Easter Island Webinar

Easter Island image from McClung Museum webinar on Jan. 28, 2021.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture hosted its second session in a series of webinars on the topic of the mysterious Easter Island.

The presentation began with an introduction by Jefferson Chapman Executive Museum Director of the McClung Museum, Claudio Gómez.

“I’m so honored to be here with you, to share two of my passions; anthropology and museums.” Gómez said.

Gómez then introduced José Miguel Ramírez-Aliaga and his presentation titled: “Looking for Polynesians in pre-Hispanic South America: A Personal Journey.”

As the title suggests, this topic is deeply personal to Ramírez-Aliaga.

Hailing from Chile, Ramírez-Aliaga has been in the field of archaeology since the 1980s. In 1987, under the sponsorship of Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl, Ramírez-Aliaga took part in his first archaeological dig on Easter Island, studying the artifacts of the Rapa Nui people.

Since then, Ramírez-Aliaga has dedicated much of his career to the region. In particular, he has spent a large amount of time trying to track down the origins of the Rapa Nui civilization.

Heyerdahl suggested that ancient South American populations colonized Easter Island. However, Ramírez-Aliaga does not subscribe to this theory.

In his research, Ramírez-Aliaga found that although it was possible to sail from South America to areas in Polynesia, the currents did not allow for those groups to sail to Eastern Island.

He also rebuked different kinds of physical evidence Heyerdahl presented in his 1955 expedition, such as similarities in statues found in the highlands of Bolivia to those found on the island.

“Yeah, it’s kneeling, but it’s only that,” Ramírez-Aliaga said, in reference to the statue found on Easter Island. “This is completely different culture, much older than the Tukuturi.”

Among this physical evidence, Ramírez-Aliaga also debunked the thousands of carvings Heyerdahl found in caves throughout the island, showing that they had been placed there by natives who had heard word of Heyerdahl’s arrival.

Instead of suggesting that South American’s colonized Easter Island, Ramírez-Aliaga instead suggested the opposite. 

He subscribes to a theory first posited by French ethnologist Paul Rivet, which suggests that Polynesians first colonized South America many thousands of years ago.

Going by this theory, Ramírez-Aliaga stipulated that Polynesians, who had access to the region, brought their culture over to both South America and the island.

From this line of thought, it can be concluded that South American culture did not influence Easter Island, but instead Polynesian culture influenced both the Rapa Nui and South Americans when they sailed across the Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago.

As evidence to this claim, he initially cited the “sweet potato connection.” This was described by Ramírez-Aliaga as the only direct connection from Polynesia to South America. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop in Polynesia; however, they are natively from South America.

Going by this “sweet potato connection,” Ramírez-Aliaga posited that Polynesians came to South America, and when they returned to their native region, they brought back the sweet potato with them. 

For further evidence, he also cited the skull shapes of Polynesians and Rapa Nui, noting their similarities and bringing up linguistic similarities between the Chilean Mapuche and Rapa Nui language. Even more evidence, such as weapon similarities, jewelry and also a similar sport shared between Polynesians and Chileans was presented.

However, despite having a large amount of evidence to back his claims up, Ramírez-Aliaga’s research was still inconclusive.

It was not until 2004 that he received his hard evidence in the form of chicken bones.

These chicken bones, found in Chile, were DNA tested. After this, they were found to predate Hispanic contact with South America.

“Nobody had ever found any chicken bones in a pre-Hispanic context at that time,” Ramírez-Aliaga said.

Since chickens are not native to South America, the only other candidate for chicken in the region set during this time period was the Polynesians, which gave Ramírez-Aliaga what he needed to conclude that Polynesians settled in South America and Easter Island.

Of course, even after all this research, many questions remain.

Ramírez-Aliaga wonders if the Polynesian settlement of Easter Island happened by accident, due to explorers getting lost and eventually marooning on the island.

He also wonders if the contact between the Polynesians and the native islanders was peaceful or violent, and if these Polynesians were lost, did any escape the island?

“There are many, many questions,” Ramírez-Aliaga said. “Maybe in the next 20 years someone will be able to answer some of them, if they look for them.”

Though one thing is certain; despite the extensive research done, Easter Island still maintains its mysterious image that has attracted so many to the region.

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