CREMATION IN RAPA NUI

by Cristian Moreno Pakarati – Historiador / Historian

Cremation is a funerary or post-funerary ritual which allows a cadaver to be disposed of cleanly. The practice dates back at least 20 thousand years among the Australian aborigines and was also customary among neolithic inhabitants of the Middle East and Europe. Among some Asiatic religions, such as Hinduism, cremation is considered the only adequate form for handling the body of the deceased. The custom died out in Europe with the growth of Christianity, which preached the belief in the resurrection of the dead. The same occurred on many of the Polynesian islands, where cremation was not unusual from the time of the early Lapita people. However, remains need to be carefully interpreted by archaeologists and specialists. Remains of burned bones found in archaeological sites could mean one of three things: a cadaver which was ritually cremated, a victim of cannibal rituals or simply an accidental victim of a forest or brush fire.
[bsa_pro_ad_space id=3]
The practice of cremation was fairly well dispersed throughout Polynesia. At the Talasiu site in Tonga, bones of individuals have been found with evidence of cremation that date to 2,500 years ago. In Hawai’i, cremation was generally reserved as a punishment for those who died while living outside of the established social norms. Among the Maori tribes of New Zealand, burning the bodies of the dead was often practiced as a manner to avoid that a cadaver could be desecrated by enemies, which implied that it was often done at night to avoid the smoke being spotted by rival tribes. When the fire would reach the adequate temperature, the body was deposited on top and left until entirely consumed. A priest would take charge of the ashes to bury them later. As fuel, besides wood, they used fat from walruses and some land animals, in addition to the fat of the body itself.
The presence of structures for cremation on Rapa Nui has been well documented starting from archaeological expeditions of the early 20th Century. Rapa Nui, however, was unique, since, on other Polynesian islands where there was cremation, there were no specific structures for it. The crematoria of Rapa Nui were built with a border of thick slabs of carved basaltic stone or with walls of other hard, rough stone. Most of the crematoria held small stones from the seashore (kikiri) which were used as fill in the combustion chamber. Other elements have also been found in the interior of some crematoria: coral, obsidian blades (both probably used for treating the body prior to cremation), as well as fish hooks and other tools.

It’s not really known up to what point cremation on Rapa Nui was a common method of dealing with cadavers or if, as William Ayres has suggested, the crematoria were structures for human sacrifice and offerings. In any case, the practice fell out of use when wood became scarce in the 16th Century. The largest number of crematoria are found along the coastline and associated with the megalithic ceremonial platforms, the ahu moai, the greatest monumental expressions within the landscape of Rapa Nui. In seven of these crematoria, scientific studies have made positive identification of human remains and ashes which came from cremation: at Ahu Tahiri, Ahu Vinapū, Ahu Akivi, Ahu Ature Huki, Ahu Ra’ai, O’rongo and Ahu Tautira, using radio-carbon dating that covers from 1082 to 1752. More recently, Sigourney Nina-Navarro has made some exhaustive studies on the crematorium of Hanga Hahave, although without C14 dating.

The discovery in 1987 at Ahu Nau-Nau of burnt human bones mixed with bones of animals has complicated the view of the function of some of the crematoria, as this would suggest cannibalism. However, other cases, such as the crematorium of Ahu Ra’ai, contain exclusively remains of human bones reduced to ash and lacking remains of skulls or teeth. This would tend to confirm the folklore that claims that the skull was never cremated, but rather was removed from the cadaver before incineration. The skull would be placed in the stone chambers called avanga, which sometimes were part of the ahu and other times were built separately from them, or they were simply taken to a cavern or buried elsewhere. Nonetheless, some skulls might have been burned together with the other bones as a sign of disrespect, mostly to enemies who had been defeated in battle. There has still not been a full study of all the crematoria on the Island which could show us the precise differences between sites of possible cannibalism and sites that were used to incinerate bodies.
[bsa_pro_ad_space id=2]
Excavations in some crematoria show signs of special treatment of a body prior to cremation. The color of the bones and their fragmentation in some crematoria (and sometimes in the same site) are proof that there was a large variation among the cremated remains. Ashes of bodies cremated shortly after death, without any previous treatment, have been found in several places. However, remains have also been found that had been carefully exposed to let the body decompose in a ritual site or which had the flesh carefully removed with sharp obsidian tools before cremation. Signs of this procedure of removing flesh are particularly notable in remains from Ahu Orongo in Hanga Roa and in the Tahai area. Something similar has been found at the great crematorium alongside Ahu Hanga Hahave, where studies to clarify whether this was done for cannibalism have been inconclusive. No marks of teeth have been found on any bones.
Excavations in some crematoria show signs of special treatment of a body prior to cremation. The color of the bones and their fragmentation in some crematoria (and sometimes in the same site) are proof that there was a large variation among the cremated remains. Ashes of bodies cremated shortly after death, without any previous treatment, have been found in several places. However, remains have also been found that had been carefully exposed to let the body decompose in a ritual site or which had the flesh carefully removed with sharp obsidian tools before cremation. Signs of this procedure of removing flesh are particularly notable in remains from Ahu Orongo in Hanga Roa and in the Tahai area. Something similar has been found at the great crematorium alongside Ahu Hanga Hahave, where studies to clarify whether this was done for cannibalism have been inconclusive. No marks of teeth have been found on any bones.
[bsa_pro_ad_space id=1]

Featured Reports:

Bees Rapa Nui

Bees Rapa Nui

Bees Rapa NuiFree of Pathogens, a Source of Life and LoveBees were introduced to Easter Island by the Catholic missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the decade of the 1860s, and since then have been pollinating guavas, mangoes, bananas and pasture flowers. In...