Volume 27 1918 > Volume 27, No. 106 > Raivavai and its statues, by J. Macmillan Brown, p 72-77
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THE islet of Raivavai or, as it is more often called, Vavitao or Vavitu, is the most southerly of the Austral or Tubuai group, which lies between three and four hundred miles to the south of the Society group, and across the tropic of Capricorn. Away to the southeast, some two hundred and eighty miles, is situated Rapa, the terminal point of the arc of the ancient volcanic semicircle that passes through the Cook, Samoan, Ellice and Caroline groups, as Easter Island is the terminal of the more easterly arc that passes through the Paumotu, Society, Tokelau, Gilbert and Marshall groups. Like its neighbours to the north-west, Tupuai and Rurutu, it is a volcanic plug surrounded by a barrier reef, as will be seen from the illustration (I.), whilst Rimatara, the most westerly of the group, is a raised coral reef. As we sailed round it inside the reef, I could see plainly the layers of bedded lavas cut sharply off into a knife edge by erosion, yet sloping at such an angle as to show that the vanished crater of the volcano out of which they had issued must have been several thousands of feet higher. The reef, as in all those islands that have sunk gradually and have barrier or off-shore reefs, acts as a dam and retains the humus and detritus in a broad rich belt surrounding the high lands in the centre, whilst the Marquesas, Rapa and Easter Island, which have plunged too suddenly to have a barrier reef, have let their fertile soils slip into the depths. The latter type of island is inhabited by clans that in pre-European times were ceaselessly at war. The former type attains a certain amount of unity, because the people live on the low, fertile belt, and have easy intercommunication both by land and by the calm sea within the reef.

Raivavai must, from this conformation, have had a strong tendency, like the Hawaiian and Society groups, towards unification, if not towards monarchy. Even yet there seems to be but one chief, or at least leading chief, who lives on the north-west of the island at the village of Rairua, on the shore of the only harbour available for larger craft; his house and its neighbours still show signs of affluence in the broad verandahs and the highly ornamental woodwork, though every feature is Europeanised. It was no wonder that in the old whaling days it was famous for its beautifully finished implements and weapons

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and fine canoes; its paddles, clubs, spears and poi pounders were more eagerly sought by the American and European sailors than those of any other island, and doubtless a large majority of those Southsea curios in the museums of the world, that are vaguely marked “Polynesian,” come from this solitary islet just outside the tropics. Nor were the makers of these unwilling to take in exchange food and luxuries from the outside world; like Rapa and the islands that lie somewhat south of the tropics, it did not bear the coconut or bread-fruit; its main-stay lay in taro and fish, and it was so well-known for its taro poi that it used to export it to the Paumotus; the yam, though it grew, held a subordinate place in the diet. Now oranges, tobacco, manioc and sugarcane are grown all over the island, and the coffee plant has become so plentiful that it overshadows the ancient statues, making it difficult to get a good photograph of them; those I took are speckled with spots of sunshine that struggled through the foliage of the twenty-feet high coffee bushes. Moerenhout mentions famines as having caused great misery on the islands; these were not caused by too little water, but by too much. The taro beds were on a low isthmus that in violent storms got swept by floods, and so they had to erect great embankments to prevent the recurrence of the devastation. I found taro beds away up the slopes and in the bush; and with the rich, deep chocolate humus that was to be seen everywhere it seemed to me that the full fertility and capacity of the island had never been exploited. Our author speaks of the population as having been at least 1,200 in 1822; at his first visit in 1830 it had been reduced to about 120, and on his second visit in 1834 it was less than 100. The cause of this extraordinary reduction, he hints, was venereal and tubercular diseases introduced by European sailors. The descent has been stopped as in all the Austral and Society Islands; for the last census (December, 1911) made the population 412, nearly a fourth of them children, males predominating both amongst adults and non-adults.

The richness of the soil and the easy harvest of the sea make one think of thousands as the natural capacity of the island in its ancient population. And thousands would be required to account for such luxuries as the great stone statues I found here, and the great stone maraes I heard of; and it would have to be thousands well organized and disciplined. And such organization would be easy with all the population on the seaboard and broad stretches of water within the reef. It is much more dificult to account for these great stone works in islands without a reef, like Easter Island and the Marquesas, where valley was barred off from valley, and clan was ever at war with clan. And yet in the other islands of the group with similar conformation there is now no trace of megalithism; the existence of great stone statues and maraes in this islet, is thus still a problem.

