Easter Island and Its Mysteries




(by …tienne Loppť)  5



My dear friend,

Since you have done me the great honor of asking me to write the Preface to your book on Easter Island, I hope you will allow me to take advantage of the opportunity to explain, a little bit, some of the reasons that make your book, in my opinion, such a truly unique piece of work.

Your earlier books on Negro Music and The Art of New Guinea were two remarkable ethnographic and artistic syntheses, and they are among the most important of such books to have been written in French — they even rival weightier tomes on ethnography that have been written in other languages.

But this piece of work on Easter Island is, without a doubt, the most important book that has ever been written on an ethnographic subject — it is the most complex but also the most fascinating of all. I will say, even, that it seems impossible to me that anyone could produce anything to equal this study because I know that completion of this work has required more than seven years of unremitting hard work but also the inexhaustible erudition that you display in both ethnography and prehistory and, as I shall outline below, the profound knowledge that you possess of all the sciences.

You have gathered together everything relating to Easter Island that has ever been written, drawn, engraved and photographed, in France as well as elsewhere, and you have made a synthesis of the material that is clear, complete and definitive. Moreover, visiting many places, you have actually studied all the works of art and all the objects from many different periods that have been collected by Europeans. In addition, your book provides, for the first time, reproductions of all the types of ancient object that have ever been made. Better still, for each of these objects, you have chosen, from all the museums and collections, the most interesting and the most beautiful. And, finally, you have had photographs taken of these exemplary pieces, almost all from many angles, until, finally, from the lighting, the chosen dimensions and the quality of the photographs, you have obtained an exact reproduction that gives a true impression of the object itself (with all its details and, even, its patina).

But it was not enough for you just to reproduce (with such care) the finest pieces that can be found in museums and private collections and the best engravings or reproductions of such engravings that have appeared in other books!

To increase still further the value of the iconography in your book, you have managed to procure a large amount of previously unpublished documentation that is of extraordinary interest. Thus, for the first time, we have a reproduction of the tahonga from the museum in Braine-le-Comte — tahonga whose very existence was previously unknown to almost all ethnographers, such that books on Easter Island published in England and the United States do not even mention them!


You have reproduced, similarly, a wonderful group of various types of reimiro and of fish and also the handsomest example of a lizard-man. And, with respect to these latter idols (which nobody has been able to really “see” until now), you have produced a study that is a model of observational skill, “clinical” analysis and deductive logic.

Furthermore, because of the high quality of your previous books, you were able to obtain from the British Museum some splendid photographs of its magnificent hollow-bellied statuettes, seen not only from the front but also, in previously unpublished photographs, from the side and from the back and, even, from above (these photographs allowed you to study the zoomorphic or anthropomorphic carvings on the tops of the skulls). And one should add to this precious group, the magnificent wooden hand, brought back by Cook, which has also never previously been reproduced for publication.

From the same museum, you also obtained some very lovely photographs of its great stone statue, showing not only the front but also the back, which has never been seen in France (and the back is covered with the most interesting carvings).

In the United States too, you knew how to choose the things that are particularly interesting. Thus, your readers will be able to enjoy, from the Museum in Washington, photographs of its most unusual wooden objects and its two stone statues from “pakeopa 6. The statue capped with the famous hat in red stone is the only one of its type in any museum anywhere and, until now, it has never been reproduced in a French publication.

With regard to the small stone statuettes, I think I can say that most ethnographers are only aware of those modern versions that can be seen in the Trocadéro Museum [in Paris] and those that were part of the collection of Pierre Loti that was sold. There are very few people who know that the oldest and the most beautiful of them all are to be found, in France, in the Museum of the Rochefort Naval Hospital and in the Lafaille Museum in La Rochelle 7.

And now, for the very first time, here they both are, reproduced in this book.

If one looks at all the wooden carvings, one can see clearly that the objects that are the rarest and were, by virtue of their symbolism, the objects that were values most highly by the ancient islanders were those that depicted the birdman, since the birdman was associated with the cult and the ceremonies of the same name. Until now, only a mere five statuettes of this type were known, including the most beautiful, which was part of Loti’s collection. But the art of Easter Island is known to so few people that when this last and rarest piece was put up for auction, a few years ago, many people thought that it did not come from Easter Island. Nobody understood that it was a birdman and everyone thought that it was a carving that had been heavily damaged, having neither arms nor legs.

You alone knew what the carving represented and that it was complete and well preserved, in spite of its great antiquity, and you were able to acquire it for yourself. Thanks to your actions, your readers can admire it, together with other reproductions of less ancient birdmen, of much lesser quality but also of interest, with which the British Museum, the American Museum and the Leningrad Museum have enriched themselves and whose photographs have never been published anywhere.

I should also mention that, beside the image of the well-known two-headed club known as “hua 8. you have provided an image of a club that is older, larger and better carved and was collected by Pierre Loti. This latter piece is magnificent and it too has never been seen in a publication.  

And you have introduced us to yet another series of extremely interesting objects, some of which have been completely unknown and others that have never been reported in print (even though they are the finest examples of their type), as well as others that, one must add, are known but have come to light only recently and are known to only a very few specialists. In this way, you have shown us an island spoon that nobody has known about, and a magnificent axe head, an example of an unknown type of short club, and a very fine lance tip made of obsidian. You have also provided, for our admiration, an extremely rare fishhook in polished stone from Easter Island. Indeed, with respect to this latter object, how many prehistorians and ethnologists are there at the moment who know that, on Easter Island, not only did the natives work in flaked stone but the ancients also worked in polished stone? The answer hardly matters since you have given us an entire chapter full of syntheses and the most interesting suggestions on this subject!

And that is not all. In addition to documents, drawings and photographs, published in various places and brought together by you in your book, you have also given us an entire collection of unpublished photographs (those of Dr. Delabaude 9), which complement other reproductions of the island and allow us, moreover, to get a complete and detailed idea of the island. Most important of all, these materials, whose contents support and confirm one another’s validity, allow us to confirm that each, separately (even the oldest engravings), is completely accurate.


But your book contains yet another item that is both unique and quite magnificent. You have obtained, from Mr. Samuel Loti-Viaud 10, the right to reproduce for the very first time — at the proper scale and with its true colors, a wonderful watercolor by his illustrious father, Pierre Loti, that he painted on Easter Island when he was still the aspiring author Pierre Viaud. Now, this painting is of very considerable interest: (i) because it is a synthesis of visual evidence; (ii) because the quality of the drawing endows it with unequaled charm; and (iii) because, when all is said and done, it is by Pierre Loti! Two other drawings, in sepia and in the same hand, complete the sumptuous iconography on Easter Island that has been brought together in this book.

But there are three final points, all of considerable importance, that I should like to emphasize. Everyone knows that on Easter Island, and nowhere else in Oceania (a fact that, moreover, makes ethnographic studies of this island the most captivating but also the hardest of all), wooden tablets covered with hieroglyphics. Now, nobody has been able, until now, to decipher them in full and only a few have been reproduced for publication.

In particular, (i) in the work of A. Pinart 11, there is only a small schematic drawing of just one side of a tablet, with neither the name nor the owner of the tablet is indicated; and (ii) in the very interesting book by Thomson 12, there are depictions of five tablets — some are photographs and some are incomplete schematic drawings — and the reproductions are so small that for those researchers (and that includes the vast majority of ethnologists) who have not seen any actual tablets themselves, it has been impossible up to now to get any true impression of what the tablets are actually like and, as for establishing their authenticity, that has been quite impossible! Also, for all these reasons, it has been quite impossible to study the tablets from the reproductions that have been available up to now.

But you have tackled this problem using rigorous scientific methodology. For example, you went in person to look at actual tablets; you read everything that is available about them; and you had meetings or exchanged innumerable letters with the directors of museums whose holdings include one or more tablets.

I remember seeing you after you had consecrated an entire six-month period to the study of these “talking” wooden tablets. You were not discouraged but you were wondering whether you would ever manage to resolve all the issues related to the interpretation of the carvings that, after your initial research efforts had turned out to be so much more complex than they had seemed at first sight. Indeed, a short time previously, you had written once again to Father Ildefonse Alazard, curator of the Museum of Braine-le-Comte, sending him a whole list of questions in order to determine, for certain and at the very least, the identity and the “provenance” of the tablets that the Bishop of Axieri had had in his possession. Well, this great authority who had so amiably, up to that point, provided you with all the information at his disposal about Easter Island, had just sent back your list of questions, on the one hand, without answering many of them and, on the other hand, answering the questions about the owners and the names of certain tablets not with verifiable facts but with guesses (just as you too had been making guesses at that time) that failed to clarify anything. And it was only a long time later that you were able to show that both his and your guesses had been incorrect. Indeed, it was only after much careful research and analysis, after having obtained additional information about the Santiago tablets and after having discovered some old photographs (which had found their way to the Pape’ete Museum), that you were able, for example, to demonstrate that Thomson, who had, however, spent time on Easter Island and who, of all the authors of works on the island, had studied the tablets the longest and had reproduced the greatest number in his published work, had nonetheless made, in his book, some major errors relating to the number, the identity and even the names of the tablets!

And now, evidently, the question has been clearly defined and seems very simple! Whatever the answer, by defining the question, you have rendered an enormous service to all those who decide to study, in depth, the tablets from Easter Island, in particular, because of your chapter on the tablets, in which you refer to various linguistic studies by M. G. de Hevesy 13, in which he suggests the possibility of some kind of relationship between the writing of the islanders and the hieroglyphics discovered at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro 14, in the valley of the Indus....

But, in this regard, I must note that, four years before the above mentioned studies, basing your conclusions on arguments relating exclusively to artistic and logical issues, you wrote that the primitive islanders must have come from those same regions around the Indus and you even suggested the routes that they might have taken during the successive peregrinations that led them, eventually, to Easter Island.

To end this discussion of the tablets, I must note one small detail — a mere bagatelle by itself but an indication of the care that you have taken to include all possible and available documentation. We all know how Monsignor Tepano Jaussen discovered the carved characters of the islanders: he was looking carefully at a huge skein of braided hair that the islanders had sent him, wound around ... the famous concave tablet! 15 But only rare visitors to Braine-le-Comte have been able to see this braid of human hair 16, which (i) led to the discovery of the language that has so enthralled researchers and (ii) is yet another item that relates to Easter Island ethnography. However, you have given us a photograph that shows the true details of this braid, of which no photograph has ever previously appeared in print.

But the last point that I want to mention, which concerns your work with the ancient statuettes with sunken bellies (moai kavakava), seems to me also to be of great importance: (i) because nobody else has been able to figure out what you were able to discern and to demonstrate; (ii) because what you have been able to prove is, in and of itself, of primordial importance in efforts to understand the genesis and all the characteristics of the art of Easter Island; and, finally, (iii) because the facts that you have discovered relative to this subject could not have been discovered by anybody but you because, in order to discover them, it was essential to have, in addition to powerful ethnographic erudition, a deep understanding of general medicine, backed by a depth of knowledge of neurology and endocrinology and, finally, an eye that is extremely well trained in the skill of “seeing” not only all the details of a work of art but, also, all the somatic variations that problems with endocrine glands can induce in our bodies 17.

Indeed, in terms of medical training, are you not, precisely, the great clinical practitioner of general medicine and neurology who, starting in 1912, wrote a masterful tome on the bodily anomalies engendered by diseases of the hypophysis? 18 Was it not, moreover, this same general erudition and superior intuition that was the primum movens [prime cause] of all the discoveries that induced you (since not a single earlier ethnologist thought about this before you did) to study hair from the Easter Islanders (which dates, at the very least, from the beginning of the nineteenth century) and to compare it to the hair of natives from the main islands of Oceania and to formulate, as a result, an irrefutable argument in favor of a relationship between the Easter Islanders, not with the Polynesians of Tahiti, the Marqueses Islands etc. ..., nor with the Melanesians of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia (as has been, furthermore, suggested by others), but to the New Zealanders, which is, moreover, a relationship that demonstrates the value of the oral traditions of these peoples who date from time immemorial?

I should add, in closing, that your book contains; (i) four maps of Easter Island, which are very interesting, not only because they provide very complete documentation, but also because they are of real historical and anecdotal interest; and (ii) a complete bibliography of all material about Easter Island that has been published to date. Others have, obviously, made similar attempts but their efforts have been misguided and incomplete! You worked immeasurable hard to verify your bibliography by going back to the original sources (instead of copying bibliographies that had already appeared in print) and, also, to find materials that had escaped the attention of earlier bibliographers!

I could mention many other things as well because your book, I repeat, is not only a powerful synthesis and a definitive synthesis (backed up by a complete and sumptuous set of illustrations, most of which have never previously been published) but it is also a work that is filled with discoveries and original ideas.

But I have said enough, I think, to demonstrate grosso modo [broadly speaking] the importance of your book, which is the most interesting possible book on ethnography, and to explain to ethnographers, prehistorians, artists, linguists and “honest folks” in the eighteenth century sense (that is to say, intelligent, curious and with more or less encyclopedic knowledge) why they should read and pay attention to your book.

And I shall close by telling you that inevitably your work will be ... plagiarized, but such plagiarism will be, after all, a tribute to the quality of your work and your ideas!

Etienne Loppé

Chief Curator of the Lafaille Museum

La Rochelle, October 1934





5. Editorís note: The author of this Preface supplies a florid and rather nauseatingly flattering introduction to Chauvetís text. He repeats many of the errors that Chauvet made and occasionally provides a bit of comic relief; e.g., referring to a"ua"(club) as a "hua" (penis). Translator's note: It is likely that Dr. Stťphen-Chauvet and Dr. Loppť became friends because of their shared interest in indigenous art. In an article entitled "Ethnography and Extra-European Archaeology at the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle" (available at, we find a reference to the appointment of Dr. Loppť as curator of the museum in 1921. Then, in an article entitled, "The Oceanic Collections in the French Public Collections: An inventory", by Roger Boulay (whose title is given as "Chargť de mission with the Direction des Musťes de France for Oceanic collections"), we find the following:


"[It was] Monsieur Loppť [at the Museum of Natural History in] La Rochelle, who inaugurated 14 new rooms in 1926 and acquired 2,000, primarily Oceanic, objects, from the Blin collection. Only a few specialized anthropologists showed any interest in these collections, but these instances were entirely marginal. For example, Fritz Sarasin from the Basel museum visited the French collections outside Paris (La Rochelle, Le Havre, Toulouse, BordeauxÖ) when editing his reference book (1929) on Kanak material culture, thus making it possible to publish major items of the Kanak cultural heritage. Speiser, his colleague, did likewise for the French collections concerning Vanuatu, which he published in the same year. In 1928 another anthropologist, Karl von den Steiner, published a book on the Marquesa Islands collections, based on collections in France (Caen, Douai, Boulogne-sur-MerÖ). But it was above all art lovers and collectors like Dr. Stephen Chauvet (1885-1950) who entertained the most active relations with the museums. Chauvet carried on his exchanges for the most part with the Museum díHistoire Naturelle in La Rochelle. In his correspondence (1935) with tienne Loppť, the museumís curator, he stresses his interest in the collections of Douai, Rennes, Brest, Toulouse, LibourneÖ".


This quotation is taken from the website "Non-European Components of the European Patrimony" at


For a peek at some of the artifacts from Rapa Nui, which were probably given by Chauvet to the museum in La Rochelle, go to


In 1934, Loppť wrote his gushing preface to Chauvetís book and, in 1937, both men were members of the Editorial Board that supervised the publication of the first issue of the Bulletin of the Society of Oceanistes (Bulletin de la Sociťtť des Ocťanistes). From the gifts made by Chauvet to the collections curated by Loppť and the warmth of Loppťís preface to Chauvetís book, it is clear that each had a very high opinion of the other and that they supported each otherís endeavors whenever they had the opportunity.


6. Editorís note: Throughout this publication, both Loppť and Chauvet use "pakeopa" instead of "ahu" (the latter of which is the correct term for Easter Island ceremonial platforms). Polynesian linguistic specialist Steven Roger Fischer states, "Chauvet and a few others use Ďpakeopaí but the source for this word is a puzzle. It makes no sense in Old Rapanui. It is missing word separation and a macron or three (and probably a glottal, too). Maybe itís "pŠ kť Ďo pŠ" and means "itís a different kind of ĎpŠí", a "different kind of ahu". But this is only an educated guess. The Ďwordí does not appear in any of the dictionaries or lexica, so it is probably a phrase, not a word. But its early transcription is just too ambiguous to make a solid call. My feeling is that, walking about, the Rapanui were simply telling their guests, Ďthis is another type of pŠ (ahu), and this is a different kind of pŠ, and then this yet another kind of pŠí ad infinitum. At least it makes contextual sense, where otherwise the word is wholly unknown in any Polynesian context. ĎPŠí is pan-Polynesian, from Proto-Polynesian *pŠ that means Ďenclosure, pen, corral, sty, weir, artificial construction of some sortí (cf. Hawaiian pŠ and MŠori pŠ). It could be that Old Rapanui pŠ was also used to denote an ahu, in a generic, rather than a specific, sense". (Steven Roger Fischer, personal communication, 2003).

7. The latter was the subject, in 1928, of a short note that I wrote (see Bibliography).

8. Editorís note: M. Loppť is in error, it is "ua"; the word "hua" means "penis" in Rapanui.

9. Editorís note: Delabaude was Chief Surgeon on the French gunboat La Durance on its visit to Rapa Nui between July and August 1901; he conducted superficial archaeological inspections, gathered skulls and obsidian, and took a series of photographs.

10. Editorís note: Pierre Loti was a prolific novelist and travel writer. He was born Julien Marie Viaud in Rochefort, France, in 1850. He visited Easter Island as a midshipman on the La Flore in 1872 and subsequently wrote about his adventures in the South Seas. His best-known work is The Marriage of Loti (1880), which influenced many, including Paul Gauguin. Loti died in 1923.

11. Editorís note: French anthropologist, ethnologist, and linguist Alphonse Pinart (1852-1911) sailed into Easter Islandís waters on April 1, 1877, on the French warship Seignelay and subsequently wrote an interesting report about his short, six-day stay on the island.

12. Editorís note: U.S. Navy Paymaster William J. Thomson visited Easter Island in 1886, on the U.S.S. Mohican, under the command of Captain B.F. Day. They were on the island from December 18th to the 31st.

13. Editorís note: M.G. De Hevesy, "Sur une ecriture oceanienne paraissant díorigine neolithique" in Bulletin de la Societe Prehistorique Francaise, Vol. 7, No. 8 (1936).

14. Editorís note: There is no relationship with or connection to the writing from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

15. This tablet was not the one that people think it was! Here, the discovery of Fathers Alazard and Desmedt sees the light of day for the first time.

16. Editorís note: There was never a concave tablet; the skein of hair was wound around the tablet known as "Echancrťe", which is flat (Steven R. Fischer, personal communication, 2003).

17. With respect to interpretation of the statuettes, some authors have committed the serious error of suggesting that they represent dead bodies. Your interpretation provides "Ariadneís thread" for accurate interpretations of Easter Island art.

18. Stephen Chauvet: Hypophysial Infantilism (including a classification of hypophysial infantilisms and syndromes), published in Paris in 1914 by Maloine (First Prize for a thesis presented to the Paris Faculty of Medicine; the Montyon Grand Prize in physiology of the Institute; etc.). How is it, we might ask, that certain authors, lacking both training in general medicine and, in addition, a solid grounding in endocrinology and anthropology, actually dare to talk about human races and ó even if they have spent time among a particular people, no matter which one ó actually dare to propose that such and such a race is linked or is not linked to some other race that preceded it? [Editorís note: Hypophysial infantilism is a congenital disorder due to lack of thyroid hormone.]





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