Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rock Art of Rapa Nui

Easter Island remains famous for its megalithic moai, the stunning stone statues that excite the imagination of everyone from archaeologists and ethnologists to flying saucer fantasists, and bring tens of thousands of tourists every year from the South American continent and around the world. With all that attention to the massive monuments, though, visitors often overlook more subtle sights, especially the rock art that decorate many sites around the island.
On previous visits to the island, of course, I have noticed the petroglyphs at Orongo, most of which are relatively faint, and especially at Ahu Tongariki (pictured above), where there’s a conspicuous sea turtle (pictured below; sea turtles were a critically important subsistence resource to ocean-going peoples, and several of my grad school advisers were sea-turtle specialists). This time, though, I found a pleasant surprise in the new petroglyph trail at Papa Vaka, on the island’s north coast.
It’s a short trail, a well-marked loop right alongside the road and almost opposite the rocky shoreline of Bahía La Perouse but, as yet, relatively few visitors seem to stop here. As the informational panels suggest, the petroglyphs here “reflect the ancient Rapanui’s deep concerns about the sea and control of its resources.” One rock contains island’s most impressive single petroglyph (pictured below), a twin-hulled canoe that’s 12 meters (nearly 40 feet long), representing the way the first settlers arrived from Western Polynesia around A.D 800. At the same time it covers, or rather overlaps, images of turtles, fishhooks, and octopi, among other items.
I’ve always been conscious of the rock art tradition here, partly because of my acquaintance with Georgia Lee, an archaeologist who’s a specialist in the matter but now, in her retirement, rarely gets to visit the island any more. A couple years ago, on the way back from Chile, I had the good fortune to visit Georgia, the founding editor of the Rapa Nui Journal, at her home near San Luis Obispo.

Recently Georgia informed me that, while UCLA has no plans to reissue her out-of-print volume on Rock Art of Easter Island, a Chilean publisher will soon do so in a bilingual (Spanish-English) version. Stay tuned, as this will be a worthwhile acquisition for anyone visiting the island, or anyone who’s simply interested in this rich Polynesian tradition.

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