Oct 062017

Today is the birthday (1914) Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian adventurer and (sort of) ethnographer with a background in zoology, botany, and geography. He became notable for his Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, in which he sailed 8,000 km (5,000 mi) across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. The expedition was designed to demonstrate that ancient people could have made long sea voyages, creating contacts between separate cultures. This was linked to a (now discredited) diffusionist model of cultural development. Heyerdahl subsequently made other voyages designed to demonstrate the possibility of contact between widely separated ancient people, notably the Ra II expedition of 1970, when he sailed from the west coast of Africa to Barbados in a papyrus reed boat. His Rapa Nui expeditions are less well known popularly, but on the island he is well remembered for a number of reasons including his efforts to re-erect moai (stone statues) that had been toppled (as a result of internecine warfare according to local oral tradition). Anthropologists are not generally convinced by his efforts to show that Polynesian peoples could have migrated from South America.  He showed it was possible; he did not show that it actually happened. The west to east migration of Polynesian peoples is much more widely accepted, although DNA evidence is complicated. DNA tests mostly confirm the west to east theory, but Polynesians also carry small percentages of South American DNA that pre-dates contact with Western peoples. Don’t let me go down that path too much; I’m an anthropologist, I’ve studied the evidence, and I’ve visited Rapa Nui. It’s complicated. I’ll try to be brief.

Heyerdahl was born in Larvik in Norway, the son of master brewer Thor Heyerdahl and his wife, Alison Lyng. As a young child, Heyerdahl showed a strong interest in zoology. He created a small museum in his childhood home, with a common adder (Vipera berus) as the main attraction. He studied zoology and geography at the faculty of biological science at the University of Oslo. At the same time, he privately studied Polynesian culture and history, consulting what was then the world’s largest private collection of books and papers on Polynesia, owned by Bjarne Kropelien, a wealthy wine merchant in Oslo. In 1936, after seven terms, and consultations with experts in Berlin, Heyerdahl’s zoology teachers, Kristine Bonnevie and Hjalmar Broch, developed and sponsored a project for Heyerdahl to visit some isolated Pacific island groups and study how the local animals had found their way there.

In 1947, Heyerdahl and five fellow adventurers sailed from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia in a pae-pae raft that they had constructed from balsa wood and other native materials, christened the Kon-Tiki. The Kon-Tiki expedition was inspired by old reports and drawings made by the Spanish Conquistadors of Inca rafts, and by indigenous legends and archaeological evidence suggesting contact between South America and Polynesia. The Kon-Tiki smashed into the reef at Raroia in the Tuamotus on August 7, 1947, after a 101-day, 4,300 nautical mile (4,948 miles or 7,964 km) journey across the Pacific Ocean.

Kon-Tiki demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific with relative ease and safety, especially to the west (with the trade winds). The raft proved to be highly maneuverable, and fish congregated between the nine balsa logs in such numbers that ancient sailors could have possibly relied on fish for hydration in the absence of other sources of fresh water. My main question is why you would want to attempt such a thing? The Pacific is a pretty big ocean and the Polynesian islands are rather small. Finding them wouldn’t exactly be like Columbus finding the Americas. What did they think they were looking for?  Why did they leave in the first place? The same questions could be asked of a west to east migration, of course, but island hopping makes more sense.

Heyerdahl got much more involved with speculations about Rapa Nui which are too complex and controversial to go into here.  The (very) short and oversimplified version is that Heyerdahl investigated pre-Columbian Inca legends and hypothesized that a group of people set out from Peru and colonized Rapa Nui around the 13th century. Later, around the 16th century, Polynesians arrived and settled on the island as an underclass, dominated by the original settlers. The moai were erected by the upper class as tributes to their ancestors, but when the overlords were defeated in a rebellion by the Polynesians, they were all killed and the moai toppled.

Heyerdahl’s experiments and speculations got stranger and more far-fetched as he got older. For example, in later years he became interested in demonstrating that legends of the Norse god Odin ultimately originated in central Asia and migrated to Scandinavia. This conjecture was based on rather sketchy and selective readings of ancient texts and images.  Herein lies the essential weakness of what we can generously call his “methodology” which owes its directions to discredited anthropological views of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anthropologists of that era saw everything as connected to everything else in one gigantic historic web of diffusion of ideas. So, if you found a legend or image of a white dragon in England and another in China they must somehow be linked. Just ignore the fact that the color white and the dragon have completely separate meanings and histories in those two cultures – run out and find the “links.” You end up with a lot of idle and pointless theorizing that appeals to masses of people who have little or no training in proper methods. If you are of that mindset you’ll assume that pyramids in Yucatan and Egypt must have a common origin because they look (sort of) alike, even though their construction and purposes are completely different.

