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The Mystery Of Easter Island
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Easter is a volcanic land, and in the earliest days of the world's history great lights and flowing lava must have gleamed across the expanse of water, then gradually lessened and died away,, leaving their work to be moulded by wind and tide. The island, as the forces of nature have thus made it, is triangular in shape and curiously symmetrical. The length of the base — that is, of the south, or strictly speaking south-east, coast — is about thirteen miles, and the greatest width about seven miles; the circumference, roughly speaking, is thirty-four miles. The apex, which is the highest ground, is a volcano over 1,700 feet in height whose summit is formed of a cluster of small craters; the eastern and western angles are each composed of a large extinct volcano. The place is geologically young, and the mountains, in contrast to those of Juan Fernandez, still preserve their original rounded shape; there are no ravines, no wooded precipices, no inaccessible heights, but round the whole coast erosion is at work, with the result that, while on the land side the slopes of all these three mountains are gradual, on the sea side — that is, in portions of the north, east, and west coasts respectively — they have been worn back by the power of the waves into imposing cliffs. In the lower districts the sheets of lava form a shore-line of some 50 to 100 feet in height, and extend into the sea in black, broken ridges. Against this coast of alternating high cliffs and jagged rocks the swell of the Pacific is always dashing, and in a high wind clouds of white spray first hide, and then reveal, the inhospitable shore.

The comparatively level and low-lying regions of the island, namely, those which are not covered by the three great vol. canoes, consist of the south coast, and of two tracts which run across the island on either side. The high ground which forms the apex of the triangle is thus divided from that of the eastern and western angles respectively. Another level strip, some quarter of a mile wide at its broadest, lies in an elevated and romantic position around the northern apex between the highest portion of the central mountain and the precipitous sea-cliff. This distribution of the level ground is, as will be later seen, reflected in the disposition of the various clans which formerly spread over the island (fig. 91).

In addition to the three large mountains, there are smaller elevations some hundreds of feet in height, generally in the form of cones with craters distinctly visible. These lesser volcanoes, with one or two exceptions, may be roughly said to lie in two lines which radiate irregularly from the northern eminence, spreading out from it like fingers and pointing respectively to the east and west ends of the south coast. The hills, which may be termed the root of the fingers, form part of the high ground, while those equivalent to the tips rise out of the low-lying portion, where the east and west transverse belts join the southern plain.

In some instances the crater of a mountain has become a lake: when this is the case the term "rano" is prefixed to its name. It is quaintly told that one visitor, considering the volcanic origin, hazarded the suggestion that "rano" was equivalent to fire, to which the natives indignantly replied that, on the contrary, it meant water. These lakes are almost the only water-supply of the island: there is a good rainfall, but no single running stream. Owing to the porous nature of the ground the water sinks beneath the surface, sometimes forming underground channels from which it flows into the sea below high-water mark: thus giving rise to the curious statement of early voyagers that the natives were able to drink salt water1 (fig. 124). The lower portions of the island are composed of sheets of lava, in process of disintegration, across which walking is almost impossible and riding a very slow process; the surface of the mountains and hills is smoother, being volcanic ash. The whole is covered with grass, which sprouts up between the masses of lava and gives the hills a delightful down-like appearance. Forest growth has probably never consisted of more than brushwood and shrubs, and to-day even those have disappeared.

The best panorama of the island is obtained from the western volcano, by name Rano Kao (fig. 24). Below on the left lies Cook's Bay, with Mataveri and the village of Hanga Roa, and beyond them the high bleak central ground of the island, generally known by the name of one of its craters, Rano Aroi. On the right is the plain of the south coast, culminating in the eastern headland, a district the greater part of which is known as Poike. Just in front of the headland can be seen the two peaks of the mountain of Rano Raraku, from which the statues were hewn and which is the most interesting place in the island; while on a clear day there can be obtained a glimpse of the northern coast and the sea beyond.

Such is Easter Island. It bears no resemblance to the ideal lotus-eating lands of the Pacific; rather, with its bleak grass-grown surface, its wild rocks and restless ocean, it recalls some of the Scilly Isles or the coast of Cornwall. It is not a beautiful country nor even a striking one, but it has a fascination of its own. All portions of it are accessible; from every part are seen marvellous views of rolling country; everywhere is the wind of heaven; around and above all are boundless sea and sky, infinite space and a great silence. The dweller there is ever listening for he knows not what, feeling unconsciously that he is in the antechamber to something yet more vast which is just beyond his ken.

The objects of antiquarian interest proved to be widely scattered. The statues have originally stood on a particular kind of burialplace, generally known as a "terrace" or "platform." These terraces surround the whole coast, and each one had of course to be studied. For those at the western end, and for certain stone remains on the volcano of Rano Kao, Mataveri was a most convenient centre; but the distance from there to the places of interest at the other end of the island was unduly great. We therefore decided to avail ourselves of the offer of the manager and remain for a while at his establishment, where Mana left us, and later move camp. Survey and photography had of course to keep pace with research, and a general look-out to be kept for any caves which it might pay to explore. There was also the question of getting into touch with the natives and finding if any lore existed which threw light on the antiquities: this last, from what we had been told in England, was not a very hopeful quest; anyway, it seemed wiser to defer it for the moment till we knew something of the language and were more at home in our surroundings.

