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By Jan TenBruggencate

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (December 19, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is so isolated that its residents "must have thought they were the only human beings alive on the planet."

So writes Carlos Huber, the photographer whose fine work graces a stunning volume, "Easter Island: Rapa Nui, a Land of Rocky Dreams," with text by Jose Miguel Ramirez, a Chilean archaeologist who specializes in the island.

Ramirez in August addressed a four-day Rapa Nui conference at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy in Waimea on the Big Island.

The collaboration of Huber and Ramirez has yielded a remarkable volume of photographs and excellent writing displaying a Polynesian culture quite distinct from that of Hawai‘i.

A haunting part of the Rapa Nui story is the tale of environmental destruction. The population and resource consumption expanded to the point where every tall growing tree on the island was destroyed. Thus, no canoes.

While Hawai‘i had times of famine, these lush, large islands never put native people in the situation of the Easter Islanders. To many people, Polynesians were and are defined by canoes and voyaging. What if you lost both?

The Rapa Nui culture evolved in distinctive ways. The most prominent are the huge statues, the moai, but Ramirez says they do not pose the biggest question of this island.

"The true ‘mystery’ of the island lies in the paradox of how, within the context of the overall development of humanity, this complex of humanity, this complex culture could emerge under such isolated conditions," he writes.

Normally, complex cultures develop through cultural exchange and adequate resources. Rapa Nui had neither.

"The knowledge we have of what happened on this island breaks all the rules," he writes.

The archaeologist’s words are arrayed among aerial and ground level photos of the island terrain and coastline, sunset shots of the moai, crisp images of birdman petroglyphs, wildlife, carvings and the island people. There are multiple images of the unique ceremonial village of Orongo, at the edge of the swamp-filled volcanic crater, Rano Kau.

Here, near where a few native trees survive, stood low, oval structures made of stone. The first may have been built around AD 1200. In later years the site became important as a center of the birdman cult.

As for the moai, Ramirez discusses the wide diversity of these statues. There are 838 recorded on the island, most made of the brown-gray tuff of Rano Raraku, but 22 of a white-colored volcanic stone called trachyte, 18 of red volcanic cinder and 10 of hard basalt.

Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser’s Kauai‘i bureau chief and its science and environment writer. You can email him at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com

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