of the mountainous country in which the people built their villages.

While there are statues in the Marquesas comparable with those of Easter Island, but pyramids are unrepresented, it is this latter feature which is prominent in Tahiti. An especially large example of a pyramid was recorded by Captain Cook,[7] and pyramidal structures were regular features of the marae, or sacred places, of this island. According to the description of a Tahitian pyramid given by Moerenhout[8] they seem to have been not far removed from the platform of Easter Island and, as in that island, to have been surmounted by images. The example described by Moerenhout was 300 feet long by 120 broad at the base, while at the summit, 60 feet above the ground, the length had diminished to 200 and the breadth to only 12 feet. It was on this narrowed platform at the summit of the pyramid that the images were placed. It is probable that some at least of these images were, as in the Marquesas, images of the dead, and certainly the marae with which they are associated are closely connected with a cult of the dead.

Statues of stone also occurred in other islands of the Pacific. Gill[9] speaks of a great stone “idol” of the god Rongo in Mangaia which was smashed to atoms when the people renounced their native gods.

In Melanesia both stone images in human form and pyramidal structures occur. The nanga of Fiji, in many respects similar to the marae of Polynesia, had pyramids of stone as part of their structure. Though it is probable that degenerate representatives of pyramids occur elsewhere in Melanesia, we only know of the existence of definite pyramids of stone in Fiji.

Stone images are more frequent. As in Polynesia, they may form part of houses, especially of the men’s houses, and they also occur among the ceremonial objects of the Banks Islands and the New Hebrides, where they are connected with the organisations known as the Sukwe and Mangge[10] It is only recently, however, that we have become acquainted with a definite example of the association of stone images with pyramidal burial-places in Melanesia. This information comes from the Rev. C. E. Fox,[11] who has recorded the presence in San Cristoval in the Solomon Islands of burial-mounds, often pyramidal in form, on the top of which are placed images in human form carved out of coral. We have here just such an association of burial-place, pyramidal form and stone-image as through the work of the Routledges we have now come to know in Easter Island. There seems little doubt that San Cristoval and Easter Island are two places where there has been preserved for us an association which in other places has been broken, so that pyramidal form and stone image do not appear together. It is probable, however, that the dissociation of elements of culture which occur together in San Cristoval and Easter Island is only apparent, and that the two features will be found together elsewhere. The place where the evidence in this direction is most definite is the Marquesas, and it is to be hoped that the American Expedition which is now investigating the ethnography and archaeology of these islands will obtain definite evidence towards the solution of this problem.

If the future should show the association elsewhere of the three features of burial-place, pyramid and image of stone, the case for a common origin will become still stronger should it reveal a motive for the meaning of the image similar to that of San Cristoval. In this island the stone image is regarded as the representative of the dead chief who is buried in the pyramidal mound it surmounts, and it is believed that the soul or ghost of the dead man has its abode in the image. This suggests a motive for the presence of the statues on the ahu of Easter Island. In other parts of Melanesia, as in Ambrim, we know that the ghost of a dead man is believed to go into an image in human form. In Ambrim these statues are not situated on burial-places, but are connected with an institution called the Mangge, an organisation which has a cult of the dead as its motive. Ambrim and San Cristoval suggest that the great statues of Easter Island were made in order that they should act as abiding-places of the ghosts of the dead over whose bodies they watch.

I can now return to the problem raised by the presence of two chief kinds of ahu. There are two main possibilities. One is that the two modes of burial belong to different cultures. The other, and the more probable, is that the pyramidal form of burial-place was that proper to the culture of the people who introduced the practice of stone-working, but that when the statues increased in size the original form of pyramid was unable to bear their weight, and a process was set in action which produced the platforms or terraces upon which the images stood. It is quite in keeping with all we know of Oceanic culture, however, that the people should have continued to use the pyramidal form when no image was made, and that the sentiment in favour of monuments of this kind was of considerable strength is suggested by the use of the pyramidal form when it became necessary to reconstruct dilapidated ahu of the platform variety.

