and Isolation in Rapa Nui Prehistory
Finney, Ph.D., University of Hawai'i, Manoa
most important and central fact leading to an understanding of Easter
Island culture-history is its unusual degree of isolation by sea.
(William Mulloy 1979:111).
trend of Pacific Island settlement has been eastwards. Some 50,000 years
ago when vast quantities of water locked in the glaciers greatly lowered
sea levels, early seafarers--probably traveling by raft--crossed the
narrowed channels from Sunda, the extension of mainland Southeast Asia
that most of Indonesia had become, to Sahul, a great continent formed by
New Guinea, Australia and surrounding continental shelves. Around 1,500
B.C., well after the glaciers had receded and sea levels had risen,
canoe voyagers with roots in Southeast Asia pushed eastwards from
islands off the north shore of New Guinea, and moved rapidly through
island Melanesia to reach the mid-Pacific archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga
and Samoa. Their identifiably Polynesian descendants then spread farther
eastwards, reaching all the way to Rapa Nui perhaps as early as 400 A.D.
solution to the puzzle of why Polynesia should have been settled by the
descendants of seafarers who began on the faraway Asian side of the
Pacific, rather than by voyagers from the much closer shores of South
America, presents itself if we study the map of the Pacific (Keegan and
of miles of open ocean lie between South America and Polynesia, a vast
expanse of blue water broken only by the Galapagos and a few other
islands immediately offshore South America. In contrast, the seas
between Polynesia and the south-eastern end of Asia are filled with
islands, beginning with the rich island world of the Philippines,
Indonesia and New Guinea where the seagoing canoe and deep-sea
navigational skills were apparently developed, and extending across
Melanesia and Micronesia to that vast island realm so aptly named
Polynesia. Whereas this vi r t u a II y continuous distribution of
islands extending eastward evidently encouraged generations of canoe
voyagers to sail farther and farther into the ocean by rewarding them
with island after island to colonize, the empty seas off South America
apparently offered little inducement for continental sailors, despite
their fine sailing rafts, to cross thousands of miles of open ocean to
explore and colonize an island world that was beyond their experience.
Otherwise, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui and other islands of Polynesia
would be speaking languages derived from the American side of the
Pacific, not, as is the case, from Asian side.
however logical such reasoning might seem, it does not answer the
question of how the lone island of Rapa Nui, located so far to the east
of the easternmost archipelagos of Polynesia, came to be settled. A
canoe sailing directly to Rapa Nui from the Marquesas, thought by some
to have been the source of Rapa Nui migrants, would have to cross almost
2,000 miles of open ocean. At 1,450 miles away, Mangareva, another
candidate as a source island, is somewhat closer. A scattering of atolls
and the tiny high island of Pitcairn lying to the east of Mangareva cuts
this gap by 300 miles. But, even from Pitcairn, a voyage across 1,150
miles of open ocean to a single, small island would be a difficult
Rapa Nui lies to windward, with respect to the easterly trade winds, of
the rest of Polynesia would seem to compound this difficulty immensely.
Polynesian canoes can tack to windward, but it is a long, slow process
as almost four miles has to be sailed obliquely to the wind to make one
mile directly to windward, a ratio that increases greatly when also
sailing against a strong current (Finney 1985:10). A crossing from
Pitcairn to Rapa Nui made directly against the southeast trades and
accompanying currents would therefore require a canoe to sail over 4,000
miles, a task made even more difficult by the beating the canoe and crew
would suffer pushing directly against wind and sea. According to such
reasoning, a voyage from Pitcaim or any other Polynesian island to Rapa
Nui would seem out of the question; even the colonization from the west
of the main Polynesian archipelagos would look improbable because of
their position to windward. Indeed, Heyerdahl (1978:332) largely based
his argument against the orthodox theory of Polynesian settlement from
the west on his assertion that canoe voyagers could not have sailed
across the tropical Pacific against "the permanent trade winds and
forceful companion currents of the enormous Southern Hemisphere."
easterly trade winds are, however, anything but permanent. Periodically
they die down, and the winds blow from the west, not from the east. This
monsoonal pattern is strongest in the western Pacific; in Indonesian
waters the alternating seasons of winter easterlies and summer
westerlies are still exploited by commercial sailing vessels to carry
cargo back and forth from one end of the archipelago to another. The
regular extension of these summer westerlies virtually to the edge of
Polynesia was undoubtedly exploited by the immediate ancestors of the
Polynesians, the makers of the famous Lapita pottery, to expand so
rapidly into the central Pacific. Although these summer westerlies
become much more episodic in the eastern Pacific, spells of westerly
winds apparently were frequent and long-enduring enough to enable the
Polynesian descendants of the Lapita pioneers to spread beyond Samoa and
Tonga to the archipelagos directly to the east (Finney 1985:11-15).