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The first, in fact the only, observer to mention them is Moerenhout, the French merchant, who sailed all round this region of the Pacific in the twenties and thirties of last century. The passage in his now rare book referring to the statues is as follows: “Cette île est une de celles où l'on a trouvé de ces singuliers monumens, vus, pour la première fois, dans l'île de Pâques, puis à Pitcairn, puis à Lybouai, où l'on a encore reconnu plusieurs de ces statues colossales, montées sur des plates-formes, aux extrémités des terres basses. C'est par les habitans de Laïvavaï qu'on a su que c'étaient les tii oni et les tii papa de la cosmogonie polynésienne, génies du sable et des rochers du rivage, protégeant la terre contre les usurpations de la mer.

Ces monumens sont ici comme partout où l'on en a trouvé, dans un état de ruine complète; moins grands que ceux de l'île de Pâques; mais, d'ailleurs, exactement les mêmes, sous tous les autres rapports; les traits de la figure assez bien exécutés, des oreilles énormes et percés, et tout le bas du corps difforme et monstrueux.”

I fancy that “Lybouai” is a compositor's mistake for “Tubuai”; for in his second volume, speaking of the statues of Easter Island, he says:—“Je les ai retrouvées, depuis, à Pitcairn, à Toubouai, &c.” I found traditions of the sites of old maraes in Tubuai; but none of great stone statues; certainly there are none now on that island; but we must accept the evidence of so keen an observer who visited the island nearly a century ago.

His theory of the meaning and purpose of those stone statues is based on considerable observation and he repeats it in his second volume when discussing Easter Island: “According to what local traditions say of them, I believe I can affirm that they were not, as has been believed up till now, divinities of the first order, or monuments raised to the memory of great men, but simply Tiis or inferior divinities, marking the limits and maintaining the rights of the different elements, gods, men, the dead, the living, and that they were, very probably, erected for the sole purpose of perpetuating the memory of the most extraordinary phenomena, of the most terrible catastrophes known in the land, as the destruction of the mainland, &c.”

Unfortunately the two statues which I examined and photographed in the bush behind the village of Rairua seem to have no relationship to the incursions of the sea. They are evidently not the statues that Moerenhout saw; they are not on an isthmus that is threatened by the storm-driven sea; they stand at some elevation above the village and the shore and have a background of lofty ridges rising into one sharp peak, with a solitary tree upon its top; their environment is mountain and bush. And Mrs. Scoresby Rutledge, the most recent observer of Easter Island, seems to indicate in her paper read before the Royal Geographical Society, that some, if not all, of the statues that still stand half-buried on the slopes of the extinct volcano Rano Raraku, in

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whose crater they were sculptured, were meant to be there as a permanency, whilst the statues that were supposed to have been suddenly abandoned on the way to their coastal platforms must have, before they fell, formed avenues along three roads leading to the mountain from north, south and west. In that case they were not all meant to make the boundary between sea and land; and the long statued avenues seem to suggest, like those that lead to the Ming tombs in the north of China, processional routes for solemn ceremonials periodically held at their terminus, in this case in the workshop of the sculptors.

The two statues that I photographed on Raivavai could not have belonged to any such avenue; for the larger stands behind the lesser, both facing in the same direction, the former directly north, the latter slightly to the east of north, the difference being probably due to the fact that the warship ‘Zelée’ tried to unearth it in order to carry it off to Papeete in Tahiti, but failing in the effort had to set it up again. This orientation to the north and the sun in a climate that is by no means tropical and under a sky that is often cloudy, combined with the fact that they represent women perhaps indicates that they were meant to propitiate the powers of nature that are the sources of her fertility. The breasts are not large; but the private parts are conspicuous by their disproportionate size. The figures do not seem from their environment to have formed part of a larger whole; there is no trace of a platform or marae, although there is a tradition that the marae in which they stood was called Atorani. They stand each on a pedestal, which seems to be deeply buried in the ground, and there are no other stones, large or small, immediately around them. It is just possible that stimulated by the power of their new religion the people may have carried away the stones and smashed the images that Moerenhout refers to; that must have been the case with the stone images he saw in Tubuai, and we know it was the case with many of the great maraes in Tahiti. And yet, further in the bush than these statues there still remains intact a marae called Moanaheiata, and there is a small stone tiki on it.