If I am right in my interpretation of the association of burial-place, pyramid and image in Easter Island and San Cristoval it will become necessary to understand why the human image, which is not very conspicuous in the Solomons, should have become the imposing statue of Easter Island. It is a remarkable fact that these images occur especially in three small islands of the Pacific, Easter and Pitcairn Islands and Lavaïvaï, I have already mentioned the large image of Mangaia, and according to Moerenhout large statues once existed in other islands of the Pacific, but even if this were so, it would be necessary to understand why the images should be so large in tiny islets such as Easter Island and Pitcairn.

According to the view here put forward, the images are the expression of an art which was introduced into many parts of the Pacific. In large islands, such as the Marquesas and Tahiti, the stone-workers would find many outlets for their energy and for the satisfaction of their religious and artistic impulses. There would be no reason why any one element of their culture should undergo hypertrophy; why their energies should take the direction of magnifying the images which, as I suggest, they may have trusted their souls would occupy when they were no longer living.

A little place like Easter Island, on the contrary, would give no outlet for the energies of the immigrants in an economic or social direction. The volcanic soil would soon provide them with an ample supply of such foods as were either there already, or were provided by plants they had brought with them. We know that the supply of timber was so scanty that the people were driven to depend upon driftwood to make their canoes, and still find it diffcult to obtain sufficient wood to cook their food. Even if they had not already possessed the practice of using stone for the construction of their ceremonial objects, they might have been driven to use this material in the satisfaction of their religious needs. Having unlimited time and copious supplies of the stone they needed for the construction of their burial-places and images, it is not difficult to understand that the immigrants should have sought to enhance their importance through the feature of size just as was done by the ancient kings of Egypt when they contrived the pyramids within which their bodies were to rest. The chief difficulty is to understand how immigrants stranded in a tiny island, perhaps among an earlier population inferior to themselves in culture, should have succeeded in transmitting their zeal and desire for commemoration to their descendants.

In such a case as that of the statues of Easter Island we cannot expect certainty when we seek for the motive which inspired people of long ago. But, if the statues were to serve as resting-places for the souls of the dead, the limitation of activities in other directions provides a reason for the presence of these images in islands so small that it must have been difficult to find that interest which makes human activity possible. In view of the great importance of interest in life to the welfare of a people,[12] I would even venture to suggest that it is because the people found an outlet for their energies in the construction of these monuments that they were able to persist and keep alive the spirit of their society.

I mentioned at the outset the discovery of the Routledges that it is only the statues of the burial-places which were surmounted by the crowns, and I propose now briefly to consider this special feature of the statues. Several students of anthropology have been stimulated by the work of the Routledges to speculate about the nature of these crowns which have usually been regarded as hats. Mr. Henry Balfour[13] supposes that they represent hair and Sir Everard im Thurn[14] that they are wigs. The crowns are made of a material different from that of the rest of the statues, being composed of a vesicular red tufa, and Mr. Balfour bases his conjecture that they represent hair on the supposition that this tufa resembles the frizzly Melanesian hair. He supposes that the red colour was intended to imitate the orange-yellow colour which is now frequently produced in the Pacific, and especially in the Solomons and New Guinea, by bleaching with lime. The cylindrical shape is ascribed to the necessity of rolling the crowns from the place where they were manufactured to the images upon which they were to be superposed.

This hypothesis altogether fails to explain why the crowns are found only on the statues of the burial-places and not on those which lined the roads. Moreover, it involves the supposition, which I believe to be contradicted by all we know of such societies as those of Polynesia and Melanesia, that the people went to the vast trouble of constructing these crowns through the aesthetic motive that the hair of the statues should resemble, and even then only very distantly, the hair of living man.

I believe that there is only one motive strong enough to have led the makers of the statues to add these crowns and transmit the necessity for their manufacture to their descendants. Religion alone is able to provide such a motive, and an observation of Tautain[15] in the Marquesas confirms the conclusion, already suggested by the locality of the crown-bearing statues, that the religious motive in this case arose out of the cult of the dead. In the Marquesas a great stone is placed as a sign of mourning on the head of the image representing a dead man. As Tautain notes, the Marquesan custom points to the “hats” of Easter Island being signs of mourning and of death.

