FATHER SEBASTIAN ENGLERT –
WILLIAM MULLOY, TRANSLATOR AND EDITOR –
ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, NEW LIGHT ON EASTER ISLAND –
This book both confirms and give the lie to Jared Diamond’s Collapse. But many other questions than the “collapse” of this island can be aired in clear-cut words and phrases.
The first question is: Who are these Easter Islanders? No one can answer really. I have collected in this text the few elements that can lead to an answer, at least a hypothesis. They had a writing system of a special type. It was not phonetical because it counted something like eight hundred discrete elements. Too numerous for them to represent individual sounds. It is not an alphabet. It is also surprising for a purely syllabic writing system at least of the standard type of Consonant-Vowel or Vowel-Consonant: five vowels and twenty consonants only give one hundred CV and one hundred VC syllables. If you extend this simple syllabic structure to VCV you get five hundred more syllables and the extension CVC would produce two thousand more syllables. Such ternary syllables are generally not taken into account in syllabary dictionaries, or at times only a few are taken into account according to the languages concerned. Then if these eight hundred symbols are not alphabetical or syllabic, then they have to be iconic graphs that represented, each one, a lexical item with a particular meaning. It looks like a writing system being born from iconic signs that have not evolved yet into anything phonetic or syllabic. It looks like the ancient and primeval hieroglyphs of the Egyptian writing system that was based on a Semitic root language. It may look like the original and ancient graphs used in the Maya writing system, though even in very old petroglyphs many of these signs have mutated into syllabic elements. But the “face glyphs” are surviving in Maya as what they represent, though at times they stand for de-iconized syllables. This is surprising because the question is: How could and did that system come to Easter Island? Writing systems are invented in social groups that are both large and in contact, mostly commercial, religious and cultural, with large and at times vast sets of various and varied groups. Writing is done for communication and written communication is not needed in isolated and limited social groups. What was this Easter island part of to be able to invent a written communication code? I use code to remain the most abstract possible but before the alphabetical or syllabic threshold. It quite obviously could not come from North Africa or the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Then could it come from isolating languages in Asia? That is more imaginable, but what we know about this writing system (just a few tablets have survived) leads me to thinking it might be an advanced iconic code derived from the abstract symbols we can find in various ancient caves, but note this filiation to Asia and ancient forms of writing codes may also answer the other question about the origin of the Maya writing system that had to come from somewhere and be devised by some social group in communicational situations since the Maya writing system even in its older forms has reached the syllabic level. We always forget that nothing comes from nothing and everything has to come from something.
What I say here would be plausible if we envisaged the migration of people who came to Easter Island to be a lot older, hence, to have taken place a lot earlier and to have gone on to Chili and South America, not back from South America as Englert envisaged. Thus, the Easter Island’s migration from South East Asia would be at the root of the South- and Meso-American cultures deeply grounded in heavy and monumental stone constructions and writing in stone as well as on “paper.” The Maya writing system would appear then as a largely evolved system derived from what the South East Asian migration would have brought on the basis of an isolating writing system that would have moved to a syllabic system. Note then Maya and other Meso-American languages would be somewhere between agglutination and linguistic synthesis. That would state the migration started from second articulation languages and culture in Asia and evolved from this background over a long period of time. Why then don’t we get older archaeological finds than what is alluded to in this book that goes back only a few hundred years, at the most one thousand? We are speaking of the people who reached Latin America at least 25,000 years ago in Chili and will go up to Bolivia where cocoa (or chocolate) is proved to have existed around 5,000 years BCE to only be proved among the Mayas somewhere around close after the beginning of our era. Keep in mind we only find what we are looking for and on this question standard Western and North American people, specialists, archaeologists are not looking for what I suggest here, though they have all information they need to start thinking, like the satellite pictures of the upper Amazonian valley having carried a great number of pyramids and other constructions of the Maya type, under the rain forest. These must be a lot older than those in Guatemala, and once again the movement is from the South to the North.
We will never go beyond this multiple-layer mystery as long as we do not open our minds to the possibility of ancient migrations that we ignore (both meanings of the verb). But a movement from South America to Easter Island would imply the writing system(s) the South American Indians were devising would have regressed to an older form. This is impossible. Either it is not traced to anything west of the Island, or it requires some regressive movement when connected to what we find east of the island.
This states that this migration was very old, came from South East Asia and its isolating languages, went on to South America (Chile, Monte Verde) and then North up to Meso-America. It also states that if there has been any deforestation on this Easter Island since it was not really performed by the modern population, it must have been performed earlier, hence by the people of the old migration, but then why haven’t we yet found archaeological elements of this older population? Archaeology is able to determine the vegetation in older times by analyzing the pollens accumulated in the earth thanks to core-samples taken from it. That has not been done but that would prove if the island was ever covered with trees or not, what trees and when they disappeared, since today there are none of such old trees. In fact, either we are blind to what we do not look for, or they did not stay on the Island and just went on. This is possible because the same people who reached Australia some 50,000 years ago moved on to Madagascar so that the original language of this island is connected to that of Australian Aborigines. We tend to believe Old Homo Sapiens (not so old since we are speaking of 50,000 years BCE for a species that was at the time something like 250,000 years old.