Nowadays anthropology and archeology see independent invention as a much more likely explanation for common features in disparate cultures than ancient diffusion.  Domestication of plants and animals is the most obvious example.  It was independently invented at least 5 times and possibly more.  The development of domestication in east Asia has nothing whatsoever to do with its development in Mesoamerica.  Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Italy from his travels in China, they had already known about it for centuries. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to mix flour with water to make a dough and then boil it in water. Ideas do diffuse, but we are long past believing the idea that ideas have only one source from which they diffuse outward.

To celebrate Heyerdahl’s birthday I thought Norwegian fusion would be a good idea. This website gives a recipe for Norwegian halibut cooked in an Asian kind of way (in a manner of speaking). https://thornews.com/2015/07/07/fusion-cuisine-norwegian-halibut-asian-style/  I’m no more of a fan of contemporary fusion styles than I am of Heyerdahl’s speculations, so maybe the recipe is apt in that respect. I’m also not so naïve as to believe that the cooking styles of any culture or region have a “pure” core. All cuisines blend the cuisines of cultures they come in contact with. Euro-Asian fusion is just the latest in a long line of eclectic mixes.  The thing is that I prefer dishes that have a reasonably long history in one place where they have come to have a stable tradition no matter what their roots are.  Christmas pudding may have swum the English Channel from France at some point, but it changed in the process and found a home in England where it flourished as an English dish.  You can go to the website (where I found the image also) for the recipe.  I don’t want to copy it or modify it.  Failing that, go with your favorite fusion dish whatever it might be.








Apr 052015


On this date in 1722, Jacob Roggeveen (1 February 1659 – 31 January 1729), a Dutch explorer who was sent to find Terra Australis, came across Easter Island, and was, thus, the first European to visit. His father, Arend Roggeveen, was a mathematician with much knowledge of astronomy, geography, rhetoric, philosophy and the theory of navigation as well. He occupied himself with study of the mythical Terra Australis, and even got a patent for an exploratory excursion; but it was to be his son who, at the age of 62, eventually equipped three ships and made the expedition.

He became notary of Middelburg (the capital of the province of Zeeland, where he was born) on 30 March 1683. On 12 August 1690 he graduated as a doctor of the law at University of Harderwijk. He married Marija Margaerita Vincentius, but she died in October 1694. In 1706 he joined the Dutch East Indies Company, and between 1707 and 1714 as a Raadsheer van Justitie (“Council Lord of Justice”) at Batavia, Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). He married Anna Adriana Clement there, but she died soon afterward. In 1714, he returned to Middelburg by himself.

On 1 August 1721 he left on his expedition, in the service of the Dutch West India Company, to seek Terra Australis. It consisted of three ships, the Arend, the Thienhoven, and Afrikaansche Galey and had 223 men on crew.

Roggeveen first sailed down to the Islas Malvinas (which he renamed “Belgia Australis”), passed through the Strait of Le Maire and continued south to beyond 60 degrees south to enter the Pacific Ocean. He made landfall near Valdivia, Chile. He visited the Juan Fernández Islands, where he spent 24 February to 17 March. The expedition later arrived at Easter Island (Rapa Nui) on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722 (whereupon he reported seeing 2,000-3,000 inhabitants).


It amuses me that in 1722 when Roggeveen arrived on 5 April it was Easter Sunday, and it is again this year. I was there for my birthday in 2013 which fell on Holy Saturday, so I got to attend mass in Hanga Roa on Easter Sunday on Easter Island!!![One day it will have to be Christmas on Christmas Island.]

Here’s a facebook album of the trip. Even if you are not on facebook you can view it.


There’s perhaps more images than you care for, but they are not stock stuff. Some of them are repeated here in this post.


Polynesian people settled on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the first millennium CE, and created a thriving culture, as evidenced by the moai and other artifacts. However, human activity, the introduction of the Polynesian rat, and overpopulation led to gradual deforestation and extinction of natural resources, which caused the demise of the Rapa Nui culture. By the time of European arrival in 1722, the island’s population had dropped to 2,000–3,000 from a high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier. Diseases carried by European sailors and Peruvian slave raiding of the 1860s further reduced the Rapa Nui population, down to 111 in 1877.

The name “Easter Island” was given by Jacob Roggeveen, because he arrived on Easter Sunday, 1722. Roggeveen actually named it Paasch-Eyland (18th century Dutch for “Easter Island”). The island’s official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, also means “Easter Island.” The current Polynesian name of the island, Rapa Nui “Big Rapa”, was coined after the slave raids of the early 1860s, and refers to the island’s topographic resemblance to the island of Rapa in the Bass Islands of the Austral Islands group. The indigenous Polynesian name may have been Te pito o te henua, but this is uncertain.


