Globalization and colonization have had a devastating impact on the worlds’ cultural diversity, as many indigenous cultures have either seized to exist or rapidly declined over the last 4 centuries of our shared history. We know that what remains of the indigenous people of Africa, America, Australia and Asia makes up 5% of the worlds population. However, together they hold 70% of the worlds’ cultural backgrounds. This means 95% of the worlds’ population are part of one big homogenous monoculture, with the Western world leading by example. It’s statistics like these which urge us to consider the importance of diversified knowledge. Both the importance of cultural diversity and the issue of human rights violations have led to the UN’s Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People to be installed in 2009. The first point within the manifest describes the urgency of this Declaration as a matter of human and equal rights; the 2nd point states the importance of cultural diversity for humanity as a whole:
” Affirming also that all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind,”
Upon the bestowal of this Declaration much work has been done to reinstall indigenous people all over the globe as the lawful owners of their ancestors’ land. And as so much heritage has already been lost in the march of progress, the times we currently live in revolve around a sense of revival, a sense of reconciliation with the past. This has proven to be a challenging process, as there aren’t always clear directions or documentation as to who traditionally owned what, who owns which piece of land or which part of cultural heritage. And sometimes some traditions are covered with mystery, without any sense of belonging, only to be reclaimed many centuries after last practice.
One very particular case of indigenous triumph, which happened just last month, is the giving back of Easter Island to its indigenous Rapa Nui communities. Since the annexation of the island to Chile in 1887, it was rented to a Scottish sheep farming company and the people of Rapa Nui were put in ghettos or made to work for this company, historical sites were exploited for touristic purposes. On the 23rd of november, the chilean president Michelle Bachelet has officially given back the control of the land and archaeological sites to the locals, by passing it on to a local entity called Mu’a Henua. And thus begins a re-evaluation of traditions and what is important for the people of Rapa Nui to thrive once again. The history of the island and its people have been highly contested, so it might be challenging to decide next steps. In an interview with a local newspaper, director Camilo Rapu of Mu’a Henua, an indigenous to Rapa Nui himself, is very optimistic about the future but also claims to be very careful about making any quick decisions.
Well-known historian Jared Diamond has written extensively about the ecological, demographic and cultural history of Rapa Nui and its people. A few of its mysteries I will describe here. What makes this island so unique is the seemingly age-old presence of a civilization; it is one of the most remote islands on this planet to be populated by an extensive community of people. Rapa Nui is about 3.500km removed from the South American mainland, and even though this would lead one to assume the indigenous population to be of Native American decent, DNA studies have proven them to be from the Polynesian and Austronesian lineage. The results have raised questions as to how the early people of Rapa Nui have been able to make it across the Pacific Ocean at the time they are estimated to have arrived there, which is somewhere between 700 and 1200 AD.
Furthermore, the cultural practice of the people of Rapa Nui seems to have been like no other. The iconic Monolithic statues called Maoi are minimalist figurines that faced the communities to protect them from outside force. Even though statues with similar meanings were constructed elsewhere in Polynesia, the Rapa Nui people have made over a stunning 900 of them, each weighing at least 80 tonnes, which would have been almost impossible to transport and erect all over the island by human force alone. The statues were made of wood and basalt, and as the island is deprived of a rich vegetation at this present day, one would assume the island either used to have a very different biodiversity, or the wood for all of these 900 statues was transported from elsewhere. Jared Diamond beliefs that Rapa Nui used to be a very fertile island with many species of trees and plants, and suggests the staggering rate at which the population has built these maoi is the sheer cause of its deforestation, ultimately leading to a rapid demographic and spiritual decline of the community and even to cannibalism. Others belief this to be a very one-sided representation of a population that was obviously highly skilled and intelligent. People of Rapa Nui have at some point even developed their own written language, being one of very few civilizations in human history to have done so completely independently. But even this written language is cause for many discussion, as not a single person has been able to successfully decipher or explain the Rongorongo glyphs since their discovery in 1860. Even more so, the local communities were not particularly interested in the glyphs at that time, eventhough the language used seemed to be inscribed with a lot of care – using 61 different stylized human, animal, vegetable and geometrical characters.
The Rongorongo glyphs, the massive maois and the settlement of Polynesian Seafarers on Rapa Nui does peek a lot of healthy curiosity into the origins of this culture. According to renowned writer Graham Hancock, there can be only one explanation: Due to its isolation, Rapa Nui must hold the legacy of a far older, bigger and highly technically equipped civilization, inherited by the indigenous people of the island, a cult which has remained relatively well preserved until the 18th century. The worldwide debate in the origins of the island has attracted a lot of attention to Easter Island, especially since the expansion of the airport in Hanga Roa in 1986. Tourists go around the island taking pictures of the maoi, but many are not aware about the other narratives revolved around this island. They are not aware there used to be 900 of these statues, which were partially destroyed for resorts to be built upon this sacred ground. In the article ‘The Unknown Truth Behind the Maois’ for The Intercontinental Cry, Rapa Nui elder Mati Hitorangi writes:
“ The most striking legacy of our Polynesian culture are the stone sculptures called moais. They have made our island known around the world, and there are all kind of theories about them, how we made and moved them. What is really important for us is very different though. The moais are spiritual tombstones; built to protect the land and the blood matrix to which each clan belongs. At the top of the moai, sits the Pukao, or hat, representing a Henua (a mother’s womb). The place in which the moai reaches into the pukao, is the komari, or clitoris, the sacred key that opens the space for the kuhane (soul) to come into each newborn of the clan. The moais stand on top of the Ahus. The Ahus are enormous rock catacombs. When someone died his or her body was left on the Ahu, so the flesh could disintegrate, so the bones could be buried underneath. Beside it, women buried their placentas after each birth. Both traditions where done as a gift to Kainga (Mother Earth) so that it would always nourish the clan. Our moais represent conception, birth and death. What for the tourists are unrivaled archaeological sites, for us symbolize the profoundly spiritual bond we hold with our land.”
A lot of what has been lost on Rapa Nui is quite unlikely to return, but there are obvious ways to reinstall a rich tradition. One of the most important first steps could be the reforestation of the island, enforcing immigration of indigenous Rapa Nui people to return and the creation of a healthy local economy in balance with tourism and local traditions. Essentially, this is the challenge for many indigenous communities under treat and fighting for their rights today: finding a balance between the ‘civilized’ world (monoculture) and traditional beliefsystems (diversity).