Thursday, June 21, 2012

After the Moai: Easter Island's Historical Archaeology

Researchers who visit Rapa Nui (Easter Island) are, understandably, focused on archaeology. Its part in the peopling of the Pacific, and the tale behind its massive moai, are topics that stimulate academics and excite the popular imagination. They can still elicit controversy, as with a new theory of how the megaliths moved from their “nursery” at Rano Raraku to broad ahu (platforms) around the island.
Exterior view of the woodshed at Fundo Vaitea
It’s disappointing, though, that Rapanuiphiles and local authorities are focused on this to the exclusion of contemporary history (which I shall define as history within the life span of somebody alive today). When I visited the island in April, I was disappointed to see the dilapidated state of Fundo Vaitea (pictured above), the one-time sheep ranch founded by the abusive Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier in 1870. Dutroux-Bornier died at the hands of the Rapanui themselves, but the sheep ranch survived under the management of the Valparaíso-based Williamson, Balfour & Company, which essentially governed the island from 1888 to 1952 as the Compañía Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua (CEDIP). After 1952, Chile had a greater administrative presence in its remote Pacific possession, first through the navy and then through civilian government.
Interior of the woodshed at Fundo Vaitea
I first saw Vaitea on my initial visit to the island, about 20 years ago, when the wool shed (above) and concrete sheep dips (below) were in relatively good condition (I have never seen a sheep on the island, though there are cattle and, of course, the overpopulation of horses has caused serious environmental damage). On my recent trip, though, the shed was on the point of collapse, the machinery within was rusting, and volunteer trees were growing within the dip. Eventually, unless action is taken, the trees will pull those installations apart.
Ruins of the sheep dips at Funda Vaitea
Obviously, the deteriorating remains of a sheep ranch are less significant than ancient archaeological sites that can help explain some of the biggest questions in Polynesian prehistory. On the other hand, unless some historical archaeologist takes an interest soon – such a project was recently announced – Vaitea could suffer a regrettable and utterly preventable loss of valuable artifacts to reconstruct a period that’s been largely neglected.

Rapa Nui Reaches California
Meanwhile, with that in mind, the Eighth International Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific will take place from July 8 to 13 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of my home in Oakland, and I hope to attend. Its theme is “Living in Changing Island Environments,” and anybody is welcome – presuming, of course, you wish to splurge on the $295 registration fee that includes the welcome banquet with Australian anthropologist Grant McCall.

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