Today, I want to tell a story. Once upon a time, there was a tribe of people who were looking for a better world. They finally came to a little island, in the middle of the Pacific nowhere, 2300 miles from the nearest mainland. They called their little island „navel of the world“ (certainly apt in their case, but then again, all peoples seem to think they are it), settled down, and lived happily – though perhaps not ever after. Their specialty lay in the creation of statues – „moais“, big heads on rounded bodies, arms tightly pressed to the sides, and legless – carved out of the volcanic rock of the island, and erected to honour their ancestors and show their own might and position within the island.
Later, a second tribe arrived, also looking for a better world, and they too wanted to settle on the navel of the world. The people who came first – they were tall and slim and called themselves „long ears“ – weren’t too happy about that, after all, the little island was their island, but they did see the potential for giving the newcomers – they were short and stocky and called „short ears“ – all the work that they as elite long ears didn’t want to do.
This two tier system lived more or less happily for a while, and they were fertile and the population grew evermore. They built ever more bigger and heavier statues, and finally everything was subordinated to their idols, and both short ears and all resources of the little island were mercilessly exploited. There came the day when there was no tree left on the island, and hardly any food to feed the overpopulation. And then came the rising of the short and stocky little people, who had received few rights: The short ears stood up against the tyranny of the long ears, and it was war. All statues were toppled, the people killed each other, and even resorted to cannibalism. At the end, there were only few survivors, and many fallen status symbols on the island that was now called Rapa Nui, „big land“. Humans and nature needed a long time to recover.
On Easter Sunday of the year 1722 the big wide world discovered the island and called it „Easter Island“. Unfortunately, the big wide world wasn’t too kind to it, and within the next century, slave traders stopped by a few times and collected the islanders. The few people left were nearly all killed off by the handfull returnees, who unintentionally brought with them the illnesses of the world. Together with the people, nearly all the oral traditions died out, something that later on should increase the mystery in which the island is shrouded.
All told, not a completely happy story, but there is (for now) a happy ending: In the second half of the 20th century, the little island received an airport, and since has become a magnet for tourists who want to admire the strange statues, some of whom have been put upright again. By now, there are again about 4000 people of original descent (also called Rapa Nui), plus about 3000 newcomers, with the main aim of making the ca. 100,000 tourists per year happy.
When I learned about the history of Easter Island, I thought that this really is a micro cosm of our world. The drama contains it all: A beautiful world that could have been paradise for all; the worship of idols or status symbols; immigration and the consequences of inadequate integration; the complete exploitation of resources; war and the nearly complete annihalation of all inhabitants, so that the survivors were too weak to defend themselves against the pirates. But also the happy thought that humankind and nature can survive (nearly) everything. Perhaps I am just sentimental and read too much into this, but in any case: It might not be a happy story, but I think at least an interesting one.Something does make me wonder: Currently, the island celebrates Tapati, a big local festival, the main event of the year. At the end of the festival, a king and a queen are selected, but last year, apparently they couldn’t agree, and there were two kings and two queens. This year, the argument goes on, and there will not be a queen as a consequence. They could live happily ever after… if only they stopped long enough punching each other!
And a word regarding tourism – although myself a tourist, I am not so fond of the usual consequences (cue „Ubud“); here, I find, they managed to create quite a good example of „responsible tourism“. And, I thought, the natives must be really happy about all the tourists – not only are they pretty much the main source of income, but I can also imagine that – living on a little island in the middle of the Pacific nowhere – it must become tedious, to say the least, to see the same faces day in day out.
And a last word for the interested: Long ears and short ears really exist, but it is probably only an example of Lost in Translation (or in this case: Found): A long time ago, the word for „short and stocky“ – e’epe – was mistranslated with epe = ear.