Moai Culture Symposium

Easter Island: Cultural and Historical Perspectives

19 November 2010, Embassy of Chile, 37-41 Old Queen Street, Whitehall, London

For the first time in the UK a conference was held on the subject of Easter Island. This was part of the series of London events held in November 2010, to promote the start of the international exhibition, Easter Island, Myths and Popular Culture. With support from the Embassy of Chile, and an opening welcome from the Ambassador of Chile, this one-day gathering held within the Embassy in Whitehall, London, brought together leading Easter Island scholars, with a concentration on European researchers. Academics from Germany, Austria, Italy, Russia, Australia, and the UK covered topics ranging across linguistics, archaeology, history, exploration, film, and cultural studies. A post conference reception and private view of the exhibition was held at Canning House. We were very grateful to both Canning House and to the Embassy of Chile, which provided facilities and refreshments.

An associated book, Easter Island: Cultural and Historical Perspectives, edited by Ian Conrich and Hermann Mueckler, and including papers from the conference, is being published in 2012 by Lit-Verlag. By clicking on the name of a speaker below you will be taken to their conference abstract.

Easter Island in Popular Culture

Historical and Anthropological Contexts of Easter Island

The Rongorongo Tablets

Archaeology and Easter Island

They Came From Outer Space: Science Fiction and the Creation Myth of the Moai

Roy Smith

Stories about the moai often relate them to visitors from outer space. They are commonly seen as carved representations of alien forms, a superior race that has been idolised by primitive humans, or as actual aliens that are held in a state of suspended animation. In the latter case, the fiction depicts them as only temporarily stationary and requiring an action that will awaken them from their slumber. In these stories, the island serves as a terminus, planned or accidental, in a journey through the solar system. The moai are depicted as awaiting instructions, or collection by a spaceship.

One of the earliest known native names for Easter Island is Mata-ki Te-rangi, which means ‘eyes looking to the skies’. This again invites a connection to be made between the moai and other planets. Popular imagination was particularly stimulated in the 1950s and 1960s by both the space race and the possibilities of space exploration and theories relating to the origins of the moai. Thor Heyerdahl's 1958 book Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island led to increased speculation about the mysteries of Easter Island. Erich von Däniken’s 1968 best-selling book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, posited the thesis that alien visitors were responsible for the technology that led to the building of many of the world's ancient wonders including Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt, and the moai. Although not directly connected to each other the works of Heyerdahl and Von Däniken are foundational texts in the growth of work that uses Easter Island as a site for human and alien interaction. This paper considers a number of these texts with reference to film, television, novels, and comic books. It will focus on the moai as figures in fantasies connected to space travel, and it will consider Easter Island within the broader context of other sites with potential inter-planetary connections.


Dr Roy Smith is Principal Lecturer in International Relations, School of Arts and Humanities, Nottingham Trent University. He has a particular research interest in small island states and has conducted fieldwork and written on islands ranging from Unst in the Shetland Islands to Palau and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. He is a former visiting research fellow at the Australian National University, the Pacific Islands editor for the Sage publication Journal of Developing Societies, and an area representative for the Pacific Islands Society of the United Kingdom and Ireland. He is the author of The Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement: After Moruroa (1997), co-author of Diseases of Globalization: Socioeconomic Transition and Health (2001), and co-author of the forthcoming International Political Economy in the 21st Century: Contemporary Issues and Analyses. His next major book project deals with the history of illness and disease in the context of processes of globalisation.


Moai, Myths, and Western Popular Culture

Ian Conrich

Studies of Easter Island have predominantly sought to understand its archaeology through historical analysis. How the moai were created, constructed, and seen have been the subjects of research that has approached the stone figures within the island landscape. Yet, the moai have long held a popular appeal that has extended far into the cultural arenas of western societies that have been drawn to fantasies of a detached and distant civilisation. Murder mysteries, alien visitors, time travel, and hidden treasure have been a part of the island through popular fictions that have depicted professors and archaeologists as both villains and heroes. Popular narratives have seen the island and its culture explored variously by Indiana Jones, Dr Who, Lara Croft, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Scooby Doo, with ancient tablets able to resurrect the moai, and the stone figures given the power to talk and walk.

