In reviewing "Inventing 'Easter Island'" I found myself caught on the horns of a dilemma because, on the one hand (horn?) this is an interesting, scholarly work of profound implications that should inspire much discussion about what Easter Island was once, what it has become, and what it may evolve into one day. But within the book's erudite language and well-intentioned message there is an undeniable bias that punctures the equilibrium of its objectivity. This is evident from the very beginning when Haun, in her preface, justly takes to task a Canadian photographer who not too long ago committed unpardonable sins on the island by re-arranging rocks and disturbing potentially archaeologically significant sites in order to create "landscape art". This abomination was compounded by the fact that the photographer smuggled film off the island and some of his images were published in a Canadian magazine whose editors obviously have no dignity nor shame in glorifying how the photographer sneered at the "primitive" nature of the Easter Islanders who rightly objected to this desecration. And it is here that we begin to apprehend Haun's equation of what this Canadian did with what she calls the "Euro-American culture" that has by her reckoning re-invented the Easter Island cultural milieu and not necessarily in a positive way.
But is it entirely fair to equate what this photographer did with what early European explorers did? Are these two types of parties equally liable? Despite Haun's "resistance to the historical accounts", I say no. If the histories tell us anything, if social and cultural evolution has any validity, it is that for the most part we HAVE learned from the past, we ARE different. Some of us are, anyway. James Cook comes to mind. And in one particular way what this photographer did was worse than what many of the European explorers did BECAUSE HE KNEW BETTER; he had the product of centuries of knowledge about this island at his disposal and yet he admitted to coldly, deliberately ignoring both sensitivities and the law. We may thus rightfully ask if the first Europeans knew better, a question we do not have to ask of this Canadian photographer. Nor can we ignore the possibility that what we know of the past is the result of records made not always by the responsible parties but by their underlings or from faulty memories recalled years after the events -- and that this may reflect, but may not establish with certainty, a consequential discrimination, intended or otherwise, that was part of the inspiration for global exploration (and, yes, conquest) that sanctioned reprehensible acts without impunity.
In keeping with this, Haun tells us that "All texts are unstable constructions. All 'information' about the island is a version filtered through the perceptions and evaluations of the writers". Yet if this is accepted, then we would seem to have no choice but to interpret all accounts -- including Haun's -- as potentially suspect and therefore those that describe peaceful cooperation and those that involve exploitation and abuse may be no different from each other. But surely this doesn't always have to be so, any more than it is true when Haun cites Jorges de Cuchilleros who says that "we're complicit" in the evil actions of others by virtue of our recognition of them, even if they are culturally sanctioned. Just as recognition is not the same as participation, we should be capable of differentiating between those accounts which seek to describe and those which seek to justify.
I do not mean to exculpate those who committed bestial atrocities against the islanders but I believe I have sufficient historical perspective to know that some people are stupid and malignant and others are intelligent and benevolent and that we must not forget the context in which events occur in our interpretation of them. This is one reason I take exception to Haun referring to the "violence of renaming" of the island, because it was neither violent nor is it necessarily an injustice that "Easter Island" as a name would be imposed as part of the "invention" of this tiny triangular world lost in the Pacific. Let us not forget, as Haun herself points out, that the islanders themselves may not even have HAD a name for their own island and that the name that is so often used proudly today ("Rapa Nui") wasn't adopted until possibly a millennium after the first settlers arrived -- and even this name wasn't a creation of the islanders but was given to them by Tahitian sailors.
