Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives
of creative people and explores the world of creativity.
A Tale of Creation
de Sousa, Director, AbleStable
act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."
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...
The Story of Rapa
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
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
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
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.
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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