In Search Of… S01E17 Easter Island Massacre

InSearchOf1.17Waves crash on a rocky shore, and Nimoy is telling us about a mysterious massacre. And we're looking at the moai of Rapa Nui, aka the stone heads of Easter Island. And they look pretty damn cool. They look like a bunch of ancient people thought to themselves 'what's the most awesome sort of thing we can make?' and got the answer perfectly right. With their sheer massive size and their features somehow both impassive and expressive, the moai are made out of awesome. And compressed volcanic ash, but mostly awesome.

Nimoy tells us that many were destroyed. Why were so many destroyed? It's a good question, and I'm hoping the answer isn't 'aliens'.

Lava! The beginning of time! Cooling lava hardening into rock. The origin of Easter Island! Doom! Destiny! Etc. We're told Easter Island is the most isolated inhabited island. I haven't looked that up, but it sounds about right. It was unknown until discovered by the Dutch. Obvious argument, it wasn't unknown by the people who lived there, but I get what they mean. When the Dutch arrived, there were perhaps ten thousand people on the island, but as Nimoy reminds us slavery, smallpox and war have decimated the population to one thousand.

Some shots of the locals, who don't look Polynesian. Nimoy tells us that newcomers have 'blurred lines of ethnic purity', which was something you could say on TV in the 1970s, I guess. You know, if that's your idea of a good time.

Next up is Nimoy talking straight to camera in front of a black backdrop. He calls the Easter Island heads 'one of the most amazing engineering projects of ancient times'. Interestingly, he ascribes the idea to 'mankind'. Huh. Maybe no aliens, after all?

Nice shot of a reconstructed moai, with a person standing next to it for scale. Holy crap they're huge. They're not identical either -- Nimoy rightly points out that they seem to have different personalities. Now, Nimoy claims that the big mystery is why did the Islanders build so many? He suggests that they were a fearful people and needed many gods to protect them, which really seems like very harsh conjecture.

More interesting, he says, is the fact that many of the statues were cast down and broken – 'massacred' Nimoy says. Not technically accurate, but a powerful way to put it.

We see Dr Edmundo Edwards, a Chilean archaeologist, as he looks around the extinct volcano  where the statues were carved. He points at things, but is not interviewed. I wonder if the filming unit actually has sound? Maybe not.

Nimoy tells us that work in the quarry finished abruptly, leaving a range of incomplete moai. Footage of these is quite interesting, differing from the picture postcard, travel guide quality of footage of those moai that have been reconstructed. Dr Edwards is shown picking up tools from the ground where they lay, presumably, since they were laid down by the carvers centuries ago.

It's almost like they're actually accepting that these things were the work of human beings and not the Frog-men of Gamulon. Weird. Anyway, we see Dr Edwards demonstrating the use of stone chisels, and then he and… I guess a grad student? Maybe. Anyway, he and a friend demonstrate the stone pulley system use to pull the heads out of the volcano prior to their transport to the sea.

Then there's some talk of 'ancient legends'. I don't know a lot about traditional Polynesian religion, so even though I suspect they've messed it up some, I don't know for sure. He concludes by pointing out that most of the statues were smashed and beheaded, and the camera shows us close ups of the restoration work done on the statures visible today.

Interesting, factual and alien free. Oh, well. The next episode is on 'ghosts'.

We look at Mario Arevalo, a big wheel in the project to restore the statues. He and Dr Edwards are painstakingly plotting the position of statues. At the time, only 12 had been restored. He points out that the work is difficult due to a lack of machinery, and segues into talking about the engineering difficulties faced by the moai builders. Nimoy suggests the use of rollers and the film illustrates this point by showing local fisherman dragging a boat up a beach using this method. But points out this was a very advanced technique for the time the statues were made. We can hear the fishermen at work, so I guess they do have sound, after all.

A local engineer sketches his idea of how the statues were moved, a rope and fulcrum device. He convinces the mayor of Rapa Nui's only town to carry out a small scale experiment, moving a five ton stone – a scaled down version of moving the fifty ton statues. The experiment fails.

Nimoy says that if it's hard for we modern types to figure this out, imagine how much harder it would have been for ancient peoples to have solved the problem. Holy crap! Giving credit to ancient, brown people for being smart. He even wonders if they were smarter than us. I'm loving this episode!

And now we're looking at some ancient statues in Bolivia. Okay, I guess it had to get silly eventually. Nimoy points out that there was no known contact between the ancient Bolivians and the Easter Islanders. Whew!

"And yet…"

Crap! All right, then. Let's hear this. "The features bear an uncanny resemblance." There's a resemblance, between these statues, but it’s not uncanny. They're both stylised human heads, and there are similarities and differences between the styles. Moving on... Oh, no. We're talking about ancient tablets now. God damn it! The Rongorongo petroglyphs of Rapa Nui are a fascinating thing, but my understanding was that it has not been deciphered today, and it certainly hadn't been deciphered in the '70s. But, we're told, it contains a dark and bloody tale.

Nimoy tells us about a civil war on Rapa Nui, and as proof of this he mentions the archaeological evidence. I understand that this is pretty well founded, but I don't see how it relates to the ancient script. Dr Edwards believes that there was overpopulation and starvation, and this lead to war and cannibalism. The footage of Dr Edwards holding a burning torch in a burial cave is pretty cool.

After the war, we're told, the cult of the bird god began. In an annual ritual, the warriors would swim across to a small, offshore island, take an egg, and swim back through shark infested waters. The winner would be king for a year. Nimoy speculates that the petroglyphs tell of the days before this cult. Oh, and then Nimoy points out that the petroglyphs are not deciphered. There's some fascinating shots of archaeologists at work on the petroglyphs, painting over the lines with chalk based paint so that they'll photograph better. Behind the photographer is the island that the warriors swam to. Neat!

Next up, a linguist recording an oral tradition recounted by an old woman. There's some lovely shots of the island as Nimoy gives a beautiful reading of the cut down version of the story. It's really pretty cool. There's battle music playing over shots of the heads, as we hear the story of how the short-years slew the long-years. It's really quite evocative, and shows what you can do with a shoestring budget, a little imagination and Leonard Nimoy.

Nimoy claims that mythology is a sort of distorted view of history, which is a key argument throughout the series. Often, it is the source of serious overreach. This time, the show concludes that the bloody and tragic myths show a bloody and tragic past, which frankly is not unreasonable. Nimoy tells of the deaths of the Island natives of the guns and diseases of their colonisers.

Over footage of waves, Nimoy suggests in a distant past time, the people looked to their stone gods for protection against bloodshed and tragedy. When no help was forthcoming, they turned against their former protectors and cast them down.

Is this speculation reasonable? I honestly don't know enough about the subject to give an answer. But it's more reasonable than claiming aliens or Atlanteans or alien Atlanteans or anything like that.

Nimoy gives his summing up. He calls the people that built the moai a 'great civilisation', and I think that's a fair thing to call them. He talks about the power of faith to motivate the building, and of the destruction that he argues was caused by the loss of that faith.

We close on waves lapping on the shores of Rapa Nui, and we're left with one final question: so… what was the deal with those statues in Bolivia?

No, seriously? What was that about?

Best quotes:

Nimoy: "It was on Easter Island that mankind had one of its most curious ideas."

Yes, quite curious, old boy. Toodle pip!

Nimoy: "There are enough questions here to intrigue an army of scientists and fill a bank of computers."

So less processing power than I have in my jacket pocket then?

Summing up:

Camerawork: 9/10, Nimoyness: 9/10, Music: 8/10, Actual Research: 8/10, Lack of Space Aliens: 10/10. Overall: 44/50. High Distinction

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