once seafarers reached the easternmost of these island groups--the
Marquesas, Tuamotus and Australs--they had, in effect, run out of
archipelagos. Whereas for many generations members of this seafaring
lineage had been rewarded with landfalls on island after island in a
virtually continuous series of archipelagos that extend from Southeast
Asia two-thirds out into the Pacific, any of their descendants who tried
to search for yet more archipelagos farther to the east must have been
sorely disappointed when they found only empty seas except for Pitcairn
and its two little outliers. Furthermore, it appears that the spells of
summer westerlies become even more episodic and briefer in duration the
farther one sails east through these lonely seas. Indeed, the
difficulties of sailing farther eastward, and the frustration of not
immediately finding rich lands over the horizon, may well have played a
role in those initiatives to the north-northwest and to the southwest
that resulted in the discovery and colonization of Hawai'i and Aotearoa
(New Zealand) respectively.
despite the problems of exploring eastward, and the lack of immediate
rewards for so doing, some voyagers apparently kept searching in that
direction, as witness the temporary settlement of the tiny island of
Pitcairn and its even more minuscule outlier of Henderson Island--and,
of course, the subject of this essay: the colonization of that loneliest
outpost of Polynesia, Rapa Nui.
the last eighteen years we have sailed the reconstructed voyaging canoe
Hokule'a some 40,000 nautical miles through Polynesian
waters, touching on islands in Tuamotus, Societies, Cooks, Aotearoa,
Tonga and Samoa, as well as throughout the Hawaiian archipelago.
Although we have not yet attempted to sail to Rapa Nui, we have learned
enough about the wind patterns of the Pacific, and how to use them to
sail where we want to go, to hazard some educated guesses about how
Polynesians might have reached this island, and, once there, what
maritime links they might have had with their kinsmen to the west. In
previous analyses of Polynesian voyaging and settlement I speculated on
this question (Finney 1976, 1979). A brief visit to Rapa Nui in 1989, as
well as by conversations with others intrigued by this
question--notably, Sergio Rapu, Jo Anne Van Tilberg and Cesar Caviedes--now
leads me to expand on those speculations.
key to reaching Rapa Nui would be to get enough days of favorable
westerly winds to enable a canoe to sail sufficiently far to the east in
order to come close enough to the island to see it, or detect it
indirectly by telltale cloud formations, by the appearance of terns or
other "land finding" birds, or by other signs by which island
navigators use to recognize when land is near (cf. Lewis 1972:153-232).
In my earlier discussions on how voyagers might have been able to get
enough westerly ~wind to push as far east as Rapa Nui, I expressed some
doubt that the spells of regular summer westerlies would last long
enough in eastern Pacific seas, or be frequent enough there, to enable a
canoe to be worked as far east as Rapa Nui. Accordingly, I suggested an
alternate way to gain easting by exploiting the zone of westerlies
located between about 35� and 50� South, winds that square riggers
sailing from Tahiti and other points in the Pacific once used to reach
the west coast of South America.
some exploring Polynesians must have discovered this westerlies zone
seems likely. However, whether they ever tried to utilize them to
explore eastward is, of course, open to question, as is how long they
could have survived in their open canoes the cold wind and seas that can
be encountered even before entering the tempestuous latitudes known as
the "roaring forties". Suppose, however, that some especially
adventurous voyagers did go down to around 35� South to try to run
before westerlies there, and that after a week or two the cold wind and
rough seas forced them to angle north to seek the warmth of the tropics.
