This is an excellent, up-to date (2003), fairly easy read of an astounding place, Rapa Nui, the island in the South Pacific better known as Easter Island. This is in fact an updated edition of an earlier 1992 edition, that has been revised to incorporate new ideas and developments in research into a place which has seen quite a deal of academic interest and debate over the last few decades.
It is, as the title suggests, mostly a discussion of some of the more enigmatic and mysterious aspects of this small island at the 'edge of the world', so to speak. Discussions include how the Polynesians got there in the first place (several thousand kilometres from just about anywhere), what happened to the island's original flora and fauna, why there are now virtually no trees on the island, why and how they built and transported the enormous statues, why their culture seemingly underwent several periods of cultural implosion, and how they came to have their own system of rudimentary symbolic writing-no small thing incidentally- since it is only one of a handful of societies where a form of writing is thought to have arisen independently (although this is debated for Easter Island).
Rest assured, once one delves into the detail and human richness of the history and culture on Easter Island, (past what one hears via the grapevine or via populist travel articles), one begins to find things one did not quite expect. Put simply, it becomes a kind of mirror of the human psyche, of humans in close interaction with their primeval environment, with all its ghastliness and beauty, and their myriad inclinations towards both the tragic and the beautiful.
Take for example, the extreme feeling of isolation that a seafaring culture must have felt, of being stranded, once all the original tree species had been cut down and driven to extinction, and they couldn't make any more sea craft (something a number of environmentalists have pointed out). Imagine the keen loss of traditional values that must have been felt, once the statues were thrown down (in a probable revolution of some sort), or the desperate alternative worship of man-like birds, who could fly away into the sea and escape their lonely, now barren, isle. And what about the island's trees in the first place-there was a highly prized native palm on the island, that could be sourced to transport statues, make ropes, make sea craft, and provide an alcoholic sap amongst other things, which was driven to extinction by the islanders-whether by over-exploitation, neglect, or through an inability to adapt and change, or all of them. And there are even suggestions that is was in the making and transporting of the statues themselves which at least partially caused the islander's ultimate cultural downfall-the transport of the statues required the felling of timber, and if one of these two practices had to cease or change, it probably wasn't the felling of timber.
It is difficult to know for certain what variety of factors were responsible for the extinction of the prized trees, but no doubt isolation, neglect, and an inability to change must have been major factors. In addition, the Polynesian rat evidently had a big appetite for native palm nuts (teeth marks in nuts). Without the timber from the trees, soil erosion and degradation set in, and most importantly they couldn't make wooden boats to fish, and so they began to starve. Archaeological evidence also indicates an outbreak of warfare at about the same time as the trees became extinct. There is indeed a myriad of archaeological evidence here to delight anyone interested in the rise and fall of nations and cultures to be sure, scattered in caves, swamps, dwellings, quarries and various other places on the island.
Another interesting discovery is the preserved fossilised roots of native palm trees, which are almost identical to the modern day, very versatile Chilean species. Also of interest to me was the subtle development from religious ritual and symbolism, to depiction of the same on favourable rock outcrops, ultimately to communication of the same on wooden articles-the Rongorongo script. In short-'religious ritual' to 'writing'. Writing originating as art inspired by cultural isolation? There are suggestions here that it was the Spanish who influenced this trend towards writing, but after reading the debate here, I'm not convinced. The extreme isolation to me suggests a kind of inspired artistic innovation or expression. Readers might also be surprised to learn that the origin of the Polynesians themselves is from Taiwan in about 4000 BC-an island nation, that has frequent political troubles, and I presume also may have had, around 4000 BC??.
There are various other discussions on the geology, geography, climate, the infamous Kon Tiki expedition, genetic research into islander origins, Polynesian dispersal and seafaring, archaeological excavations (of course), agriculture, general ecology, statues and ceremonies, food issues, the western human impact from the 18th century onwards, the introduction of smallpox, western religion, slave trading from Peru in the 19th century, and revised views on issues concerning resource sustainability, and ultimate parallels with the rest of the world. It is worth mentioning here that the first edition received some criticism for failing to note differences in resource availability with continental landmasses (which have a larger degree of alternative resources, and further discoveries of eg minerals), and these issues have been incorporated in this revised edition. Comparisons are also made with two other pacific islands, although in somewhat limited detail, Mangaia and Tikopia, which experienced similar ecological and cultural crises, but apparently managed to 'see them through'. There are also a number of black and white and colour plates, and quite a few diagrams which provide good support to the discussions.
An excellent overview of a thoroughly fascinating, and always surprising place.