Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Rapa Nui Experiment (In memorium – John Flenley)

This blog post was originally published on 11 April 2009, from Easter Island. I'm republishing it today to acknowledge Emeritus Prof John Flenley's death on Friday, 22 June 2018. The original blog is still available.

Today my colleague, John Flenley, gave an informal evening lecture to half a dozen Earthwatch volunteers who are visiting the island to assist with archaeological investigations. I joined the the audience, which also included the Chris Stevenson, a Virginia archaeologist, and Thegn Ladefoged, an archaeologist from Auckland University.

In his talk, John reflected on his 30+ years of research on Rapa Nui. One of his themes was the relevance of the scientific investigations of past environments and past human activity on the island to modern civilization.

John contemplates a toppled moai (statue) near Rano Aroi, on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in April 2009.

As John puts it, given the potential catastrophes facing the Earth's now globalized civilization, wouldn't it be nice if we could do an experiment to isolate a population of perhaps a few thousand people for a millennium so that we could better understand what can undermine efforts to achieve a sustainable society? Of course, the civilization that developed on Rapa Nui is as close as we can get to this notional experiment.

Before you think further about the experiment, look at today's picture and imagine yourself as part
of the isolated society isolated on this small but diverse landscape. John's point is that we have a lot to learn from this experiment.

There is much more to be learned from detailed investigations -- including both our study and the one Stevenson and Ladefoged are carrying out to understand the functioning of the gardens that fed people for perhaps a millennium here. There is also much to be learned from integrating the knowledge that has been gathered so far.

As we do this, and incorporate more and more detailed information, the story does change. For example, we all agreed that despite most published information pointing to a "collapse" at the the end of the moai-building era, there is a lack of sound evidence that populationcrashed exactly and dramatically at this time. Perhaps our project will shed some light on this.

In closing, John emphasized that many of the most remarkable things we learn from deciphering the Rapa Nui experiment center around the ways the island's leaders cultivated the moai-building and Birdman rituals to maintain peace between the many tribes/clans on the island. He also
notes that the focus of the rituals seemed to shift appropriately from the extremely resource-intensive moai building to a reemergence of the creator god Make Make, as resource issues related to deforestation (and presumably maintaining food production) became a dominant source
of concern for the society.

Since he has retired from his role as Professor and head of Geography at Massey University, John has been putting most of his time into efforts within his Anglican church and several trusts to conserve and restore the natural world, both around New Zealand and around the world. He's also just completed work on the third edition of a book on Easter Island, which he writes with archaeologist Paul Bahn.

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