If so, they might have stumbled across Rapa Nui in their flight from the
de Bisschop's unsuccessful attempt to use these westerlies to sail a
bamboo raft from Tahiti to South America in 1956-57 (de Bisschop 1958),
relates to the above scenario. De Bisschop first sailed south from
Tahiti to get out of the trade wind zone, and then turned toward South
America, at around 30� South, hoping to find enough westerly wind there
to work eastward without having to expose his craft and the crew to the
rigors of the higher latitudes. Although they found some westerly wind
there, they were not far enough south and therefore had to endure long
spells of easterly head winds and calms. After months of slowly working
eastward, de Bisschop and his crew were finally forced to abandon their
disintegrating raft--but not before they had passed a just a few hundred
miles to the south of Rapa Nui. Perhaps sometime in the past a sleek
double-canoe with sailing characteristics superior to that of de
Bisschop's raft might have followed a similar course, but just far
enough to the north to have resulted in a landfall on Rapa Nui.
then, two, perhaps even more plausible possibilities for finding enough
westerly wind to reach Rapa Nui have come to mind, one stemming from the
realization that warm currents known as El Nino that periodically wreak
havoc to the food chain in the waters immediately offshore Peru are part
of basin-wide disturbances in oceanic and atmospheric circulation, and
the other from our success in sailing Hokule'a from Samoa
to Tahiti using winter westerlies rather than those occurring during the
preceding or during an El Nino event the usual atmospheric pressure
gradient across the South Pacific of high in the east and low in the
west flattens out or reverses. This is known as the "Southern
Oscillation"; hence total phenomenon of ocean and atmosphere
disturbances is referred to as an "El Nino-Southern
Oscillation" (ENSO) event, although here I will use the simpler
label of El Nino event. This oscillation manifests itself in a weakening
of the trade winds, and the outbreak of prolonged and intensive periods
of westerlies, generally during or around the summer season. Although
these westerlies are usually confined to the western and central
Pacific, in 1982-83 a particularly massive El Nino event brought a
prolonged outbreak of westerlies that pushed far into the eastern
Pacific. Reports of these westerlies has led me to hypothesize that
early voyagers from West Polynesia might have employed the widespread
westerlies of such major El Nino events to expand to the Marquesas and
other archipelagos of central East Polynesia, and that if these El
Nino-intensified westerlies extended all the way to Rapa Nui they might
have been crucial in the discovery of this easternmost outpost of
Polynesia (Finney 1985:16-18). Subsequently, Caviedes and Waylen (MS
1989) have developed the latter suggestion, citing wind data gathered on
Rapa Nui during the 1982-83 El Niflo event showing that prolonged spells
of westerlies indeed reached the island.
others, Bierbach and Cain (1988), interpret evidence from oral
traditions and cultural and linguistic comparisons to indicate that the
land from whence sailed the legendary colonizer Hotu Matua was located
in the Marquesas. Yet, because this group lies so far directly downwind
(with respect to the trade winds) from Rapa Nui, it is difficult to
conceive of how voyagers from the Marquesas could ever have found
sufficient westerly winds during a typical summer to sail far enough to
the southeast to even get within range of the island. Nor, because of
the relatively northerly position of the Marquesas, would voyagers from
there have been ideally situated to catch of winter westerlies which, as
outlined directly below, are more prevalent in the more southerly
islands of Polynesia. The more widespread westerlies of a major El Nub
event would therefore appear as the most likely wind regime that
Marquesan voyagers could have exploited to sail southeast to Rapa Nui.
the Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson was planning how to work Hokule'a
from Samoa to Tahiti in 1986 he chose to sail during the winter, when
the trades have a reputation for being steadiest, instead of the summer
when westerlies are typically most common. He did this for two reasons:
first, because he wanted to avoid sailing during the summer hurricane
season, and second, because his research had shown that even during the
winter there may occur spells of westerly winds favorable for sailing to
the east. These winter westerlies are caused by the passage through the
trade wind field of troughs that extend up from low pressure systems
moving across the ocean far to the south. The winter of 1986 proved to
be unusual winter season, for low pressure troughs repeatedly disrupted
the trade wind field, bringing westerly wind shifts that enabled Hokule'a
to sail first to the southern Cooks and then from there on to Tahiti
winter westerlies are more prominent in the seas along the southern edge
of Polynesia, since these waters are closer to the low pressure systems
that generate them as they cross the ocean still farther to the south.
For example, during May through September the weather on Rapa Nui (270
South) is often unsettled and rainy with frequent spells of westerlies
winds (British Admiralty Vol. 2:37); during the week I was there in
August of 1989 westerly winds, or northerly winds which are also
favorable for sailing to the east, prevailed during four of those seven
days. Yachtsmen wishing to sail to Rapa Nui from the west have found
these winter westerlies most useful, typically sailing from Mangareva
(23� South) to Pitcairn (25� South), and then on to Rapa Nui. As Green
(1988:55) and Langdon and Tryon (1983:53-55) have suggested, perhaps
earlier voyagers chanced upon Rapa Nui in following this route, or in
sailing a parallel route from one of the Austral Islands, which extend
from Rurutu (22� South) to Rapa (27� South), or in sailing from as far
west as Rarotonga (21� South) or Mangaia (22� South) in the Southern
Cooks. Figure 1 shows a weather map for 8 July 1988 obtained at
the Chilean meteorological office on Rapa Nui which shows the pattern of
mid-latitude low pressure systems moving eastwards with troughs
extending into Polynesian waters, and bringing westerly wind shifts that
could be exploited to sail east toward Rapa Nui.
