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Easter Island (Mon., 3/16/09) – Day Two
by Tom Bernitt -- March 18th, 2009

Further adventures of Jim and Tom on Easter Island

Even Michael Phelps would have trouble swimming this...

Even Michael Phelps would have trouble swimming this...

Georgina made a tropical breakfast of coffee, fresh fruit juice, bread, sliced fruit and cheese. After which Jennifer and I signed up for a tour on the west side of the island, particularly the site known as Orongo.  Orongo became the center of a rival and more modern religion to rival the Moai monument builders.

Each spring, far below a very sharp cliff, Rapanui would swim to an island two kilometers off the coast and attempt to be the first one to return with an intact egg from the annual bird migration.  This fellow would then get lots of prizes including the shaving of his head and solitary confinement for one year.  But in addition to these treats, he would be considered god-like taking on the qualities of the returning birds.  All this is instructive because it was this tension between old and new societal beliefs that led to warfare and the eventual destruction of the environment; a destruction so pervasive that the island could not support the island’s population even as that population continued to decline.

All of this, of course, seems absurd to us moderns.  But lessons are to be learned here.  Some of the political and economic competition throughout the world today can be shown to be, on a more complex basis, similar in many ways to the ancient Rapanui rivalries that valued tribal beliefs and relationships than the survival of the entire island.  Those of us old enough to remember the once serious Cold War aphorism, “Better dead than red” can have some appreciation for the tribal loyalty that would rather take down a whole society than compromise an inch with the rival side.

Our tour of the Orongo site and the adjacent sea-level caves that were used annually in the “birdman” ceremonies, unlike the previous day, was accomplished in a continuous tropical rain storm that left everyone soaked to the bone and ready for cervaza.  And that’s where we headed for the afternoon.

Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
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