Easter Island and Its Mysteries
Stéphen-Charles Chauvet was born in 1885 in Béthune in the Pas-de-Calais and was
buried in Nicorps, a small village in the parish of Coutances, in Normandy, in
1950 (the unusual name of this village is derived from the Latin words nidus
corvi, which mean “crow’s nest”).
Stéphen-Charles studied medicine, probably in Paris, and can be seen as an intern, in the accompanying photograph, with his peers at L'Hôpital des Enfants Malades (the Hospital for Sick Children) in Paris in 1913 [see below.]. He won a gold medal from the Hospitals of Paris, as well as prizes from the Medical Institute, the Academy of Medicine, the Faculty of Medicine and, later, from the Anthropology Society and the Geography Society [these awards are listed in his book La Médicine chez les Peuples Primitives (Medicine of Primitive Peoples)]. Much later in his life, he was also inducted into the Légion d’Honneur. He has been described as a disciple of those who studied paranormal phenomena, such as Charles Richet (1850-1935), who was a member of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his research on anaphylaxis.
In the photograph referred to above, Stéphen-Charles Chauvet is identified as "Stephen Chauvet". A survey of the literature, combined with the material available at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (the French National Library) indicates that, as soon as he received his medical degree, he dropped "Charles" from his name and adopted the professional name "Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet." Moreover, in her one contribution to his publications, his wife is referred to as "Madame Stéphen-Chauvet" so it appears that, for some reason, he abandoned a first name altogether and conflated part of his original first name with his last name to give himself a double-barreled family name.
In addition to training as a physician, Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet also became one of the most famous collectors of ceramics from his native Normandy and his early non-medical publications focus on Normandy and on his interests in telepathy and paranormal phenomena, which he shared with Richet.
In 1913, he co-authored a paper on hypophyseal infantilism (a congenital disorder due to lack of thyroid hormone). His interest in such disorders is reflected by his astonishing proposal, laid out in great detail in his book on Easter Island, that the distinctive features of the human bodies depicted by moai kava kava are not those of cadavers but those of people who are seriously and chronically dehydrated. Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet proposed that the islanders had adapted to a chronic state of dehydration and tried to support his proposal with evidence from the practice of medicine.
According to his obituary, which was published in the Journal de la Société des Océanistes in 1951 (pp.219-222) and is quoted by Norman Hurst in a May 2002 article in the Rapa Nui Journal [16(1):4], Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet was seriously wounded in September 1914 at the very beginning of the First World War. The wound paralyzed his left side and he remained in more or less significant pain for the rest of his life.
In 1917, he published an article on “The Illusion of the Déjà Vu” and he produced several other publications on paranormal phenomena during the next seven years. In 1921, he published a guide to Coutances, the parish that includes Nicorps, where he is buried, and a book on ancient Normandy. According to his obituary, his interest in primitive art was kindled by a gift, just after the First World War, of a small statuette of a woman from Sudan and a double mask. Then, if his publications are a reflection of his experiences, we can deduce that 1923 was a pivotal year for him.
In 1923, there was an exhibition in Paris of the native arts from the French Colonies, which was such a great success that it was held over into 1924. It is likely that this exhibition fueled Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet’s interest in and his subsequent passion for primitive peoples, their arts and their culture since he decided to write a guide to the exhibition that was published in 1923. In 1929, he published Musique Nègre (Negro Music) and, in 1930, he published Les Arts Indigènes en Nouvelle-Guinée which has been described as a seminal work on the arts of Melanesia.
As an avid collector, Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet scored a major coup by acquiring the entire collection of Oceanic art of the Hungarian prince, Festetics de Tolna (1850-1933), who had sailed around the Pacific in his own private yacht in the late nineteenth century. This collection had been impounded at the Hungarian’s home in the South of France after the war because de Tolna was an Austrian national.* Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet had to engage in very complex negotiations to take possession of de Tolna’s “souvenirs”. He supplemented his collection with purchases from various dealers and with material from the collections of the Picpus Fathers. In 1929, he bought the collection of objects that had been brought back from Easter Island by Pierre Loti and, in 1930, he helped to organize an exhibitions of Oceanic Arts from the French colonies in the Pacific and of Native Arts from all the French colonies.
In 1930, Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet offered to sell several large photographs of objects in his personal collection of indigenous art to the Smithsonian Museum and one of his photographs is, apparently, in its permanent collection. In 1934, he completed l'Île de Pâques et Ses Mystères, a seven-year project. The book was self-published with, unfortunately, no editorial corrections. In 1936, he published the book on the medicine of primitive peoples that is referred to above. From 1940-1945, Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet was President of the Society of French Prehistory, which had been founded in 1903. However, according to his obituary, he spent the war not in Paris but in the Dordogne, working on a book on the arts of Tahiti and French Polynesia, which he was never to finish.
While Easter Island and Its Mysteries might not be as great a book as it was deemed to be by Dr. Étienne Loppé, Chief Curator of the Lafaille Museum in La Rochelle (France), who wrote a gushing preface, it certainly provides interesting insights into ethnography in the mid 1930s. Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet’s ideas and hypotheses might seem outlandish to the present-day reader but who knows whether there might be a grain of truth among all the obvious implausibilities? Moreover, nobody can fault him on his collection of illustrations, which is both encyclopedic and evocative.
This translation is a gift from me to the academic community and to everyone
else who is interested in Easter Island. I began this project as a favor to
Georgia Lee of the Easter Island Foundation. However, without the extraordinary
efforts of Shawn McLaughlin, my translation would be languishing in a drawer
because the cost of publishing it as a book, with all the illustrations, is
prohibitive. My thanks are due to Georgia, for encouraging me to translate the
book and for keeping track of the translated sections as I sent them to her day
by day; to Scott Nicolay, also of the Easter Island Foundation, for his helpful
comments on the text; and to Shawn for doing everything else that was required
to bring this translation to you.
Ann M. Altman, PhD
For details of the extraordinary life and travels
of de Tolna, also known as von Tolna, visit
Chauvet (front row, second from the left) and his peers at L'Hôpital
des Enfants Malades (the Hospital for Sick Children) - Paris, 1913.