The canoe-shaped houses and monumental archaeology of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
The archaeology of Rapa Nui is dominated by the Easter Island heads, but these were just one element of larger ceremonial complexes. Colin Richards explores some distinctive houses, which offer tantalising clues for understanding the celebrated statues.
Forming the eastern tip of Polynesia is the small and isolated island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Although famous for its extraordinary statues (moai) that once stood on ceremonial platforms (ahu), there is a wealth of associated but less well-known archaeological sites and monuments. As seen in CWA 104, the spectacular ruined ahu complex at Akahanga, with its fallen moai and topknots (pukao) is situated on the south coast of Rapa Nui. With the roar of the Pacific Ocean in our ears, if we walked inland, within a hundred metres or so a number of house (hare paenga) foundations would become visible poking through the low grass. These take the form of a series of shaped black basalt blocks (paenga) set end-to-end to form a boat-shaped house foundation. The blocks were well-bedded in the ground and each has a series of circular holes cut into the upper surface. During house construction, thin c.2m lengths of wood were pushed into each hole and at the top pulled together and lashed to a ridge-pole to form a keel-like roof. This would create an unusual house shape reminiscent of the hull of an upturned canoe. Outside the front of the house, a semi-circle of water-worn stones (poro) provided a platform area.
Houses of this form are restricted to Rapa Nui and not present on other Polynesian islands. In order to explore this exceptional architecture further it is necessary to move away from the houses themselves and consider two things; first, the way in which Rapa Nui was initially colonised, and second, the beliefs of the early settlers. By this means we will see the hare paenga is much more than a dwelling replicating the imagery of an upturned canoe, but through the use of particular materials this architecture expressed a model of the cosmos that had a substantial affect on those who encountered it.
In the book On the road of the winds, Patrick Kirch suggests ‘the history of the Pacific is more than anything a history of voyages, and all that word entails: curiosity, courage, skill, technique, stamina, doubt, hope and more’. Through a series of extraordinary voyages ancient Polynesians sailed mainly eastwards encountering and settling islands as they went. This was a truly remarkable feat because the vast Pacific Ocean can be as treacherous and dangerous as it is beautiful. Originally, because of the massive distances traversed, this was believed to have taken almost a millennium to achieve, but is now considered to have occurred within c.300 years from c.AD 900-1200, and possibly even less. This was the great age of Polynesian expansion and the time of the voyaging canoe. From a variety of sources, we know that canoes were not merely functional sea-craft, but vessels of sacred character. From the rituals surrounding their construction, to the launching ceremonies, canoes attained special significance, and we can be sure that this was enhanced in the case of voyaging canoes.
Of course, dating the initial colonisation of an island is fraught with difficulties, but at some time in the century between AD 1100 and 1200, voyagers stepped ashore on the very small and isolated island of Rapa Nui. At the time of landing, the island was very different from the denuded landscape of today. While being dominated by the three extinct volcanic cones that give the island its triangular shape, lush vegetation including swaying palms would have been present running down almost to the water’s edge. However, to appreciate the way in which these settlers would come to build some of the most spectacular monuments in Eastern Polynesia, it is also important to recognise that it was not merely the vegetation that was different from today, but also that the people themselves understood the world in a very different manner – and their place within it.
While there is no firm evidence from whence the first settlers of Rapa Nui set sail, it was likely to have been from somewhere in the Society or Tuamotu Islands, or possibly the closer Mangareva or Pitcairn. However, in terms of belief systems, this easterly movement across the Pacific continued an ancestral movement that began when the first ancestors left the shores of the mythical island of Hawaiki (known as Hiva on Rapa Nui) situated somewhere in the distant west. This was the Polynesian homeland from which the first ancestors ventured forth and the place to which the spirits returned on death. In this respect, Hawaiki shared an affinity with something known to the Polynesians as the realm of Po. This can be described as a sacred nether-world, a place of otherness, darkness and nighttime, yet of potency and the beginning of things. Its opposite can be found in Ao, which concerns the everyday encountered physical world of people and social relationships. Of course, this is a simplification of a complex cosmological system, but it will suffice here. An important point to take from this is that the voyaging that led to the colonisation of the eastern Pacific would have been as much about perpetuating and recreating ancestral voyages as obtaining access to new lands. Equally, the sea acted as a conduit or ‘road’ back to Hawaiki, and on the western coasts of many Polynesian islands there is a ‘jumping off’ point for the spirits of the dead to enter the sea and return to Hawaiki and the realm of Po. This has relevance when we come to consider the canoe-shaped houses of Rapa Nui.
It would appear that from the earliest time the newly arrived settlers embarked on building monuments, creating sacred spaces, and carving and dressing stone images or statue moai. Initially, the moai were fairly small (up to c.2m in height), and were carved out of volcanic rocks of different types (and colours), for example, bright red scoria, black basalt, olive volcanic tuff, and white trachyte. They were probably set on small stone platforms (ahu), which are known as marae in other parts of East Polynesia.
Within a hundred years or so there occurred an expansion in monument construction with bigger and more elaborate ahu being built and larger moai being erected in greater numbers. At this time virtually all the moai were now made from volcanic tuff, which was derived from a single source; the great quarry of Rano Raraku situated in the south east of Rapa Nui. Rano Raraku is a large volcanic cone that rises steeply from a flat plain. The outer and inner south-eastern slopes of the extinct volcano are sculpted by numerous recessed quarry bays that produced hundreds of beautifully carved moai, many of these were subsequently transported to the numerous ahu platforms situated around the coast of the island. This was accompanied by the quarrying at Puna Pau, in the west of the island, of large cylinders of red scoria known as pukao, which were placed on the heads of the moai and sometimes likened to hats.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 109. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.