In this paper, I seek to understand the popular appeal of Easter Island and the moai in particular. Fiction films, cartoons, computer games, novels, and comic books will be central to this study. As will objects of material culture, which position miniature replicas of the moai as tissue box holders, glowing lamps, salt and pepper shakers, pieces in a board game, fruit machine symbols, and garden ornaments. It will be argued that the mythical appeal of the moai within popular and material culture reveals four central factors: the myth of creation, the myth of movement, the myth of power, and the myth of presence.


Dr Ian Conrich is a Fellow at the University of Essex; previously he was the founding Director of the Centre for New Zealand Studies, Birkbeck, University of London. He was the 2005 MacGeorge Visiting Scholar at the University of Melbourne, and 2005-6 was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford University in the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He was Chair of the New Zealand Studies Association from 1997-2010, and in 2008 he was named Air New Zealand New Zealander of the Year. He is an Editor of the Journal of British Cinema and Television, and (formerly) the NZSA Bulletin of New Zealand Studies, and Associate Editor of Film and Philosophy, and an advisory board member of Interactive Media, and Studies in Australasian Cinema. He has been a Guest Editor of Post Script, Asian Cinema, the Harvard Review, and Studies in Travel Writing. The author of New Zealand Film - A Guide (2008, in Polish), and Studies in New Zealand Cinema (2009), and the forthcoming books New Zealand Cinema, and Sri Lankan Cinema, he is an editor or co-editor of a further ten books, including New Zealand - A Pastoral Paradise? (2000), The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror (2005), Film's Musical Moments (2006), New Zealand Filmmakers (2007), Contemporary New Zealand Cinema (2008), The Cinema of New Zealand (in Polish, 2009), and Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema (2009). He has contributed to more than 50 books and journals and his work has been translated into French, Danish, Polish, Hungarian, and Hebrew.


'Imagination creates the situation': Popular Perceptions and Local Negotiations of Easter Island Culture

Maxi Haase

For centuries, Easter Island and its culture has been associated with unsolvable mysteries. In particular, the island’s monumental stone statues (known as moai) have incited fantastic speculations and exploratory spirits worldwide. Numerous theories about the construction and transportation of these colossal monuments, the island’s settlement, the ethnic origin of its first inhabitants as well as the alleged decline of its culture are based on a colonial discourse which has represented the island as an isolated speck of earth inhabited by a people marked by warfare and environmental mismanagement. Appropriated by the public as an epitome of enigma, Easter Island has become a place of heteronomous ideological projections that disregard local claims and perspectives.

However, the development and explosive increment of tourism on Easter Island has created a significant space for criticism of the conventional mystifying representations of Easter Island, facilitating the public formulation and negotiation of local points of view. Based on the earliest historical perceptions and representations of the island, this paper traces and analyses the key characteristics of the popular imagery of Easter Island. Of special interest is the island’s tourism industry, which is discussed with regard to the popular images it generates and cultivates of the place and its people. Contrary to previous accounts, this paper offers a change of perspectives and presents contemporary Easter Islanders as influential forces in the creation of Easter Island’s popular imagery. The intertwining of the local representations of the island with questions of cultural identity and self-determination is examined against the background of claimed authenticity of the performed local traditions that are called on as legitimate embodiments of Easter Island.


Maxi Haase is currently lecturing at the Institute of Ethnology at Heidelberg University, Germany, where she received her MA degree in 2009. In her thesis entitled The Otherness of Easter Island: Altering Perceptions and Representations of a Polynesian Island, she analysed the characteristics and evolution of the imagery that has shaped the public perception of Easter Island. Based on information gained during two short field trips to the island in 2006 and 2008, and a study visit at the University of Chile, her research emphasises the imperative necessity of indigenous voices and perspectives in order to comprehend and evaluate the dynamics at work during the encounter of Self and Other. Besides her social anthropological work on Oceania, she has studied American and Hispanic languages and literature.


The Forgotten Scientist: Walter Knoche - Scientific Leader of the Chilean Easter Island Expedition 1911

Hermann Mueckler

This paper deals with the history of the Chilean Easter Island Expedition of 1911 and its chief protagonist Walter Knoche. Close to the 100-year anniversary of this expedition, it is surprising that today very few people in Chile know about this scientific enterprise, undertaken by the Chilean Navy, which helped to gather information and strengthen ties between Chile and the 1888 annexed Rapa Nui. It was a German meteorologist and geologist, Walter Knoche, who was instructed to lead the scientific part of the expedition. Knoche, born in Berlin in 1881, came to Chile in 1910 after doing extensive research in Bolivia and Peru and became immediately the director of the Instituo Meteorológico de Chile in Santiago. His research and publications, predominantly on meteorological issues, had already made him famous in the scientific community.