1--Surface weather pattern on 8 July 1988. The two low pressure
troughs extending above 30� S are bringing northerly and westerly winds
favorable for sailing to the east from the southern margins of central
East Polynesia to Rapa Nui.
support for the thesis that Rapa Nui was reached by voyagers who
exploited westerlies to intentionally explore to the east beyond the
last known points of land comes from computer simulations in which these
wind patterns are programmed. Although the original computer simulation
study of Levison, Ward and Webb (1973) in which only drift voyages were
simulated virtually ruled out the possibility that Rapa Nui could have
been reached by drifting there from any other point in Polynesia, when
Ward (MS 1988) and then Irwin, Biskler and Quirke (1990) subsequently
made intentional sailing and navigation part of the computer algorithm
they were able to simulate some voyages to Rapa Nui.
famous "Manuscript E", which records a Rapa Nui account of the
colonization of the island (Barthel 1978), the colonizers had
foreknowledge of the island and sailed directly to it. Inasmuch as
knowledge of Rapa Nui was obtained by the voyage of the dream soul of
Hau Maka to Rapa Nui and back the homeland, one is tempted to dismiss
the account as so much fantasy. Yet, there is some ethnographic
background to it. According to the journal of Edward Robarts (Dening
1974:62,119; cf. Porter 1822, Vol. 2:54-55), a British sailor who lived
in the Marquesas at the beginning of the 19th century, even at that late
date the shamanistic prophets (tau'a) were still having dreams of rich
islands over the horizon that were inspiring groups of Marquesans to
take to their canoes in search of them. Even though the computer
simulation study of Levison, Ward and Webb (1973) would seem to rule out
a "pure" drift voyage all the way to Rapa Nui from any other
point in Polynesia, unexpected westerly gales might have played a role
in the island's discovery. Marquesans sailing to the Tuamotus could have
been driven far to the east by sudden westerly gales, and then have
elected to keep heading in that direction in hope of finding land sooner
than it would take them to work their way back to the west. Similarly,
people making a crossing from Mangareva to Pitcairn, or between islands
in the Austral group might have been driven far past their target by
strong westerlies and then opted to keep pressing eastward.
the result of an intentional exploring initiative, or of a combination
of unexpected westerlies and a desperate gamble to run before them, the
discovery of such a lone, small, and distant island as Rapa Nui was
truly an impressive achievement. Could more than one canoe have reached
the island, as some traditional accounts (for example, Englert
1970:88-84 and Mulloy 1979:113) might appear to indicate? Multiple
landfalls from different islands in central East Polynesia (or from the
same source island, but from different time periods) are of course
possible, though the odds against very many canoes reaching Rapa Nui
would seem to be high. Perhaps at the most there may have been a trickle
of canoes that fetched up off Rapa Nui over the centuries. More unlikely
is the possibility that there was any regular intentional two-way
communication back and forth between the island and the rest of
has often been posited that two-way voyaging occurred between
distantly-separated islands in Polynesia, both during the settlement
period involving exploratory round-trips followed by planned
colonization voyages, and during post-settlement times involving voyages
made back and forth for adventure, exchange or other reasons. While the
four round-trip voyages between Hawai'i and Tahiti we have made on Hokule'a
might seem to indicate that there were no technical reasons why
Polynesians could not have periodically made two-way voyages between
widely-spaced islands, it is necessary to consider the sailing and
navigational conditions of each candidate route before making any
and Tahiti are aligned so that a nearly north-south course line cuts
across the easterly trades, a situation that allows voyaging back and
forth without having to wait for wind shifts. Furthermore, this route
involves sailing between the massive archipelago of Hawaii and an island
arc extending hundreds of miles from the western Societies to the
northeastern Tuamotus. The southbound navigator has only to hit one
island in the Society-Tuamotu arc to be able to re-orient himself for
Tahiti, while the northbound navigator has to find only one of the
islands spread along the lengthy Hawaiian chain. For example, on each of
Hokule'a's southbound legs landfall was made in the western Tuamotus,
which let the navigator know exactly where he was in relation to the
final destination of Tahiti. Similarly, on each of the northbound legs
landfall was made on the "Big Island" of Hawai'i allowing the
navigator to with confidence head directly from there to O'ahu.