If the crowns of the statues of Easter Island are head-coverings definitely associated with the function of the images as representations of the dead, we should expect to find head-coverings or hats connected with the cult of the dead elsewhere. It is part of the general scheme of Oceanic history which I have put forward elsewhere[16] that the ghost-societies of Melanesia embody the cult of the migrants who were responsible for the stone-work of this region. We can look to these organisations for guidance concerning the beliefs of the people who introduced the art of stone-working into Oceania. If now we examine the cults of these ghost-societies we find few elements more prominent than the hats which are worn in the rites.[17] In the Sukwe of the Banks Islands these hats are so prominent that they are denoted by the same word, tamate, as the ghosts of the dead from which the societies take their name. Every society has a special object associated with it which in most cases takes the form of a hat. Moreover, the plastic representations of the human form connected with these organisations have the head covered with a hat of which characteristic examples are shown in Plate III., Fig. 1 of Vol. I. of The History of Melanesian Society.

In the Matambala societies of Florida the place of the tamate of the Banks Islands seems to have been taken by figures of the tindalo or ghosts, though we do not know that these were worn on the head. In the Dukduk, again, of New Britain, which is also a ghost society and is shown by many correspondences of belief and ritual to represent the Tamate societies of the Banks Islands, masks are worn which correspond with the tamate of the southern islands. The members of the Rukruk of northern Bougainville, a ghost-society which is certainly a close relative of the Dukduk, wear head-coverings which are sometimes cylindrical in form. There is reason to believe that the hats of the Banks Islands are derived from masks which are often more than head-coverings, but both the Tamate societies and the Rukruk show how important a place is taken in the beliefs of those who wear them by that part of the mask which covers the head, a belief which follows naturally from the vast importance attached to the head throughout Oceania.[18]

If I am right in my general position that the statues of Easter Island are only hypertrophied examples of the images of the people who introduced the art of stone-working into the Pacific, we are provided with a fully sufficient motive for the presence of crowns or hats on the statues of Easter Island. Moreover, there is the clearest evidence that the hats of Melanesia are associated with a cult of the dead, and it therefore becomes natural that these crowns should only occur on the statues of the burial-places of Easter Island and should not be present on the statues which are shown by their locality to have had a different purpose. Moreover, the head-coverings of the Rukruk of Bougainville and the tamate of the Banks Islands provide parallels for the cylindrical form of the crowns of Easter Island. It is not necessary to assume, as does Mr. Balfour, that this shape was adopted in order that the crowns might be rolled from their place of manufacture to the images upon which they were to be placed. Their form is one proper to their function as head-coverings of images representing the dead.

If the sculptors of Easter Island put hats on their statues because these were the proper attribute of representations of the dead, we have an all-sufficient motive for their choice of a material different from that of which the other parts of the statues were made. Mr. Balfour supposes that the sculptors chose for this purpose a vesicular red tufa in order to imitate bleached Melanesian hair. Let us inquire whether Polynesian culture may not provide a more probable motive for the choice of this material.

I have not hitherto mentioned the well-known head-dresses of Polynesia. Those of the Hawaiian Islands are especially familiar objects in museums, though so far as I am aware no example is known with the cylindrical form of the crowns of Easter Island. I have not so far brought them into the argument because we have no evidence of their connection with the dead, which forms so definite a link between the statues of Easter Island and the hats and images of the ghost-societies of Melanesia.

The close resemblance in form between some of the head-coverings of the Hawaiian Islands and the hats of the Banks Islands, however, suggests that they have a common origin, and it therefore becomes significant that the head-coverings of the Hawaiian Islands are made of red or orange feathers, while red feathers are also used in the head-dresses of Samoa.[19] If we are to seek a special motive for the choice of red vesicular tufa, I should prefer to look to the red feathers of the head-dresses of other parts of Polynesia rather than to the artificial orange-yellow colour produced by bleaching the hair in New Guinea, in certain parts of Melanesia, and more rarely in Polynesia.

Although I believe that the evidence points strongly to hats rather than hair as the prototype of the crowns of the statues of Easter Island, the possibility that there may be some relation between them and hair cannot be excluded. But this relation is almost certainly of a kind very different from that assumed by Mr. Balfour and Sir Everard im Thurn. It is generally assumed that cutting the hair into fanciful shapes and changing its colour by various dyes, which are practised in several parts of Oceania, have a purely aesthetic motive. In the Hawaiian Islands, however, a man who personated a deity fashioned his hair in a manner called niheu.[20] Red clay was mixed with his hair to which was sometimes added that of another person. Decoration of the head, especially with a red pigment specially prepared, was also prominent in the men’s societies of the Banks Islands,[21] and this suggests the connection of decoration of the hair with the belief in the sanctity of the head. It should be noted in this connection that in Fiji, where the cutting of the hair into strange shapes was very highly developed, the hairdresser’s hands were tabu from touching his food whenever he was following this occupation.[22] It is possible that the hats of the Sukwe and Tamate societies of the Banks Islands and the various modes of altering the appearance of the hair are only different expressions of religious ideas connected with the head.