The two-week stay of the expedition in April 1911, carried out with the Chilean Navy-ship General Baquedano, brought significant results in terms of meteorology, physical anthropology, and ethnology as well as medicine. Knoche published, among several articles, a book in the German language, Die Osterinsel, which appeared in 1925. Although this work highlights many aspects of the expedition and the research undertaken on the island, the book is almost unknown in Chile and equally in German speaking countries. I have been working on republishing this major study in a commented version, adding details to the biographical background of Knoche as well as embedding this enterprise in the broader context of Chilean politics of the period. This paper gives an overview of the history of the expedition, its consequences for Rapa Nui, the scientific value of the results, and the importance of Knoche for Easter Island Research.


Hermann Mueckler is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Vienna. His research focus is on peace and conflict studies, migration, nationalism and political anthropology as well as ethnohistory and historical anthropology. His regional focus is Oceania, where he has done fieldwork in Fiji, and South East Asia. Hermann is the Vice-President of the Austrian Anthropological Society and the Institute of Comparative Research in Architecture, and he is the founder of the Austrian-South Pacific Society, of which he was president from 1996 to 2009. The twelve books he has published are predominantly in German and includes as author Fiji: Between Tradition and Transformation (1998), Melanesia in Crisis: Ethnic Conflict, Fragmentation, and Reorientation (2000), Fiji: the End of a South Seas Paradise (2001), Introduction to the Anthropology of Oceania (2009), and Mission in Oceania (2010), and co-editor of Politics of Indigeneity in the South Pacific: Recent Problems of Identity in Oceania (2002), The Architectural Heritage of Samoa (2007), and Oceania: 18th to 20th Century History and Society (2009).


The End of the World at the End of the Earth: Retrospective Eschatology on Rapanui

Grant McCall

Rapanui is taken to be an exemplar of human wastefulness, with the islanders moving the island to devastation in pursuit of the vain glorious worship of their ancestors. In this rational apocalyptic eschatology, the warning of Rapanui should be applied to saving the planet. This paper explores Rapanui views on how worlds end, especially their own through visions and symbolic objects, whether the place is discovered or changed forever to enter the modern world. The discovery of Rapanui was made through the shamanistic Haumaka, the coming of Europeans foretold by Hakarevareva 'a Te Niu in a 'myth of foresight', whilst the end of Rapanui's isolation came about owing to the theft of a sacred skull that had protected the land from harm. The paper concludes with observations about the relationships between myth and belief and how these are enacted through ritual, whether it be telling a story or showing you believe it by practical action in the world.


Dr Grant McCall teaches social anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, where from 1987 to 2003 he was foundation Director of the Centre for South Pacific Studies, and from 2004-2008 Director of the South Pacific Resource Centre. He specialises in the peoples and cultures of Eastern Polynesia. In particular, he has been researching and writing about Rapanui since the 1970s and is the author of the book Rapanui: Tradition and Survival on Easter Island (1980; revised 1994). In recognition of his work, he was made an honorary member of Te Mau Hatu, the Rapanui Elders Council.


Those Gigantic Statues': Captain Cook’s Visit to Easter Island and the Marton Moai

Phil Philo

In April 1774 during his second great voyage of exploration (1772-75) Commander James Cook and his crew aboard HMS Resolution made an epic sweep of the south Pacific Ocean in search of terra australis incognita – the great unknown southern continent. During the voyage Cook’s ship made a brief visit to Easter Island and some of the crew and civilian specialists explored this remote island, first ‘discovered’ by European explorers, over fifty years earlier. Cook’s fellow travellers made some of the earliest observations of the land, its people, customs, material culture and, of course, the strange stone heads, or moai, that are a unique feature of the island.

This presentation will outline the importance of that visit and the recent project (2008) at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum that involved Maori artist George Nuku, working with North East artist David Gross, collaborating over the carving of Tutira – The Marton Moai.


