Friday, July 24, 2009

Into the dark

My eclipse map of two days ago shows the next total solar eclipse, of July 11, 2010, wasting itself over the Pacific Ocean, with only a final stab at the mainland of South America. Tom points out to me that the path of totality crosses Easter Island (or Rapa Nui), one of the most remote and mysterious places on Earth. "How's that for a nice place to watch an eclipse," he e-mails. Do I detect a hankering to make the journey? It would not be his first total solar eclipse; he caught the 1999 event through a hole in the clouds in Europe.

If he wants to go to Easter Island, he will need a lot of money and resilience. Getting there even in the age of air travel will be a challenge. Which raises the familiar question: How did the original settlers get there? They presumably came by boat from inhabited islands to the west, but the nearest would have been at least 2000 kilometers away. Did they just set out into the unknown in the hope that sooner or later they'd find another island? What sort of boat would have carried enough people, animals (chickens) and plants to found a self-sustaining colony? And once they were there, was there any attempt to maintain contact with the people they left behind?

All the rest is mystery too -- the hundreds of giant statues, the ecological collapse to which Jared Diamond has given attention, the internecine warfare among the islanders, the cult of ancestor worship, the strange undeciphered written language (if that's what it is). What we do know a lot about is what happened once Europeans and Chileans of European descent appeared on the scene -- the same old story of guns, germs and steel that has also been recorded by Jared Diamond. Many of the islanders were shipped off as slaves; others died of smallpox. Apparently, the first Christian missionary to arrive on Easter Island, in mid-19th century, brought along tuberculosis, which killed off a quarter of the already decimated native population.

I agree with Tom that it would be a fun place to visit, and especially to stand with those great goggle-eyed Polynesian gods gazing up at that black hole in the sky. I suppose the Rapanui people who still live there would welcome our infusion of Yankee dollars.