back and forth between central East Polynesia and Rapa Nui would have
been much more difficult than between Hawaii and Tahiti despite the
shorter distance involved. To begin with, Rapa Nui probably never was
rich in good canoe-building timber, and as the population grew the
island was deforested forcing the islanders to build their small fishing
craft out of scraps of wood or out of reeds. For the purposes of
discussion, however, let us assume that at the time of first settlement
and for some centuries thereafter, there was sufficient wood on Rapa Nui
to build canoes capable of sailing a thousand or more miles. The
question then is how easy it would have been for the Rapa Nui to sail
one of these craft back to central East Polynesia.
such a voyage would not appear to present any insuperable navigational
or sailing problems, even for rather modest craft guided by relatively
unskilled navigators. Rapa Nui sailors would only have had to wait for a
solid spell of easterly trade winds, then head downwind to the west
toward the relatively huge targets presented by the archipelagos of
central East Polynesia. During the 1940s and 1950s, when the islanders
were restricted from traveling by Chilean authorities, periodically
groups of Rapa Nui men set sail for Tahiti in rowboats stolen from the
Chilean Navy and in tiny, makeshift sailboats, and with nothing much
more sophisticated in the way of navigation than instructions to head
for the setting sun (Jacquier 1948; Laguesse 1954; McCall 1981; Negres
1956). Although some of these craft were lost at sea, several did land
in the Tuamotus, and one made it as far west as Rarotonga, indicating
how even makeshift, rudimentarily-navigated craft can sail from Rapa Nui
to central East Polynesia.
such crossings to central East Polynesia would not in themselves have
any impact on Rapa Nui culture unless they led to more voyages from
central East Polynesia back to Rapa Nui. It is precisely this return
voyage that would have been most difficult, whether mounted by Rapa Nui
sailors seeking to return home, or by those they had told about the
island and its location. Not only would sailors have needed just the
right wind conditions to head that far east, but they would have had to
have been able to find a lone island in an immense ocean space without
benefit of a surrounding or screening archipelago. This navigational
task would have been particularly tough if they had been forced to
repeatedly tack against easterlies between spells of favorable westerly
winds. "Never say never" is probably the safest word of advice
to offer to anyone attempting to judge whether or not an ocean crossing
could have been made in a canoe or some other traditional craft.
Nevertheless, I think it reasonable to assume the problematic wind and
navigational conditions for sailing back and forth between central East
Polynesia and Rapa Nui would have made two-way communication over that
route much more difficult than between archipelagos within heart of East
good case can be made that the wind conditions in central East
Polynesia, the circumstance that all islands there form part of larger
island groups, and the relatively close proximity of these archipelagos
to one another would have facilitated inter-archipelago voyaging there,
a theme that some archaeologists are now investigating (Walter In Press;
Rolett In Press). Canoes going back and forth, particularly during the
early centuries of colonization when populations were relatively small,
would have meant that new ideas, artifacts, institutions and linguistic
forms could have been widely shared among the islands of the Societies,
Cooks, Tuamotus, Australs and Marquesas, thereby slowing cultural and
linguistic differentiation within this region (Pawley and Green
1984:138-139; Kirch 1986; Finney et al. 1989:293). Even after individual
island societies had begun to mature, and their citizens began to focus
more on internal affairs than voyaging overseas, these conditions would
have allowed some diffusion of innovations around the region. In
contrast, Rapa Nui's situation as a lone island located so far to
windward would have prevented the people there from easily communicating
with their East Polynesian cousins, and therefore from freely sharing
innovations, including linguistic ones (Biggs 1972:150), that developed
over the centuries in the central East Polynesian archipelagos.
lies the significance of Mulloy's statement about isolation being the
central fact of Rapa Nui prehistory. Rapa Nui culture looks so archaic
and different from its East Polynesian neighbors not necessarily because
it was settled earliest, or most directly from West Polynesia, or
because it was an amalgam of Polynesian traits mixed with those brought
by South American raft voyagers or Iberian sailors from lost Spanish
galleons. Rapa Nui is so unique because it was so isolated from the rest
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