Phil Philo has worked mainly in social/local history museums for the last thirty years, including Gunnersbury Park Museum (London Boroughs of Ealing & Hounslow) 1980-88, and Kirkleatham Old Hall Museum (Borough of Redcar & Cleveland), 1988-2002. In 2002, in a change of direction, he became Senior Curator of The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Middlesbrough Borough Council, and for the last seven years has curated a wide-ranging programme of temporary exhibitions and associated activities and events on Cook themes. This has included securing the first international loan object and temporary exhibition in the museum’s thirty year history and working with a range of Pacific artists to produce a growing collection of Niu Treasures - contemporary artwork that makes the link between Cook’s world and the vibrant cultures of the Pacific today. Since May 2010, he has held the title of Senior Curator Museums, which also includes responsibility for the town’s historic Dorman Museum and its wide-ranging collections (founded 1904).


Sign Typology, Distribution, and Interaction in the Kohau Rongorongo Script

Albert Davletshin

The world's hieroglyphic writing systems share similar strategies and functional types of signs, which permit the recording and transmission of messages in natural languages. All of them apply phonetic signs (signs that transfer abstract sequences of sounds) and word signs (signs that spell a word and indicate its meaning), and use the former as phonetic complements in order to clarify the reading of the latter. Sometimes phonetic signs (so-called substitutions) are used to record a word usually written with a word sign. And most of the hieroglyphic scripts known make use of determinatives (signs that indicate to which semantic group the reading of a word belongs). Textual behaviour and distributional properties for different sign types vary. This makes it possible to ascertain to which type a particular sign belongs without assigning a reading to it. This step is crucial in decipherment and establishing readings for particular signs.

This paper seeks to formulate the true criteria which will allow us to reveal different sign types in the Kohau Rongorongo Script. For example, phonetic signs can be attested in sign groups of the types ABAB and AAA (one letter stands for the same sign). Word signs can form lengthy enumerations and undergo transpositions in parallel texts. Isolated signs, attested as labels on wooden figurines, most probably are word signs too. The so-called genealogy on the Small Santiago Tablet and the plant list on the Great Santiago Tablet, both first noticed by Yuri Knorosov and Nikolai Butinov (1956), supply the best evidence for word signs. Typological considerations enable identification of such a particular subtype of word signs, namely, digits. Comparison of parallel sequences allow us to detect safe examples of phonetic complements and suggest examples of substitutions. It is extremely significant that some phonetic signs of ABAB sign groups are used as phonetic complements, for spelling grammatical markers and for writing substitutions of word signs. I shall argue that determinatives are not a part of the Kohau Rongorongo writing system.


Dr Albert Davletshin completed his PhD thesis titled Palaeography of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, at Yuri Knorozov Centre for Mesoamerican Studies, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow (2003). Since then he has been a research fellow at the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies, Russian State University for the Humanities, where he lectures in Classical Aztec, Epigraphic Mayan, Hawai'ian, Maori and Rapanui. He is dedicated to the study of Eastern Polynesian languages and anthropology, rongorongo script, Aztec, Epi-Olmec, Mayan and Zapotec writings of Mesoamerica, and Harrapan script. Albert is the founder of projects on proto-Totonacan language (National Autonomous University of Mexico, 2007), and on Aztec Script (Bonn University, 2007-2009), and has undertaken linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork on Tepehua de Pisaflores (State of Veracruz, Mexico, 2007), Sym Evenki and Kellog Ket (Russia, 2009).


Tablet Keiti: Does it Contain Astronomical Instructions?

Rafal Wieczorek

Ethnographic data collected on Easter Island in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century suggest that the extant rongorongo tablets contain songs, legends, or other chanted traditions. However, we have yet to succeed in relating any one of the rongorongo texts to one of the many legends collected by ethnographers. An interesting observation is that, while none of the Rapanui, with whom early visitors to the island were acquainted, mentioned anything about astronomy in the context of rongorongo tablets, the only piece of rongorongo texts whose meaning we are certain of is the 'calendar tablet Mamari'. In the four lines of this tablet, also known as rongorongo text C, we encounter thirty moon glyphs arranged in a pattern that mirrors the Rapa Nui lunar calendar as recorded by early western visitors.