This may also be true of the wigs of Fiji and Samoa. The Samoans used three different kinds of wigs as head-dresses in war and at their dances,[23] but we know too little about their function, both here and in Fiji, to allow more than a suspicion that they may have had a religious motive.

I cannot conclude without a brief reference to the statues without crowns which occur on the roads and in isolated situations in Easter Island. The argument of this paper points to the absence of a crown on these statues as being due to their less sacred nature, or at any rate to the absence of the function possessed by the statues of the ahu as abiding-places of the ghosts of the dead. It may be noted that the standing statues of Rano Raraku[24] near the quarries have no crowns. Mrs. Routledge tells me that she thinks these may have been representations of the bird-men, that is of living persons, and if this be so, the absence of hats would be in harmony with the view put forward in this paper that the crowns are signs of the function of the images as representations of the dead.

The only clue I can give to the motive for the statues of the roads is a suggestion made by Moerenhout.[25] This writer believes that the statues of Easter and Pitcairn Islands and of Lavaïvaï represent the minor gods called tii in Tahiti. In this island images of the tii mark the limits of earth and sea and are believed to prevent their reciprocal encroachment. The situation of the statues of the ahu of Easter Island with their backs to the sea may possibly fit with this idea. It suggests that the tii of Tahiti may be the representatives of such statues as those of Easter Island and that the statues of this island were believed to prevent the encroachment of the sea upon that part of the island which had been chosen for the burial of the dead. It is possible that some similar idea may have formed the motive for the presence of the hatless statues of other parts of the island. Moerenhout tells us that it was the nature of the images of Lavaïvaï which enabled him to detect the relation between the colossal statues and the tii, but he does not reveal the special feature of the statues of Lavaïvaï which led to this recognition. It would be interesting to know whether the images of this island were or were not surmounted by crowns.

  1. The Mystery of Easter Island. London, 1920.
  2. Voyages aux îles du grand océan. Paris, 1837, vol. i. p. 461.
  3. Op. cit. p. 313.
  4. David Porter, Journal of a Cruise made to the Pacific Ocean. New York, 1822, vol. ii. p. 110.
  5. F. W. Christian, Eastern Pacific Lands. London, 1910, p. 123.
  6. L’Anthropologie, t. viii. (1897), p. 671.
  7. Captain Cook’s Journal. London, 1893, p. 83.
  8. Op. cit. i. 467.
  9. W. W. Gill, Life in the Southern Isles. London, 1876, p. 100.
  10. Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Comparative Religion and Ethics, art. “New Hebrides.”
  11. Personal communication to Professor Elliot Smith and myself.
  12. W. H. R. Rivers, “The Dying out of Native Races,” Lancet, vol. cxcviii., 1920, pp. 42 and 109.
  13. Folk-Lore, vol. xxviii. (1917), p. 369.
  14. Nature, vol. cv. p. 584 (July 8, 1920).
  15. L’Anthropologie, t. viii., 1897, p. 677.
  16. The History of Melanesian Society. Cambridge. 1914.
  17. Ibid. vol. i. p. 90. Most of these hats are conical in form, but some are more or less cylindrical.
  18. The History of Melanesian Society, vol. ii. pp. 169, 261, etc. See also Dreams and Primitive Culture. Manchester, 1918.
  19. J. B. Stair, Old Samoa. London, 1897, p. 117.
  20. David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities. Honolulu, pp. 215, 235.
  21. History of Melanesian Society, i. 137.
  22. Thomas Williams, Fiji and the Fijians. London, 1858, vol. i. p. 157.
  23. J. B. Stair, Old Samoa. London, 1897, p. 121.
  24. The Mystery of Easter Island, p. 182.
  25. Voyages aux îles du grand océan. Paris, 1837, vol. i. p. 461.