Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World; The Search for Alfred the Great

Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World was a one-off 90 minute documentary about the history of Easter Island presented by Jago Cooper. The canonical story about the Easter Island culture is that they became so obsessed with building the Moai statues that they cut down all the trees to move them around, at which point the soil promptly eroded away and the culture collapsed due to being unable to grow food. Violence, destruction of statues and cannibalism followed. There’s then a moral lesson drawn about what we, the modern global society, should learn about using up all your resources.

The thesis of Cooper’s programme is that when you actually examine the evidence it’s clear that the traditional story is wrong. Over the course of the programme Cooper talked to several experts in the history and archaeology of Rapa Nui (the proper name for Easter Island and it’s people) both from Rapa Nui and from other countries. The experts didn’t always agree on the details (most notably about the date of arrival of people on Rapa Nui) but the overall picture was clear. Easter Island is the last inhabited place on Earth to become inhabited, somewhere between 100AD and 1200AD. As the Polynesians spread out into the Pacific Ocean they had a standard method of colonising new islands. A group would go out in boats looking for new lands, and when they found something suitable they’d take note of where they were then plant some yams and return home. A larger colonisation group would then set out with all the amenities they’d need to set up a self-sustaining society, and by the time they got there they would have yams to eat. Rapa Nui was the last island found in this eastward migration, and because it’s so far from any other land it became isolated after it was settled. From whenever that was till the arrival of the first Dutch ship in 1722 AD the Rapa Nui people believed themselves to be the only people in the world, and the island was the only land in the world surrounded by an endless sea.

Rapa Nui was forested when the islanders arrived, and did become deforested over the next several centuries. However, this wasn’t anything to do with moving statues and wasn’t even a catastrophe. Cooper told us that the statues are more likely to’ve been moved by “walking” them using ropes, rather than pulled on wooden runners. And even if they were using wood to move their statues, it wouldn’t’ve needed that many trees. One of the experts interviewed had done the calculations – he knew how many trees could’ve grown on the land, how many trees you’d need to cut down to move a single statue a particular distance, how many statues had moved how far. And it was an insignificant number of trees to move all the statues using wood, as compared with the starting number.

Instead of being the results of foolish disaster it’s much more likely that the trees were cleared to create space to grow crops just as is the case in other places around the world. The Rapa Nui people used several methods to keep the soil thus exposed both there and fertile. One things they did was to use rocks to cover the fields in a technique called “stone mulching” (I didn’t quite understand how this worked beyond the obvious idea that the rocks stopped the soil from blowing away – wouldn’t it also stop plants from germinating?). There is also evidence that they landscaped areas so as to collect and channel water – the only fresh water on the island comes from rain – and they planted trees in the damper areas generated by this. And they planted some crops (like banana trees) in caverns where the roofs had fallen in – shaded and out of the wind.

When the first ships arrived, on Easter Day 1722, they found a vibrant and healthy society – which was rather surprised to find it wasn’t alone in the world. That visit was brief, and amicable. When the next ships arrived, about 50 years later, they found a much reduced population and notably that the Moai statues were toppled over. What had changed? The traditional story involves civil war and cannibalism, but there’s no archaeological evidence for that at all. Instead Cooper said the most plausible explanation is that European diseases caused a severe drop in population in this previously isolated society. I think he said that 90% of the population is thought to’ve died – and so of course you have societal changes, that’s a very traumatic event. The statues show signs of being deliberately lowered to hide their faces. One possible explanation is that the honoured ancestors who were supposed to protect them had failed so were toppled. Another is that the Rapa Nui wanted to hide what had happened to their people from the ancestors, so this was a way of covering their eyes. Society was still basically healthy, however, as shown by the evolution of new rituals (like the birdman cult).

And then the European powers did what they did so often – many of the natives were taken off as slaves to work in South America. Those who remained were forced to live in only one small part of the island and poorly treated, while the rest was given over to intensive sheep farming. This use of the land is what caused the soil and the ecosystem to become as poor as it is today. At one point in the 19th Century there were only 36 families on Rapa Nui who had children – and all the native Rapa Nui people today are descended from these people. The culture has only survived in fragments from oral histories written down in the early 1900s – these same fragments are what started the modern fascination with Easter Island. The modern Rapa Nui are fiercely proud of their island, and its history, and are trying to get independence from Chile (their current political rulers).

This was a fascinating programme, well worth watching. Cooper does get a little carried away with how perfect life was before the Europeans arrived, but I think that’s partly to highlight the contrast between the traditional story about the island and what the evidence tells us.

Another one-off programme that we watched this week was The Search for Alfred the Great. This was presented by Neil Oliver and followed the recent attempts to find the bones of King Alfred. The structure of the programme was three intertwined strands – a biography of Alfred, the history of his bones after his death and the scientific examination of the bones we have.

The biography of Alfred didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know – we’ve recently watched Michael Wood’s series about Alfred and his heirs (post) which covered the subject in more depth. The history of Alfred’s bones was new to me, however. His body has been moved at least twice since his original burial. These initial two moves are well documented – he was buried first in the Old Minister at Winchester. Then after completion of the New Minister (that he himself set in motion) he was reburied there. After the Norman Conquest there was another rebuilding of the church (to its current form) and the monks associated with the first New Minister were moved to somewhere else – Alfred was reburied in their new abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation the story of Alfred’s bones gets more murky – they stayed buried as the abbey was demolished around the graves and were forgotten to some extent. When the area was redeveloped into a prison in the 18th Century the convicts doing the ground breaking for foundations discovered sepulchres and bones – the valuable bits were sold, the bones were scattered. But an antiquarian did write about it, and about how these might’ve been Alfred & his family’s tombs. Later a Victorian claimed to have re-found and re-dug up these bones – eventually those were bought by a local church which re-interred the bones in the churchyard with a note that they were probably Alfred. This Victorian is the dodgy link in the evidence chain.

And this is where the modern analysis comes in. The bones from the churchyard were exhumed and analysed using modern techniques. I was a little surprised when near the end of the programme the carbon dating all came back as “too recent” – the 5 skeletons in the grave dated between 1100 AD and 1500 AD. Surprised because I thought I’d read that they’d found something plausible. All became clear shortly afterwards when Oliver moved on to talk about a modern partial excavation of the disturbed abbey site. This had turned up a few bits of human bone but funding had run out before proper analysis was done. Carbon dating on a fragment of a man’s pelvis indicated a date of ~900 AD, so the right era. There is nothing to say if it’s Alfred or not, but it’s possible. The main take home message is that it is likely worth excavating the rest of the site properly so see what else might be found (if anything).

An interesting programme. And well done to Oliver and the other people involved in making it for making a programme that was still worth watching even tho the central question wasn’t answered!

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – series presented by Richard Fortey looking at three mass extinction events and showing us modern examples of the species that survived them.

Episode 2 of Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve – a programme about the history of (Christian) pilgrimage, pilgrimage sites and the modern incarnation of it.

Episode 1 of Baroque! From St Peter’s to St Paul’s – gloriously over the top series about Baroque art and architecture, presented by Waldemar Januszczak.