This presentation argues that yet another rongorongo item – tablet Keiti, also known as text E – contains a pattern that can well be interpreted as another calendrical instruction, quite similar in nature to the Mamari calendar. Engraved on tablet Keiti is a string of glyphs known as sequence alpha 1-10, which is repeated ten times throughout one side of the tablet. This repetitious string consists of nine to eleven conserved glyphs, among which we find two moon glyphs. Moon glyphs can be engraved in two forms: facing right (encoded as 040) and facing left (041). In Keiti's alpha sequence, we encounter right and left facing moon glyphs at seemingly random intervals. However, closer examination of moon glyphs in the alpha sequence shows that they are arranged in a pattern that can be interpreted as a list of ten months, whose length varies between 29 and 30 days, thus approximating the natural length of 29.5 days per month.


Rafal Wieczorek graduated in Biology and Chemistry from Warsaw University, Poland, and he is currently completing his doctorate studies in Biochemistry at the University of Roma Tre in Italy. He is dividing laboratory work between Rome, Venice and Odense where he is currently residing as a guest researcher at the University of Southern Denmark. His other interests include undeciphered writing systems of the world, in particular Easter Island's rongorongo script. His recent research in this direction has resulted in a new theory regarding the native Rapa Nui calendar, which is to be published in the next issue of Journal de la Société des Océanistes.


Analysis of Literary Genre in the Rongorongo Inscriptions

Martyn Harris

Rongorongo, the undeciphered script native to Easter Island, has a long history of research and commitment to its decipherment lasting nearly 150 years. However, we still know relatively little in terms of what the inscriptions contain and the underlying structural principles determining the organisation of the glyphs. Palaeographic analysis has provided many answers to these problems in the past for scripts like Egyptian, Mayan, Linear B, and Cuneiform. Although it is certainly a useful method for analysing the rongorongo inscriptions, since the advent of computers and the growing body of computational linguistic approaches to the analysis of language, we may now be in a position to adopt more quantitative methods from a range of disciplines to supplement existing techniques.

This paper provides an overview of Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA; Landauer and Dumais, 1997) to the retrieval of genre and glyph association patterns in the rongorongo corpus. LSA is an information retrieval for web page ranking and psycholinguistic studies. Such a tool potentially provides support to palaeographic methods as part of a mixed methods approach to decipherment. However, with an imperfect glyph transliteration system (Barthel, 1958) and the fact that LSA performance suffers due to the issues associated with polysemy (with Polynesian languages containing a large number of polysemous morphemes) we need to assess how effective LSA really is when applied to this particular problem in decipherment. The results of a LSA on rongorongo, English, and an Egyptian hieroglyphic corpus are presented and discussed. This will illustrate how the rongorongo inscriptions may be classified according to literary genre, and highlight structural patterns between glyphs, using the Mamari tablet as an example.


Martyn Harris graduated from the School of African and Asian Studies (SOAS), University of London, after completing a degree in Japanese and Linguistics with a dissertation covering the Hopi tense and aspect system. He then moved to Birkbeck, University of London, where he recently finished a MRes in Applied Linguistics, focusing specifically on linguistic and statistical methods for the decipherment of rongorongo. He is now undertaking a PhD in the department of Computer Science, at Birkbeck, data-mining ancient texts with a main emphasis on the exploration of the Aramaic magic texts of late antiquity.


Rapa Nui’s Landscapes of Construction

Sue Hamilton

Since the mid 1960s archaeological research into Rapa Nui’s archaeology has been fragmented into specialist topics, each associated with particular researchers or groups of researchers. These individual and largely self-contained research foci include work centred on the statues (moai) and statue quarries, on the so-called statue transport roads, on the ceremonial platforms (ahu) and more recently on the island’s prehistoric settlements. What are lacking are over-arching approaches that consider how these multifarious construction activities are potentially interlinked. The Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project explores how, during the island’s most intense period of stone monument construction c. AD 800 to 1500, the physical process of constructing Rapa Nui’s monuments, settlements and agricultural landscapes served as a social and conceptual process that was as important as the architectural outcomes. Extant study is dominated by considerations of the physical methods of constructing Rapa Nui’s monuments, the sourcing of raw materials and the most practical methods of construction - with limited consideration of the social and interpretative forces behind the construction process and the associated choices of raw materials. In this context, this paper considers how the construction of ahu and the stones garnered and used in their construction was a social and ideologically conceived practice that referenced the communities’ wider understandings of their island world and replicated concepts that were embedded across the island’s architectural spectrum – from ceremonial platforms to garden plots.