The Manager's house has six rooms, three of which are at the front, and three, having a separate entrance, at the back. These last, with a most useful attic, Mr. Edmunds kindly put at our disposal, and we supplemented the accommodation with tents pitched in the grounds. My own tent, for the sake of quietness, was on the western side of the plantation, about a hundred yards from the house. S. used to escort me down at night, with a camp lantern, by a little track through the eucalyptus trees, see that all was well, put down the light, and leave me with the mystery of the island. The site was one dedicated to cannibal feasts; immediately behind was the hillock with the grave of the murdered manager; while not far away the waves thundered against the cliffs, making in stormy weather the ground tremble as if with an earthquake. In the morning came the glory of the waking, of being at once tęte ŕ tęte with air, sunshine, and dewy grass: to those who have not known the wonder of these things, it cannot be explained; to those who have experienced it, no words are needed.

Tent life is not all "beer and skittles"; Easter is too windy for an ideal camping-ground; my pitch was sheltered, but even so it seemed at times as if the structure would be carried away bodily. To preserve a tent in place taut ropes are needed, but if rain descends these shrink, and either burst with the strain or tear the pegs out of the ground: the conscientious dweller under canvas will, under these conditions, arise from his warm bed, and in the pouring deluge race round the tent, slacking off the said ropes. Mine, like the stripes of St. Paul, numbered forty save one. Before the end we were able to make different arrangements.

When we had been some three and a half months at Mataveri — that is, in the middle of July 1914 — we felt that the time had come to begin work on the other end of the island. It must be remembered that our original idea was that six months would probably suffice for the whole inquiry, and in any case we had no intention of staying beyond the period which would allow of Mana's making a second trip to Chile.

We therefore established ourselves at Rano Raraku as the most convenient site. It takes about two hours to ride there from Mataveri. The road is made, like all those in the island, by simply clearing away the stones, but it is wide enough to permit the passage of a wagon. It leads first across the island by the western transverse plain till, at Vaihu, the sea is reached, then runs along the south coast with its low rocks and continuous line of breaking surf. Every step of this part of the way is marked, for those who have eyes to see, with ruined burial-places; many of them strewn with the remains of the statues which have once been erected upon them. As Raraku is approached, there lie by the roadside isolated figures of portentous size, abandoned, it has been thought, in the act of removal from the quarries to the terraces. We grew to know by heart this road, which led from what we termed our "town establishment," to our “country house," and have ridden it, together or separately, at all hours and in every weather. We were not infrequently detained by business, at one end or the other, till too late to save the daylight, and after dark it was not easy to keep to the track, even with the help afforded by the sound of the breakers. Our ponies gave us no assistance in the difficulty, for as foals they had run wild with their mothers, and were, therefore, equally happy wandering off among the fields of broken lava. As the “twilight of the dove" gradually changed to the "twilight of the raven," and the huge figures loomed larger than ever in the gathering gloom, it seemed that, if ever the spirits of the departed revisit their ancient haunts, the ghosts of the old image-makers must be all abroad about their works and places of burial.

Rano Raraku (fig. 45) stands by itself where the fiat ground of the southern coast meets the eastern transverse plain, and forms the isolated tip of those lesser volcanoes which have been described as the eastern finger. About a mile to the eastward rises the high ground of Poike. Raraku scarcely deserves the name of mountain, being little more than a basin containing a crater lake; yet it curiously dominates the scene. There will be much to tell of it hereafter; for the moment suffice it to say that a large number of statues stand on its lower slopes, while above are the quarries from which, with very few exceptions, all the figures in the island have been obtained. The side nearest the sea is a sheer cliff, the extremities of which form the two peaks which are so characteristic of the mountain. Beneath the cliff is a flow of lava; here the French carpenter had managed to put up two iron huts which had been sent ahead from England; one was a store, the other formed my one-roomed villa residence. Their erection was somewhat of a triumph, as all the bolts had been stolen on the way. The rest of the camp, the tent for meals, that of S., and those for the servants, were pitched for protection about 50 feet lower down, on the further side of the lava flow; but even here, owing to the tearing wind which howled round the mountain, their canvas flies had to be tied back and walls erected around them (fig. 73). On every hand were the remains of native life prior to the removal of the inhabitants to Hanga Roa, the most welcome being a single well-grown tree of the sort known in tropical countries as the "umbrella tree." It was the only example of its kind on the island, and was of an age that suggested it had been planted by the early missionaries.

The whole situation was not only one of striking beauty, but brought with it an indescribable sense of solemnity. Immediately above the camp towered the majestic cliff of Raraku, near at hand were its mysterious quarries and still erect statues; on the coast below us, quiet and still, lay the overturned images of the great platform of Tongariki, one fragment of which alone remains on its base, as a silent witness to the glory which has departed. The scene was most wonderful of all when the full moon made a track of light over the sea, against which the black mass of the terrace and the outline of the standing fragment were sharply defined; while the white beams turned the waving grass into shimmering silver and lit up every crevice in the mountain above.

