Easter Island art is not all about the giant stone moai heads–the wooden figurines the islanders used to carve out of crooked toromiro tree branches (or, sometimes, driftwood) are just as weird and wonderful. Here, I want to tell you about the genre of Easter Island art known as moai kavakava–that is, “ribcage figure”.
Moai kavakava sculptures tend to be about 50-60 cm high, and depict grinning old men with goatee beards and hugely protruding ribcages and backbones. Their earlobes are large and pendulous (possibly because they are weighed down by chunky earrings), the arms are disproprtionately long and the legs disproportionally short, and the tops of their bald heads are often decorated with enigmatic motifs such as stars, crouching quadrupeds, and men’s faces ornamented with long, flowing beards. Could these be tattoos? Symbols of whatever clan the sculptures belonged to? Who knows. Moai kavakava also tend to be slightly crooked, and some have suggested that it’s because suitable trees were scarce on the island, and carvers had to make do with branches that were a bit bent and weird–but I would take this story with a pinch of salt.
The whites of a moai kavakava‘s eyes will have been carved out of fish vertebrae, shells, or Europeans’ pant buttons, and the pupils were made out of obsidian. That is, when they’re there at all–a lot of museum moai kavakava lack one or two pupils, more than we’d expect if they just fell off at random. Based on comparisons with other Polynesian traditions (for example, the Maori), it’s likely that the figures were believed to be alive when both their pupils were inserted, so whoever sold them to Westerners probably ensured that they were little more than inert pieces of wood at the moment of the transaction.
I don’t know if moai kavakava are still produced today, but I do know that, in the 1950s, and possibly starting from the nineteenth century, they were carved in large quantities and sold to tourists. There’s one anthropologist (Métraux 1954: 147) who disapprovingly mentions the “aberrant forms made to gratify the bad taste of Chilean crews”–unfortunately, I couldn’t find any pictures (except, possibly, for the one below), but apparently these sculptures, though in many ways similar to the more traditional ones, also wore sailor’s caps, or did military salutes, or held smaller copies of themselves in their arms.
But to return to the more traditional forms… what were they about?
Many authors have suggested that the moai kavakava figures depicted actual people. Heyerdahl (1976: 186) even quotes an anonymous native informant as saying that “[o]ur ancestors did not know how to take photographs […] but they knew how to illustrate by carving”, suggesting that wood carving was the ancient Easter Islanders’ equivalent of photography.
Heyerdahl himself tells the story of a legendary Easter Island folk hero, Tuu-ko-ihu, stumbling one day upon two figures lying inside a “crater”. These figures were little more than skin and bones, and they were lying so still that Tuu-ko-ihu thought they were dead–except then they woke up (in some versions of the story they were roused by an unseen third member of their party) and, having spotted Tuu-ko-ihu, proceeded to chase him all the way home, making it clear he was not speak about them to anyone. So, instead of telling everyone what he’d just experienced, Tuu-ko-ihu simply carved a likeness of those ugly creatures–and thus the first ever moai kavakava were made.
In Heyerdahl’s (1976: 186) version of the story, the two figures were the island’s mythical original inhabitants, “driven into the mountains by the newcomers and then driven frantic by famine”. However, there is no archaeological evidence for the ancestors of modern-day Eastern Islanders taking their land from previous inhabitants–as far as we can tell, the ancestors of modern-day Easter Islanders were the first to ever set foot on the island.
Another popular theory is that the moai kavakava figures depicted ancient Easter Islanders who had starved themselves to death, or almost to death, by completely trashing their island’s ecosystem. However, as Beverley Haun (among others) argues in her 2010 book Inventing “Easter Island”, Easter Island was probably not destroyed by its own inhabitants, so this interpretation also lacks credibility.
Also, realistic representation of things just isn’t what Polynesian art is about. Almost any example you could think of of an anthropomorphic sculpture from that region of the Pacific will be understood by its makers as a slightly mind-bending combination of a vessel for an ancestor’s spirit to inhabit during rituals (in this case, when the obsidian pupils are inserted), and the ancestor him- or herself. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Heyerdahl’s one anonymous twentieth-century informant was right when he said that Easter Islanders were the only population in prehistoric Polynesia to develop realistic portraiture (it is the most remote of the islands), but, overall, it seems unlikely–the fact that all moai kavakava look alike, the weird stuff going on with their pupils, and a story of Tuu-ko-ihu calling back a wayward spirit into one of his woodcarvings, all make more sense if the moai kavakava were ancestor figures rather than a way of proto-photographing your famine-struck friends and families. Oh and there are some strange examples of moai kavakava with, instead of the usual grinning old man’s face, have the head of a lizard, or that of a bird–which, again, suggests that they were metaphysical beings rather than physical ones.
And, in another version of the story Heyerdahl tells, this time told by Métraux, the entities that Tuu-ko-ihu stumbles upon were apus (that is, more or less, spirits/ancestors), not starving refugees.
Why talk about this stuff in an archaeology blog? As I’ve said before, in my post about Hawaiian wood carvings, so much has happened between eighteenth-century colonial contact and the present day, so little lore has been retained from those times, that many traditional Polynesian cultures are as lost to us as cultures that disappeared thousands of years ago. So there is very little difference between how we can try to approach what remains of relatively recent Polynesian cultures, and long-lost ones from other parts of the world.
I should say, moai kavakava figures are not the only types of wooden figures that Easter Islanders used to carve–but that, perhaps, is a story for another post…
Haun, B. 2010. Inventing “Easter Island”. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Heyerdahl, T. 1976. The Art of Easter Island. London: Allen & Unwin.
Kaeppler, A. 2001. Rapa Nui art and aesthetics. In Kjellgren, E. (ed) Splendind Isolation: Art of Easter Island pp. 32-41. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kjellgren, E. 2001. Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island. New York. Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Metraux, A. 1957. Easter Island: A Stone-Age Civilization of the Pacific. London: Deutsch.