Sue Hamilton is Professor of Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Her research interests are in landscape archaeology, particularly from social and sensory perspectives, and issues of archaeological field practice. She has conducted field projects in Britain, France, and Italy, and currently co-directs the Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project, with Dr Colin Richards. Her recent published works include the co-authored book Stone Worlds: Narrative and Reflexology in Landscape Archaeology (2007), and the co-edited volume Archaeology and Women: Ancient and Modern Issues (2007).


On the Road to Rano Raraku

Colin Richards

In contrast to the Ara Mahiva, a coastal pathway reputedly encircling the island, at some time during the florescence of Rapa Nui monumentality, cutting through the interior remnants of vegetation, a network of roads known as the moai road or Ara Moai was constructed. This network radiated from the great moai quarry at Rano Raraku to different coastal areas of the island. With the exception of Love’s (2001), and Lipo and Hunt’s (2005) recent fieldwork, the latter are correct to point to the neglect the roads have received at the hands of researchers. Indeed, virtually all the attention placed on roads has been focused upon their role in the transportation of moai from the quarry to ahu, thus, their being named ‘transport roads’ (e.g. Van Tilburg 1994: 137), or ‘moai roads’ (e.g. Love 2000:118).

Equally, the recumbent moai that lie alongside the roads are identified as ‘in-transit’, and have tended to be interpreted as abandoned statues which failed to reach their destination. In her 1919 publication, Kathleen Routledge commented on the roads: “Rano Raraku was, therefore, approached by at least three magnificent avenues, on each of which the pilgrim was greeted at intervals by a stone giant guarding the way to the sacred mountain” (1919:196). In this paper I will revisit Routledge’s interpretation and by introducing the results of recent fieldwork, provide an alternative view of the nature of Polynesian passage across Rapa Nui to the great quarry of Rano Raraku.


Dr Colin Richards' PhD research was on the Neolithic of Orkney. In 1986, he discovered and excavated the settlement of Barnhouse, which was published as a research monograph, Dwelling Among the Monuments, in 2005. He moved to Manchester in 2000, where he is now Reader in Archaeology. Research projects include: the Great Stone Circles Project, 2001-9, and the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Currently, he is two years into a five-year project on monumental construction on Rapa Nui. He has published widely on the British Neolithic and archaeological landscape and architecture, and is the co-editor of Understanding the Neolithic of North-Western Europe (1998).


Caves and the Underworld of Rapa Nui

Ruth Whitehouse

While Rapa Nui is best known for the platforms (ahu) with their statues (moai) that ring the island, as well as other above-ground archaeology, such as rock surfaces with petroglyphs, it also has a rich underground record of caves used by people in the past. The existence of the caves was recorded by most of the early European visitors and they were investigated by archaeologists in the twentieth century including Katherine Routledge and, in the 1950s, Thor Heyerdahl, who described his visits to many caves in his popular book, Aku Aku: The Secret of Easter Island. However, systematic investigation lagged behind and has only been undertaken on a significant scale in the last decade, culminating in the Polish Expedition, which has recently published a survey of 315 caves, published in a splendid volume, The Caves of Easter Island. Underground World of Rapa Nui/ Las Cuevas de la Isla de Pascua. El Mundo Subterraneo de Rapa Nui.

The archaeology of the caves is still little understood, however, and what is known relates mostly to the later period of occupation of Rapa Nui, after the destruction of the ahu and moai. This paper offers a preliminary attempt to integrate caves into our understanding of the island during the main ahu construction period. It looks at three aspects: how the caves were used by the early populations of Rapa Nui; how they figured in the symbolic/cosmological system of these people; and how the sensory experiences of entering and moving around the dark underground spaces contributed to their overall understanding of the world. The paper draws on studies of caves in other parts of the world and offers a tentative attempt to consider whether interpretations developed elsewhere might be relevant also to Rapa Nui.


Ruth Whitehouse is Emeritus Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Her research interests include Mediterranean prehistory, especially that of Italy; religion and ritual; gender in archaeology; landscape archaeology; early writing and literacy in Italy; and, most recently, the archaeology of Rapa Nui. She is the author of Underground Religion: Cult and Culture in Prehistoric Italy (1992), co-author of Botromagno: Excavation and Survey at Gravina in Puglia, 1979-1985 (2000), and editor of Gender and Italian Archaeology: Challenging the Stereotypes (1998). Her recent publications include the co-edited volumes Literacy and the State in the Ancient Mediterranean (2007), and Archaeology and Women: Ancient and Modern Issues (2007).