Easter Island lies in the sub-tropics, and, if the question of wind be eliminated, the climate is as near perfection as possible in this world. There may be, especially in the winter months, a spell of three or four days of rain, or a wind from the Antarctic, when woollen clothes are welcome; and occasionally, in the summer, it is preferable to be indoors during the noontide hours; but with these exceptions, it is one of those rare localities where it is possible to be warm the whole year round, and yet to utilise to the full the hours of daylight. There are, as might be expected, too many insects; cockroaches abound, out of doors and under statues as well as in houses and tents; when things were very bad they might even be seen on the dinner-table. I was calmly told, with masculine insensibility, that "if I had not naturally a taste for such things, the sooner that I acquired it the better"; the only consolation was that they were of a handsome red variety and not shiny black. Flies also are numerous; I have counted two hundred in a bowl of soapy water, and six or eight at once on my hand while busy writing; "their tameness was shocking to me." Mosquitoes, which have been imported, varied in their attentions; when they were at their worst it was necessary to wear head-gear and dine in gloves. There is said to be no fever in the islands; we had two or three attacks, but it may have been "original sin." Once we had a plague of little white moths, and occasionally, for a short while, visitations of a small flying beetle, whose instinct seemed to be to crawl into everything, making it safer to stuff one's ears with cotton-wool. On these occasions dinner had to be put earlier, owing to Bailey's pathetic complaint that, with a lamp burning in the kitchen, business was rendered impossible from the crowds which committed suicide in the soup.

The lack of firewood was met by using oil; when, later, we had to economise in that commodity, it was supplemented by collecting dried manure. The natives use brushwood or anything they can pick up; their manner of cooking, which is after Polynesian fashion by heating stones placed in the earth, requires very little fuel. The water difficulty was ever present. At the Mataveri establishment the supply collected from the roof was generally sufficient; we arrived, however, in a dry spell, and one morning the request for water was met by the information that the "tank was empty"; even Mana, one felt, had never fallen quite so low. It was consoling to be informed that "clothes could always be washed in the crater," a climb of 1,300 feet. At our Raraku camp all the water, except that which could be collected on the roof of a tin hut, had to be fetched from the crater lake; this rendered us tiresomely dependent on getting native labour. The rain-clouds are often intercepted by the high grounds at the south-western end of the island, in a manner which is most tantalising to the dweller in the eastern, if supplies happen to be low.

The ranch supported at this time about 12,000 sheep, 2,000 head of cattle, and other livestock; we were generously supplied with milk and could purchase any quantity of mutton; beef was not often killed for so small a party. Chickens of a lean species were sometimes available. Mana later brought Mr. Edmunds some turkeys which did well. Bananas were useful, when in season. Fig-trees thrive, and we had a lavish and most acceptable supply at Raraku of this fruit from those planted by the natives prior to their removal to Hanga Roa. Vegetables were scarce, as the Manager took no interest in his garden, owing to the depredations of the natives, and we had no time for their cultivation. Groceries had, of course, been brought with us, and on our arrival they were deposited in the locked and strongly built wool-shed at Hanga Piko, a small-boat landing between Hanga Roa and Mataveri. Housekeeping was a much easier business than on the yacht, but S.'s share of practical work was considerably greater, for, beside the initial camp-pitching, all tent or kitchen gear that went wrong and every lamp which would not burn made demands on his time. In his department also came the stud; we had been kindly provided with some of the island ponies, of which there are about five hundred; as export is impossible, the value of each animal is put at 5s. When not in use the steeds were put out to graze as best they might; and in addition to the care of the saddlery, every tethering rope which chafed through against the stones was brought for repair to the head of the Expedition. In judging of scientific work under such conditions, it must always be borne in mind how many hours and days are thus inevitably consumed in practical labour.

There was, luckily for us, the one skilled workman on the island, the French carpenter who had made his way from New .Caledonia; his name was Vincent, but he answered to the appellation of "Varta" (the figure in fig. 27), the difficulty was to obtain his services as he was constantly employed on the estate. One of our few retainers, Mahanga (fig. 89), was not a native of Easter, but had come from the Paumotu Islands; he served faithfully for many months, the goal in view being the possession of one of the tin huts, which passed into his keeping when we left the island. It was related that having been at one time afflicted with some skin disease, he had taken the heroic remedy of plunging into a vat in which the sheep were being dipped, with painful but beneficial results. The native girls make quite tolerable servants, and I was fortunate in never being without one (fig. 29). They take a keen interest in their own clothes and some of them are surprisingly good needlewomen; in some of the houses there are even sewing-machines. But to obtain labour, whether for camp work or excavation, was always difficult, and for a while circumstances rendered it almost impossible.


1 "I will only add this one word about the curious way in which they get fresh water on some of the coral islands, such as Nangone, where there is none on the surface. Two go out together to sea, and dive down at some spot where they know there is a freshwater spring, and they alternately stand on one another's backs to keep down the one that is drinking at the bottom before the pure water mixes with the surrounding salt water." — "Notes on the Maoris and Melanesians, “Bishop of Wellington: The Journal of the Ethnological Society, New Series, vol. i, session 1868-9.

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