Early European visitors to Easter Island recorded the local oral traditions about the original settlers. In these traditions, Easter Islanders claimed that a legendary chief Hotu Matu’a arrived on the island in one or two large canoes with his wife and extended family. They are believed to have been Polynesian. There is considerable uncertainty about the accuracy of this legend as well as the date of settlement. Some archeologists suggest the island was settled around 300-400 CE, or at about the time of the arrival of the earliest settlers in Hawaii. Some scientists say that Easter Island was not inhabited until 700-800 CE. This date range is based on glottochronological (historical linguistic) calculations and on three radiocarbon dates from charcoal that appears to have been produced during forest clearance activities. Moreover a recent study which included radiocarbon dates from what is thought to be very early material suggests that the island was settled as recently as 1200 CE. This seems to be supported by a 2006 study of the island’s deforestation, which could have started around the same time. A large, now extinct palm, Paschalococos disperta, related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), was one of the dominant trees as attested by fossil evidence; this species, whose sole occurrence was on Easter Island, became extinct due to deforestation by the early settlers.

The Austronesian Polynesians, who first settled the island, are likely to have arrived from the Marquesas Islands from the west. These settlers brought bananas, taro, sugarcane, and paper mulberry, as well as chickens and Polynesian rats. The island at one time supported a relatively complex culture.

Jacob Roggeveen’s expedition of 1722 gives us our first description of the islanders. They were “of all shades of colour, yellow, white and brown” and they distended their ear lobes so greatly with large disks that when they took them out they could “hitch the rim of the lobe over the top of the ear.” Roggeveen also noted how some of the islanders were “generally large in stature.” Islanders’ height was also witnessed by the Spanish who visited the island in 1770, measuring heights of 196 and 199 cm (6’5” and 6’6”). DNA sequence analysis of Easter Island’s current inhabitants indicates that the 36 people living on Rapa Nui who survived the devastating internecine wars, slave raids and epidemics of the 19th century and had any offspring, were Polynesian. Furthermore, examination of skeletons offers evidence of only Polynesian origins for Rapa Nui living on the island after 1680.

According to legends recorded by the missionaries in the 1860s, the island originally had a very clear class system, with an ariki, king, wielding absolute god-like power ever since Hotu Matua had arrived on the island. The most visible element in the culture was production of massive moai that were part of the ancestral worship. With a strictly unified appearance, moai were erected along most of the coastline, indicating a homogeneous culture and centralized governance. In addition to the royal family, the island’s habitation consisted of priests, soldiers and commoners. The last king, along with his family, died as a slave in the 1860s in the Peruvian mines. Long before that, the king had become a mere symbolic figure, remaining respected and untouchable, but having only nominal authority.


For unknown reasons, a coup by military leaders called matatoa had brought a new cult based on a previously unexceptional god Make-make. In the cult of the birdman (Rapa Nui: tangata manu), a competition was established in which every year a representative of each clan, chosen by the leaders, would climb down a vertical cliff, swim across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, a nearby islet, to search for the season’s first egg laid by a manutara (sooty tern). The first swimmer to return with an egg (strapped to his forehead) and successfully climb back up the cliff would be named “Birdman of the year” and secure control over distribution of the island’s resources for his clan for the year. The tradition was still in existence at the time of first contact by Europeans but was suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1860s.

European accounts in 1722 (Dutch) and 1770 (Spanish) reported seeing only standing statues, but by James Cook’s visit in 1774 many were reported toppled. The huri mo’ai – the “statue-toppling” – continued into the 1830s as a part of internal conflicts among islanders. By 1838, the only standing moai were on the slopes of Rano Raraku and Hoa Hakananai’a at Orongo. In about 60 years, islanders had for some reason (possibly civil struggle between clans) deliberately damaged this part of their ancestors’ heritage. In modern times, moai have been restored at Orongo, Ahu Tongariki, Ahu Akivi and Hanga Roa.


When Roggeveen visited for a week he estimated there were 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants on the island. This was an estimate, not a census, and archaeologists estimate the population may have been as high as 10,000 to 12,000 a few decades earlier. It’s quite likely that many island people hid from the Dutch.  Roggeveen’s party reported “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height”, the island had rich soil and a good climate and “all the country was under cultivation”. Fossil-pollen analysis shows that the main trees on the island had gone 72 years earlier in 1650. The civilization of Easter Island has long been believed to have degenerated drastically during the century before the arrival of the Dutch, as a result of overpopulation, deforestation and exploitation of an extremely isolated island with limited natural resources. The Dutch reported that a fight broke out in which they killed ten or twelve islanders.

