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Talking Moai?

Ferren MacIntyre
Rapa Nui Journal, 1999, 13 (3): 107–113.


Van Tilburg (1998) eloquently expressed our current understanding of the moai as "an icon exemplifying the fundamental Polynesian concern with genealogy, generation, status and respect. It served as a cultural motivator and modifier of group behavior." This covers the functions comprehensively-but fails to tell us how the moai accomplished all of these things.

I suggest that the moai were never memorial statues in the Western bronze-equestrian sense, but on the contrary, served a very practical purpose. They were functional advisors. The concern with genealogy, generation, status, and respect all follow from the fact that every moai was not merely a representation of a deceased person of high status, but was demonstrably inhabited by him. "The dead chief becomes a living god," as in many other early cultures. Moai did not "utter oracles," as tradition claims - if by oracles one denotes Delphic ambiguities - but rather offered explicit advice on tribal concerns in the form of matter-of-fact instructions, delivered in a manner strange to modem minds. The questioner heard his chief give him an authoritative answer, in an internal mode which is almost impossible to disobey.

The dependence upon moai for advice was, I suggest, a major contributor to the collapse ofthe easy life of high Rapanui culture. First, however, we take a familiarizing detour through Jaynesian theory.

The above interpretation of moai obviously depends upon Julian Jaynes' interpretation of oracular statues in earlier civilizations, and thus on his seminal ideas about the changing organization of the human brain over the millennia. Rapa Nui is made to order as a test case of Jaynes' bicameral hypothesis, since he used nearly all other protohistorical cultures (Table I) in its development, and it seems a perfect example of the process he describes. ...

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