The second idea in this book is that of nature. The island seems to have been devastated by human activity and particularly by European and South American recent exploitation for slave labor and just plain looting or hunting the locals for fun. That goes back to the very first European contacts in the 18th century and it was of a tremendous amplitude in the 19th century, maybe even the 20th century. And we have to keep in mind that the few slaves that were liberated later on came back to the island and brought with them some of the European diseases like smallpox and measles. We cannot trust the memory of the people of this island today because of two phenomena. First, the numerous tablets on which their “culture” was written down, at least as mnemotechnical tools, have been destroyed and are lost in a way or another. We do not have enough tablets to really decipher the language (or at least it was not attempted) and, of course, to know what was contained on all these tablets. Second, most of those who had the knowledge to read these tablets and the memory to know what was on them, meaning here the elite of this society, has been devastated by killings (since they had the tendency to try to protect the inhabitants), their capture into slavery where they died, and their being the victims of diseases. Nowadays and that has been true for a long time, this old elite has completely disappeared and what the people can tell is nothing but hearsay, at times three or more generations away. This elite is called griots in Africa and they are essential among Northern American Indians for only two examples that are representative of what it was in all civilizations before the development of mass education, even Europe up to the fifteenth century included. So, what Father Sebastian Englert collected in the population mostly after the second world war is in no way the truth collected from the mouth of those who have kept the culture and the memory of the community over centuries.
But these people today “remember” some conflicts and situations of the past, but we are speaking of the recent past, no more than three or four centuries. They particularly keep in mind the battle of Poike between the minority Hanau Eepe who were more advanced than the others who were the majority, and the majority Hanau Momoko who were slightly less advanced as for exploiting the farming potential of the island. From what Englert collected it was a typical genocidal response from the Hanau Momoko to the insistence, that might have appeared arrogant and authoritarian, with which the Hanau Eepe more or less required the others to do something to improve their farmland, namely to pick all stones and throw them in the ocean. With the help of a Hanau Momoko woman employed as a servant by a Hanau Eepe employer, the Hanau Momoko plainly exterminated the Hanau Eepe population in the cruelest and ugliest way possible: they were most of them thrown or pushed into some defensive fires of their own and they, most of them, were burned there to death. Note the survivors were plainly eaten by the victors. This cannibalism seems to have been a normal practice for some time though there is no explanation why it was used mostly, if we believe what common knowledge told Englert, as some way to eat some meat proteins. But the horror of this violence can be extraordinary repulsive.
“The houses of, the vanquished were burned and the people were carried away as slaves to work for their new masters. They were kept in caves from which they were released to work at cultivating crops. When their services were no longer needed, they were occasionally set free; more often, however, they were subjected to horrifying treatment. The least of the acts of vengeance practiced against these unfortunate men, women, and children were blows with a club. Some were slashed and lacerated with obsidian blades. Others were burned over slow fires or trampled until their intestines were ground into the dirt…” (page 149)
This book is old, and we can say that before 1970 there was no way to analyze the DNA of people. That should be done and that might lead to some connections of this population with other populations and also to the discrimination of the two main groups that fought the battle of Poike. But that should be done today if it is not too late, but we all know that with DNA it is never too late. That could probably cast some light on the genocidal conflicts that took place in this society divided into clans or maybe even castes.
To go back to Jared Diamond’s Collapse, the fate of this island is probably older than what he says and maybe not even entirely man-made. In the most recent period (the last five or six centuries) the main problem was overpopulation that produced conflicts more or less seen as necessary to bring the population down to the level the natural resources and agricultural work could justify. This brutal management of the population is unluckily natural, but absolutely not human. Either we all die of starvation or we select some to become our food and compensate for the lack of natural or agricultural resources and at the same to reduce the body o consumers, hence the demand for food.
Note a very last remark. The statues that are being restored and re-erected are not the only stone achievement of these Eastern Islanders. These statues were erected on built altars or platforms that were made of massive precisely cut stones that are similar in many ways to what the Incas and the Mayas and many others did later on. These Easter Islanders also had structures that were similar, though in a primitive way, to the very elaborate pyramids of the Mayas. “Semi-pyramidal ahu… a kind of small stone masonry structure that exists on the island in about forty-five examples. These structures have the form of a low, extremely elongated half-pyramid. …” (Page 103) This in itself is another element on the road of these people towards the Maya and Inca, in one-word, Latin American cultures, civilizations, and populations. This is the main interest of this book that becomes then an extremely important historical document.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU