Smelling a Rat on Easter Island

Tonight I attended a talk by Terry Hunt, an archeologist whose done a lot of research on Easter Island. Let me preface this by noting that I’ve been interested in Easter Island since watching an episode of “In Search Of” back in the late 70’s. My curiosity was further piqued by the historical fiction film about the island called Rapa Nui. Jared Diamond also used it to help illustrate his ideas in his book Collapse.

However, tonight’s talk was a great example of how the constant review and revision process of science can lead us to better understandings through maintaining a critical approach to ‘established’ realities. The big ideas behind the ‘collapse’ of Easter Island (that supposedly left a society of people who built the great stone statues) are that they deforested, overfished, and drastically degraded the ecology of the island due to self-aggrandizing competition between zealous leaders of these people. The iconic statues were a product of elite pride which drove the populous to carve these giants to serve their chieftain.

The narrative that Dr. Hunt wove from his years of research on the island turned out to be quite different. Strangely, at the beginning of his research, he truly believed he was merely going to catalog the evidence that was going to support the assumptions of previous researchers who had proposed the human driven ecological collapse. A different picture began to emerge.

One of the first things that got dealt with was the movement of those giant statues. Originally, when Europeans first landed on the island, they had asked the inhabitants how the monuments had been moved from the stone quarry to their standing sites, which can be up to several miles away. The native residents said in essence ‘They walked there’. This answer was considered a humorous ruse by the early Europeans, and it was dismissed and left a mystery. Through a closer analysis, as well as some collaboration with a design program in Washington, they came to discover that the statues could be easily moved by a simple process of rocking them right to left. The way that the statues were constructed gave them the perfect center of gravity for just such movement. The reason that this discovery is important is because it meant that deforestation wasn’t truly necessary to construct any kind of sled or rollers in order to transport the statues. The natives had not lied. The statues had indeed walked there (with a little help from the islanders, of course).

So what made the trees disappear? Were they making a bunch of boats for fishing? The answer is no. The species of palm that covered the island when the Polynesians first colonized it were soft and fibrous on the inside with a very thin bark, which made them terrible material for dugout canoes. This situation, coupled with the fact that the nearest island was over a thousand miles away, essentially left them stranded. However, there were some stow aways that arrived on the island with them, the pacific rat.

This rat is different from its old world cousins in that it isn’t really a disease vector. Instead, it is a natural deforester AND a fast growing source of protein. Like other rats, they are prolific breeders. To illustrate this, Dr. Hunt presented the figure that the amount of time it takes to go from one breeding pair of rats to 1 million in an environment with no predators only takes a couple of years because the number of rats doubles every 47 days. 47 days! The rats feed on the yummy seeds and fruit dropped by the palms. So within a couple of years of the Polynesians making landfall at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the process of renewal in this palm jungle was brought to a screeching halt. The abundance of rat bones in the soil layers that date to this period support this notion.

The early Polynesians who were colonizing the island probably didn’t mind. They were agriculturalists who preferred a clearing of the palms to make way for the planting of taro and yams, the main subsistence crops of many pacific island cultures. Once the trees were gone, though, there was nothing holding back the wind that swept over the island, and that wind carried salt spray onto the island’s soils making them unfit for cultivation. When the Europeans made landfall, the island looked rocky and forbidding, and from the European agricultural perspective, it looked unfit to grow crops.

This was the prevailing idea until Terry and his research uncovered a peculiar pattern. At numerous places across the island, it seemed as if rocks had been collected and concentrated in patches. As they looked into the patterns and began testing the conditions that these rock fields created, they came to find that these were actually cultivation plots. The subsurface conditions of these rocky fields were far more stable and nurturing to these cultivars than the soils.

The dispersal of these fields was fairly even, and it suggests that small bands merely tended their own plots. What this also implies on a social level is that they were more likely to be an island of friendly neighbors. Considering that the entire island gets to experience boom or drought together, there was little need for conflict. The experience of resource scarcity or abundance was island-wide rather than patch or range based like on larger land masses.

Because of the scarcity of resources on the island, there was a need to control the population. This usually meant maintaining the number of births either through birth control or infanticide. This is a common theme for island cultures. Limited land means limited resources. Too many mouths to feed leads to starvation. However, the creative energy and social satisfaction in a community that comes with having children regularly is missing. Dr. Hunt proposes that the creation of the idols was a way for people to gather, create and foster solidarity in a community where children are scarce by neccesity. The creation of the famous statues was a mechanism to keep peoples’ morale up.

So the 3000 or so residents, who greeted the first Europeans to arrive, were not the remnants of a once great people but rather living how people had been living for hundreds of years since colonizing the island originally. The real devastation came with the diseases from first contact with Europeans. This revised tale of Rapa Nui helps support the notion that the tools of improvisation (making do with what’s at hand, holding the frame of ‘we all win or lose together’, group collaboration being an avenue to fulfillment) really are the most apt approach for dealing with adversity and creating populations of people with a core mindset of sustainability. Easter Island is no longer an example of the dangers of overconsumption, but a testament to the tenacity, ingenuity and wisdom people can bring to potentially desperate situations.

Terry Hunt’s book about this subject comes out this June. Check it out.

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Holy Shit! I’m fucking done.

It’s the end of an age for me. I was awarded my Masters degree today after my thesis defense. It was funny that it offered few insights for improvisers, but it was the bomb for anthropologists and a few people from other disciplines. I’ve forgotten how much improvisers take what they do and know for granted.

One of my thesis committee, who was assigned as an outside observer to insure this was above the boards, asked me where he could see long-form in Portland after my defense.  Another convert to the cause.

What now? That’s the real question. School has been my life for the past 7 years. Back to work to pay off the $65k in education debt. <sigh>

College Bureaucracy

Now begins the grand arranging of the thesis defense.

For the uninitiated, a thesis defense consists of you presenting your research and findings (via your thesis) to a committee of 3 professors (who have all presumably read your thesis) along with any of the public who attend. There is a break when the public is excused, and then you have a private question and answer session with your committee. Then you leave while they talk, and you come back to find out if you get your Masters, and if they want you to make revisions to your thesis.

The bureaucracy comes in when you have to start working with the grad studies office. Although, I do have to say that Maureen, who oversees the interdisciplinary masters program, totally rocks. I’ve never had anything but positive experiences with her. I’m just getting some deadline anxiety, and the grad studies people are the deadline police. Thankfully, they don’t wear uniforms. Because my thesis adviser is going to be out of town, I am missing a deadline to defend and still graduate this summer. However, once I defend and make any corrections, I’m done. The diploma can catch up late, I guess.

One of the other idiosyncrasies of getting this degree is that the Grad Studies office is having me go through their pilot program for online submission for my thesis. It’s great because it’s going to save me a ton in printing. Since this thesis is like 113 pages long, the cost of printing out 4 copies on heavy bond thesis paper is daunting to someone who is struggling on low income. Keep your fingers crossed that someone wants to hire me soon. Baby needs new shoes,

Take a peak at the thesis

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

 

Page

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS…………………………………………………………..     iii

 

 

I.          Introduction……………………………………………………………………..      1

                        The Setting and Subjects………………………………………………      6

                        Methods……………………………………………………………….     10

                        Summary………………………………………………………………    14

II.        History of the Art and Research of Improvised Theater………………….    17

                        History and Background of Improvisational Theater…………………….    17

                        Studies of Chicago Improvisation and Useful Social Theories.………    21

III.       Performers: The Background of Performing Improv………………………   29

                        Training: Learning a New Social and Cultural System………………..   29

The Path to Communitas………………………………………………    33

                        Shared Lives and References………………………………………….    50

                        Threats to Communitas: Rule Breaking and Poor Listening Skills……   54

IV.       Performance………………………………………..……………………..…..   65

                        Liminality and Joking in Performance…………………………………    65

                        Uniting the Viewer and the Viewed……………………………………    69

Sensing Connection and Understanding the Audience…………………..    74

V.        The Audience………………………………………………..………………..    87

                        From ‘Macro’ to ‘Micro’ Joking Cultures…………………………….    87

                        The Demographics of Rochester’s Long-form Audiences……………    92

                        The Audience’s Engagement: Establishing a ‘Micro’ Joking Culture..    94

VI.       Conclusions: Shared Myths, Shared Lives and Community……………… 100

                        Agreement and Heightening with Further Research…………………..  103

 

APPENDICES

            Appendix A Questions for Performers and Audiences………………………..  105

            Appendix B Audience Paper Survey………………………………………….. 107

            Appendix C Online Performer Survey…………………………………………  109

 

Bibliography………………………………………………………………………….. 112

Here comes the thesis.

After about 5+ months of writing work, I’m fast approaching a submittable edit of my thesis. If anyone is interested in reading an anthropological study focused on looking at the social effects of long-form improvised theater, shout out. It would be nice to get some feedback from folks. It’s 95 pages long, but it documents the ups and downs of two different groups in Rochester NY as well as the thoughts of their audiences on the long form shows.

I’m hoping to be defending this work in a few weeks. Cross your fingers for me.

Getting caught up.

I’ve been negligent about updating for a while. So here’s the skinny:

I’ve got 50 pages of my thesis draft written.  I’ve got to try to keep it under 100.

I’ve had to swear off improv until my thesis is finished because I got a day job doing archeology.

My good friend, Nate Halloran, has announced his engagement to his fiance.

I am a bit in turmoil as a transition from a financial aid economy back to an income economy, which means I will begin paying off my school debt in less than a year. Come on great job.

The archeology job is something I’m doing for quick income.  It’s ironic that I went away from archeology in my graduate work only to run to it for income at the end of my graduate studies. Yes, there is reasonable income to be had for trained archaeologists outside of the academy. I will attest. I don’t look forward to digging holes in the rain, which I’m sure will return once I start next week.

There is an overarching sense that I’ve cheated the system whenever I sit down to write more of my thesis on the anthropology of improv, and I love it!

The finer art of Transcription.

Since returning to Portland, I’ve fallen into transcribing the 45 hours or so of one-on-one interviews I compiled during my fieldwork studying the improv scene of Rochester, NY.  When I look at the numbers, it seems daunting.  When I look at how much time I have before I absolutely need to have a job, it makes me a little panicky. When I look at the words and listen to the interview as an analyst, I become very excited and intrigued. Sometimes I laugh out loud, and sometimes I hiss “Yessss” through my teeth while clenching my fist.

I started the draft of my thesis today, and it was exciting.

Here’s some quotes from various audience members and performers:

  • I find it very interesting to see the stumbling and recovery skills.  That’s terrific, really fun.   (Why do you think that’s terrific?)  Well because in real life we always get ourselves into jams, and, you know, the temptation is to feel terrible, just ashamed, and you know you want to disappear, die.  Please kill me. Take me now! But you know, children have this task to develop recovery skills from jams, you know, things that go on. And, you know, the better you do that, the easier the world will be.
  • It’s kind of like going to see a movie. You might not even be interested in it, but, you know, your favorite actor’s in it. You know, you know the person. You know their work.  They’ve made you laugh in the past. So you go and see them this time.
  •  Music or opera that involves a number of musicians and talents done to the Nth degree would be comparable to the best improv.
  • It wasn’t the sexual titillation of it, it was the horror of watching two people give themselves over to what developed between them in that space.
  • I was very touched [by a show]…I mean, that’s no lie, and I just said, “What if I lived that way?”   And it caused me to examine, on the lowest level, what if I said “yes, and..” to you and you [pointing randomly at people].
  • I wasn’t falling asleep like I sometimes do. In fact, they kept me awake, and I have narcolepsy. The guy that I was with kept looking at me to make sure I’m awake because he pokes me. And I said, “I’m not falling asleep”, and I stayed awake through that whole thing.
  • Man, it goes dark and dirty quickly.  It always does.  Comedy always does.  People relate to it somehow.  It breaks the ice.  It’s like ‘we all have this in common. We all love dirty jokes’. 
  • If the audience never saw human sacrifice Canasta, then I think they would be cheated.

There’s more, and only some of it will end up in my thesis.  I started writing it today, and I’m going for a draft by March.  Wish me luck.