At the same time, it's not that anyone is requiring Haun to be "fair" or "balanced" in expressing her opinions. She's entitled to them and there is no shortage of thought behind them. But her conclusions subsequently inspired MY reactive opinion that it is not the scientist's task to assign culpability or to exonerate when explaining behavior and its outcomes. Is it likely that the Easter Islanders contributed to their demise? Yes. This is what humans do. Is it likely that the Easter Islanders were SOLELY responsible? Hardly. There are a great many factors in a whole constellation of factors that may have contributed to the island's cultural and environmental collapse -- and so it is not always necessary to lay the blame entirely at anyone's feet or interpret anyone's actions in ethical terms at all. But it is undeniable that at least two camps have developed, one led largely by Jared Diamond (borrowing heavily but probably interpreting erroneously the intentions of Paul Bahn & John Flenley, and perhaps John Dransfield) and another led by a diverse group including Terry Hunt & Carl Lipo, Benny Peiser, and Paul Rainbird (to name a few) who seem desirous of not only disproving Diamond, Bahn & Flenley, and Dransfield but in "freeing" the Easter Islanders from the "guilt" of knowing they were chopping down the last tree but did it anyway. I do not believe that anyone of sensitivity or intelligence is suggesting the islanders were "stupid" in their actions but then, having said this, I am forced to ask if we modern humans should be seen as stupid for what we are doing to our planet and I am thus constrained to wonder why we are may be employing a double standard. Unless it functions in the same way where we must distinguish between what the Canadian photographer did and what the "Euro-Americans" did on the island we call Easter.
Into this roiling cauldron of ideas Haun has thrown herself with verve. Her prose is excellent, her research evidently thorough and directed. Thus I appreciate the sophistication with which Haun's book is written and I can't deny her passion even if it occasionally interferes with her objectivity. It seems strange, for example, that she criticizes Hodges's artistic interpretations of the island for "erasing the Rapanui from the scene of their own cultural production" (which is by Haun's own admission inaccurate since there ARE islanders present in the engravings and paintings) and further chastises him for taking liberties with the weather as it's depicted in one of his most famous paintings because it's not historically accurate "as reported in the journals" -- journals that she might have us question as to their veracity. I'd say it's dangerous enough to question the creative license an artist might employ even when you KNOW the artist's intentions -- but there is no shortage of irony in the fact that Haun uses this famous painting on the cover of her own book. Or maybe this is to make a point?
And if it is irony that one should observe in "Inventing 'Easter Island'", there is no better example than the title itself, for the phrase is particularly apt not just because of its implications within this book's message but because of the whole context of ideas it conjures, neatly in keeping with what Jacquetta Hawkes once said about another place where the stonework of an ancient culture has dazzled and perplexed us for centuries: "Every generation gets the Stonehenge it deserves". The same can, I think, be said about Easter Island. When the islanders weren't "thieves" or "savages" or possibly cannibals they were fodder for slavery or, sadly, unwilling vectors for disease. Today the Easter Islanders seem to be suffering from an identity crisis brought on by immigrants from Chile or ideas from Hollywood, and even they cannot agree on whether they should follow in the footsteps of Tikopia or Las Vegas. Haun cites the late Clemente Hereveri as having said science is in conflict with the ethnic world while at the same time he asked that the indigenous Rapanui be able to preserve their past by the transmission of knowledge -- and yet this is one of the things science does. Are these conflicts really the result of outside influence with ulterior motives or a misunderstanding of what science really represents -- an aspect of the Human Condition ever seeking to define itself out of increasing necessity or ravenous curiosity?
In point of fact, the "invention" that Haun would very nearly have us believe as a pejorative phenomenon is really a function of the wonderful resourcefulness of the Easter Islanders, for they have weathered (literally and figuratively) a storm of human and environmental disasters and have not only survived but repeatedly re-invented themselves in order to endure. "Invention" here is the glory of the Easter Islanders. If there is any "invention" it is not an imposition from without but a profound evolution from within.
In the end, beyond the factual information, the bias still cannot be ignored but this does not make the book flawed, nor do I discourage anyone from buying or reading it. But make no mistake: If you place yourself in the camp that bleeds for the Easter Islanders, ancient or modern, this book preaches to the choir. If you place yourself in the camp that wants to differentiate between the past and the present and believe that there is a difference in how these are not only interpreted but manifested even today (after all, the Rapanui, as Haun says, have a "right to define their past as well as their future on their own terms"), what you may get out of this book becomes a matter of being forced to question whether the same bias the author complains about is inherent because of the interpretation she brings to the discussion or because of objective effects in the real world potentially open to our inspection and thinking. Regardless of which camp the politics of this book inspires one to adhere to, it can justly be said that it continues to support an important dialogue that may eventually produce a better understanding (or perhaps a better "invention" of Easter Island.
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[Note: The writer of this review is a member of the Board of Directors of the Easter Island Foundtaion and the author of the "Complete Guide to Easter Island".]