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.

This Week’s TV Including Tigers, Jewish History, the Indian Ocean & King Alfred

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle

Having been to the zoo last week & seen the tigers there, we decided to watch the series about tigers narrated by David Attenborough that we’d recently been recording. It’s a relatively old series (2008), but we hadn’t seen it before. The tigers in a national park in India have been filmed using cameras carried by elephants, or motion-sensing cameras left at spots the tigers frequent. As the tigers aren’t bothered about having elephants around (even ones with cameras & people sitting on top of them) this allowed the programme makers to film the tigers’ natural behaviour.

The three programmes followed a litter of tigers cubs from a few weeks old through to maturity. So it started with four cute fluffy little tiger kittens plus mother, and went through to having a pack of five tigers wandering about (just before the family split up). And lots of footage of young tigers failing to hunt in a variety of amusing ways. Also some footage of the other animals they shared the national park with (and not just their prey animals) – including a selection of monkeys, some jackals, leopards, and peacocks.

A good series 🙂 Although I did find it a bit annoying that the narration constantly said things like “The elephants decide to move on”, because I’m sure it was the mahouts who decided to move on …

The Story of the Jews

This is a new series, presented by Simon Schama, about the history of the Jews. He’s positioning it very much as his way of telling the story of the Jews, rather than a definitive “one true history”. In the intro to the first episode he talks about how Jews are spread through the world and don’t share a common culture, or language, or skin colour, or even common beliefs – but what they have in common is the shared story of their heritage, and the words of their bible.

The bulk of the episode covered the history of the Jews from when they arose as a religion/tribal group through to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Firstly he covered some of the biblical stories that are possibly more metaphorical than actual – ie the Exodus with Moses (although there is no archaeological evidence for any of that story), which is still an integral part of the Jewish ritual calendar. And also the fight between David & Goliath, which is probably a story personalising a much longer lasting border conflict between the Jews & the Philistines. He visited a site which has some of the earliest archaeological evidence for Jews following Jewish practice – a fort on the border between Israel & the Philistines where there is evidence that the population didn’t eat pigs (lots of other butchered animal bones, no pig bones), and that their temple had some similar features to later Jewish temples.

Moving on to more solidly historical events he talked about the exile in Babylon and how that shaped the cultural identity of the Jews. While the elite of their society were in Babylon they spent time editing & refining the words of the Jewish Bible into what they considered the definitive version. So on return to Jerusalem those who’d remained behind had to be dragged up to the right standard (presumably much to their dismay). Schama also told us about the Jews who’d fled back into Egypt, to Elephantine Island, when the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem. Their faith & practice had begun to take a different course, much to the disgust of the new purists in Jerusalem. Including setting up a Temple where they performed animal sacrifice in their town, which was against the rules (the only Temple in which animal sacrifice was permitted was the one in Jerusalem). But this offshoot didn’t flourish – disputes with the other non-Jewish inhabitants of the town resulted in the destruction of their Temple, which removed their local focus of worship.

As obviously this is about the Jews he skipped over Jesus with a mere mention, spending more time talking about Herod and dwelling on the mystics who lived near the Dead Sea (and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls that are visions of the apocalypse they believed was coming). And Schama finished up by talking about the ill-fated Jewish rebellion against the Romans that led to the destruction of the Temple. He mentioned he’d been brought up to regard the historian Josephus as a traitor to his people, and that attitude was still very clear 😉

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fifth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean took us from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh & was quite thoroughly depressing. In Sri Lanka the focus was on the aftermath of the civil war with children in the north of the island being taught how to identify mines & shells and what to do (Don’t Touch, Find an Adult). And in the capital Reeve talked to a man who runs a newspaper that is critical of the government. His brother (and co-owner) was murdered, equipment has been destroyed and current staff get death threats – the government does not like being criticised.

In India & Bangladesh he looked at the destruction caused by the demand for prawns. He went out on a trawler with some fishermen dredging for prawns, and it was shocking how little they caught in their nets. Dredging for prawns results in a lot of fish being killed because they’re not wanted. Reeve then visited prawn farms in Bangladesh … great idea, right? Unfortunately, no. To farm prawns you flood your land with sea water & then it’s contaminated with salt so you can’t ever move back to growing rice, fruit & veg. The water also contaminates your drinking water supplies, and your neighbours’ land. So a whole area will end up farming prawns as the only thing their land will support and having to buy all their food & water.

And lastly container ship recycling takes place in Bangladesh – another great idea in theory that kinda fails in execution. The workers who break down the ships are not safe – 8 die a month, many more are injured. And the oil & other waste products contaminate the ocean.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

We also started watching a recent series presented by Michael Wood about the Anglo-Saxons. He is setting forth the idea that three of the most influential kings of England were Anglo-Saxon – King Alfred & his successors. The first episode covered King Alfred’s reign. Alfred wasn’t originally going to be a King – he was a younger son of the King of Wessex (one of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 9th Century). While he was a young man, and his brother was King, the Vikings conquered all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Alfred’s brother was killed, and Alfred himself fled into the marshes of Somerset. Here he re-grouped over the next few years, and gathered warriors – he then pushed the Vikings back from Wessex & Mercia. He was referred to as the King of all the English kin, but by the end of his life the Vikings still ruled in Northumbria & East Anglia.

The programme didn’t just follow the military side of his life (via the records in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle), but also looked at the ways that he was a good peacetime King. He reformed the economy, and the coins that were minted after he re-took the two kingdoms were much higher quality than previous. He also laid the foundations of south & west England’s towns & cities – many burgs were founded during his reign. These were partly military garrisons to stand ready against any future Viking incursions, but they also became the economic centres of their areas (because they were safer places to conduct your business). One of these burgs was London – it already existed, obviously, but there are references to Alfred re-laying out the streets, or re-founding it (the Anglo-Saxon word is hard to translate).

Alfred was also involved in the translation of “all the important books that a man should read” into Anglo-Saxon – mostly religious texts & commentaries. He was keen to return the country to a state of wisdom & learning, like he believed it had been before the Vikings came. And because the education of people had been interrupted by the decades of war he thought that the books should be translated from Latin into a language they understood.

I already had an idea of the rough outline of Alfred’s story, but the next couple of programmes cover people I don’t have even that much knowledge of, which will be interesting 🙂