The next foreign visitors arrived on 15 November 1770: two Spanish ships, San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, sent by the Viceroy of Peru, Manuel de Amat, and commanded by Felipe González de Ahedo. They spent five days on the island, performing a very thorough survey of its coast, and named it Isla de San Carlos, taking possession on behalf of King Charles III of Spain, and ceremoniously erected three wooden crosses on top of three small hills on Poike. They reported the island as largely uncultivated, with a seashore lined with stone statues.

Four years later, in mid-March 1774, British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island, he reported the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down; no sign of the three crosses and his botanist described it as “a poor land”. He had a Tahitian interpreter who could partially understand the language as it was Polynesian. Other than in counting, though, the language was unintelligible to him.

In 1786 the French explorer Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse visited and made a detailed map of Easter Island. He described the island as one-tenth cultivated and estimated the population as a couple of thousand.


In 1804 the Russian ship Neva visited under the command of Yuri Lisyansky. In 1816 the Russian ship Rurik visited under the command of Otto von Kotzebue. In 1825 the British ship HMS Blossom visited and reported no standing statues. By now the islanders had become openly hostile towards any attempt to land, and very little new information emerged before the 1860s.

A series of devastating events killed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s. In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island’s population. International protests erupted, escalated by Bishop Florentin-Étienne Jaussen of Tahiti. The slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox or dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island’s population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried. Contributing to the chaos were violent clan wars with the remaining people fighting over the newly available lands of the deceased, bringing further famine and death among the dwindling population.

The first Christian missionary, Eugène Eyraud, arrived in January 1864 and spent most of that year on the island; but mass conversion of the Rapa Nui only came after his return in 1866 with Father Hippolyte Roussel and shortly after two others arrived with Captain Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier. Eyraud was suffering from phthisis (tuberculosis) when he returned and in 1867, tuberculosis raged over the island, taking a quarter of the island’s remaining population of 1,200 including the last member of the island’s royal family, the 13-year-old Manu Rangi. Eyraud died of tuberculosis in August 1868, by which time the entire Rapa Nui population had become Roman Catholic.

Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier – who had served as an artillery officer in the Crimean War, but was later arrested in Peru, accused of arms dealing and sentenced to death, to be released after intervention from the French consul – first came to Easter Island in 1866 when he transported two missionaries there, returned in 1867 to recruit laborers for coconut plantations, and then came again for good in April 1868, burning the yacht he had arrived in. He was to have a long-lasting impact on the island.


Dutrou-Bornier set up residence at Mataveri, aiming to cleanse the island of most of the Rapa Nui and turn the island into a sheep ranch. He married Koreto, a Rapa Nui, and appointed her Queen, tried to persuade France to make the island a protectorate, and recruited a faction of Rapa Nui whom he allowed to abandon their Christianity and revert to their previous faith. With rifles, a cannon, and hut burning supporters, he ran the island for several years.

Dutrou-Bornier bought up all of the island apart from the missionaries’ area around Hanga Roa and moved a couple of hundred Rapa Nui to Tahiti to work for his backers. In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou-Bornier, evacuated 275 Rapa Nui to Mangareva and Tahiti, leaving only 230 on the island. Those who remained were mostly older men. Six years later, there were just 111 people living on Easter Island, and only 36 of them had any offspring.

In 1876 Dutrou-Bornier was murdered in an argument over a dress, though his kidnapping of pubescent girls may also have motivated his killers. From that point on and into the present day, the island’s population slowly recovered. But with over 97% of the population dead or left in less than a decade, much of the island’s cultural knowledge had been lost.

In researching restaurants before my trip I was appalled to read so many reviews praising the steaks. Say what ??? The steaks are all flown in from Argentina at great expense. I was not about to eat beef I could get from my local butcher at a quarter the price, when I could feast on seafood for lunch and dinner, caught that morning. Here’s some images.

easter6  easter17 easter16 easter15  easter23

For my birthday dinner I had spiny lobster – a species of which is found only in the waters of Easter Island. Unlike north Atlantic lobsters, spiny lobsters have no claw meat to speak of; the meat is all in the body, and is wonderful. You cook it much as you do north Atlantic lobsters, namely by boiling in salt or sea water. Time is determined by weight. A 2lb lobster will take 15 to 20 minutes.


Split the body open and serve with rice, vegetables and salad as shown. You can use drawn butter with herbs or a vinaigrette as a dipping sauce.