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The Column icon The Column: Issue 10

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The Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives of creative people and explores the world of creativity.

A Tale of Creation and Destruction
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

"Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."
Pablo Picasso

When something that someone made inspires us we often want to know how that work came into being, and why that work continues to resound in us long after its creator/s have left...
Image: Moai, Easter Island, Chile - Geodesy Collection, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce

The Story of Rapa Nui

The moai, monolithic statues of the Rapa Nui, stand on a barren landscape once teeming with life.

Around the seventh century AD, about thirty voyagers, led by Hotu Matu`a, traveled by outrigger canoe from the seafaring islands of East Polynesia. The Polynesian people had colonised over three hundred and fifty islands as adventurers and explorers, and the discovery of Rapa Nui, the most remote inhabited island in the world (also called Easter Island, Te Pito O Te Henua, officially called Isla de Pascua by the Chilean government), counted as among their greatest of achievements.

When the ancient Polynesian travelers chanced upon Rapa Nui over twelve hundred years ago on a boat built by stone tools and using only natural materials, they found an Island paradise blanketed with palm trees where tens of thousands of birds had made their home. It seems no other travelers followed those first adventurers. They were on their own for the next thousand years.

The new inhabitants of the Island were masters of all before them. They farmed the land and used their seafaring skills to catch the plentiful fish that swam in the waters surrounding its shaw. The stones and trees supplied them with materials to make their boats, houses, tools, pots and pans.

In thanks to their ancestors, the Rapa Nui began to create monolithic statues called moai. These statues, some of which weighing over 80 tons (twice as large as the stones found at Stonehenge) would become the focus of the islanders symbolic and spiritual energies.

Over six hundred of the colossal statues were quarried from cliffs, carved in situ using only stone tools, then transported up to ten miles along a network of roads using wooden rollers and levers. This was a highly motivated and very well organised society that developed its own unique expression of its place in the world.

The statues, or moai, are called 'the living face of our ancestors' ('arena ora ata tepuna'). The coral that was placed in the eye sockets of the statues brought the huge forms to life. Gradually, as the islands population grew, tribes became established, and the focus of creating the statues changed to immortalising their tribal chiefs. Each new statue required a vast amount of wood to help transport them to their resting place where they would face inward on large stone 'ahu' platforms, watching over the people of Rapa Nui.

Tribal Chiefs wished to show their importance by ordering the creation of ever larger statues, and by 1600 AD the island's resources had been fatally depleted. Fewer and fewer trees survived on the island. The rains washed vital nutrients in the soil out to sea, crops failed, people starved, and the last tree that was field saw the end of the Islander's proud seafaring past. Tribe set against tribe in a frenzy of violence as civil war raged.

At this time every statue on the island was overturned and a period of barbarism, starvation, and turmoil ensued. Close to self-destruction, the people of Rapa Nui sought a new inspiration. Their vision of a being that would represent their hopes in such desperate circumstance was born. The cult of the Birdman, a symbol of freedom and self-sufficiently, replaced the moai as the islanders spiritual and social focus.

An annual ritual involving every tribe on the island saw a competition to crown a new Birdman. The ritual was held opposite the cliffs at Orongo, a cluster of rocks that was home to the last surviving birds nesting in Rapa Nui. Young men would descend the cliff, dive into the shark infested waters, and swim about a mile out to three small islets. Their goal was to await the first egg to be laid. The successful champion would bring the egg intact by swimming the waters once more and presented it to their chief. The tribe that won had first choice of replenishing their scant resources for one full year.

When three Dutch ships arrived on 5 April, 1722, the islanders had conquered their homeland once more. Sweet potatoes, yams, and sugar-cane grew in the fields, and there was no sign of the desperate famine and war that had beset them.

Tragidy struck as the new adventurers from Europe brought terror and disease and the local islander's fragile recovery collapsed. Within fifty years at the time of Captain Cook's arrival to the island the people were impoverished once again. In 1862 slavers from Peru kidnapped fifteen hundred people, about one third of the population. A year later the 'Great Death' arrived. The smallpox epidemic devastated the island that fell to just 111 people. Centuries before, the population had grown to 12,000. Before long not one native islander remained.

The Need To Create

The statues of Rapa Nui are upright once more, their eyes hollow but still their presence inspires. More powerful than the hewn stone figures howevever is the story of the people of that isolated wilderness: a cautionary tale of man's need to create...


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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