The following are some of the characteristics of the figures; the face is round, the head dome-shaped and short like so many Polynesian skulls, the ears long, the nose flattened at the nostrils, the lips thin, the chin long, the upper lip short and the eyes deep in the head, as in the Easter Island busts, a necklet round the neck, the abdomen huge with the hands spread out upon it as in the Marquesas stone tikis on their altars, the posture squatting, the legs inordinately stout with pediments for feet. This development of the lower parts completely differentiates them from the Easter Island statues, which are only busts, though even in them the hands are carved across the abdomen. The two differ considerably in measurement and features - 76 The smaller, with the native girl seated beside it (figure II.), seems the larger because it was photographed at a shorter distance; it has high glabella and eyebrows, whilst the other has none; its eyes are long slits, whilst those of the other are cresent-shaped; its mouth is smaller and the lips are closed, whilst between the lips of the other is a ridge that must represent the teeth; with its pediment it is nearly eight and half feet above the ground, whilst the other is as high without the deep pediment; its mouth is only five inches in length, whilst that of the other is twelve; it has 21½ inches from cheekbone to cheekbone, whilst the other has 24 inches; its nose is 9½ inches, whilst that of the other is 9 inches; the ears of both are 12 inches long. The larger statue has six fingers on either hand, and has a channel cut from the middle of the lower lip to the chin; it has wristlets and on one knee a round ledge; the nose is exceedingly broad and has a notch on its tip; its alae are 6½ inches, whilst between the eyes it is only 3 inches.

But for the nose there is nothing negroid in the faces or figures, just as in the Easter Island statues. And they leave the impression of ugliness or even monstrosity, though not so much as the Marquesan statues. They contrast greatly with the faces and figures of the Austral Islands people; the women are often very beautiful as will be seen from the illustrations; the seated figure (IV.) is that of Moemoe, the niece of the king of Rurutu; the standing figure (V.) is that of Te Oho, the daughter of the native pastor of Rimatara; both of them, I was assured, were of pure Polynesian descent. It is not very difficult to recognise the half-castes. I have a note on four young women who came on board in a canoe at Raivavai; one was manifestly half-caste, with her light-brown hair and her freckly face; but the other three were pure Polynesian, and with their fine melting eyes, their almost straight noses, their oval faces, their wavy hair black tinged brown, their tall figures, and their good humoured expression they seemed to me much handsomer than the half-caste. My notes make out the men to be more Europeanlike than the women; the nose was oftener straight or aquiline, without any flattening of the nostrils; their lips were oftener thin and their upper lip short, and their hair was oftener wavy and their forms oftener tall and stalwart.

I could find no trace of the older language that the Tahitian Bible had wiped out; but the old words I picked up in Rapa indicated that it was a Polynesian language that Tahitian had displaced. One singular thing in Moerenhout's book is that he always speaks of the island as Laivavai, whilst in the names of all the other islands of that region he retains the r, as in Rapa, Rurutu, and Rimatara. It looks as if the immigrants into this island had come from the l speaking groups of Polynesia—Tonga, Samoa or Hawaii. And yet it has a

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kinship with Rapa in that they are the only islands in Polynesia that did not practise the art of tattooing, whilst the people have none of the pronounced negroidism that I observed in Rapa. Its canoes, I could see, have something quite distinctive; though as in the other Austral Island canoes the attachment of the outrigger beam does not differ much from the Tahitian, one end of the canoe is dug out so as to leave five or six feet of solid decking. The canoe in the illustration has this protection (VI.). Their ocean-going canoes were finer than those of the groups in this region of the Pacific and so was the finish of their implements and weapons.

But the main puzzle is the origin of its megalithic stone sculpture. It is easy enough to trace the route of the megalithic architectural art from Asia. But we have no great stone sculpture between these islands and the coast of Asia. The nearest kin to the busts of Easter Island and the great stone statues of Raivavai, Pitcairn and Hivaoa in the Marquesas, are the statues of the Pacific Coast of South America, where also we find megalithic architecture like the platforms and maraes of Polynesia. The great stone statues of Tiahuanaco, the vast megalithic ruins to the south of Lake Titicaca, and those of the valley of Huaraz above the coast of Central Peru, are even closer in their rude outlines and conventionalized features to those of Eastern Polynesia than the wooden sculptured figures of the Pacific. It is only in the minuter-stone sculpture of several Polynesian groups that we have any close approach to the conventionalized deformities of these megalithic representations of the human figure that belong to this south-eastern corner of Polynesia.