Easter Island and Its Mysteries







When Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet’s L’Ile de Pâques et ses Mystères (Easter Island and Its Mysteries) was published in 1935, it was a ground-breaking book, not simply because there was little else available on the subject of Easter Island at the time 1 but because, warts and all, its commentary and in particular its rich illustrations represented a valuable contribution to an understanding of the tribal art of Oceania generally and Easter Island specifically 2. Today, even the smaller, inferior Spanish edition (La Isla de Pascua y Misterios), published in 1945, is much sought-after — and an original Chauvet in French or Spanish may well be among the crown jewels on the Rapanuiphile’s bookshelf.

So it is with much enthusiasm that I present this, the first edition of Chauvet in English, thanks to a generous and exacting translation by Ann M. Altman. Now, for the first time in nearly three-quarters of a century, Chauvet receives the wider audience he deserves.

Easter Island and Its Mysteries is hardly without blemishes, however, not the least of which is due to Chauvet’s wild speculations — some no doubt borne of the fact that he never actually visited Easter Island! It is true, as Chauvet’s friend Étienne Loppé says in the fawning original preface to the book, that Chauvet “gathered together everything relating to Easter Island that has ever been written, drawn, engraved and photographed, in France as well as elsewhere” — just as it is also true that Chauvet may be forgiven his many transgressions in interpreting the myriad facts surrounding Easter Island; for, given the loons out there today who ought to know better but continue to publish “lost continent” and “ancient astronaut” drivel about Easter Island, Chauvet doesn’t seem too remote, even though his diffusionist theories, like Heyerdahl’s after him, haven’t held up to the harsh light of scientific scrutiny.

To be fair, in Chauvet’s time little sub-surface archaeology had been conducted in Oceania, nor did he have access to the wealth of data now available to us — from Flenley and Steadman to Van Tilburg and Loret, from Fischer and Englert to Barthel and Hagelberg, from Lee and Charola to Mulloy and, yes, Heyerdahl. For reasons that should be apparent to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of this most isolated inhabited spot on Earth, few places or people have inspired such absurd yammering as has been heard about Easter Island. But Chauvet’s occasionally preposterous exposition can almost be said to exist ab initio because of the relative lack of otherwise extensive research at the time the book was written and published. The same cannot be said of the lunatic fringe today, whose arcane babble exists despite — indeed, which flies ignorantly and savagely in the face of — nearly a century of good, reliable science on the subject. While there’s a lot of junk out there, there’s ultimately no shortage of trustworthy information on the subject of Easter Island available today and fewer mysteries than one might expect.

If Chauvet’s errors are to be forgiven, it is because they reflect his unswerving passion for Easter Island, paralleling an observation T.S. Eliot once made about how, “In some minds certain memories, both from reading and from life, become charged with emotional significance. All these are used, so that intensity is gained at the expense of clarity”. So it is with this book. Yet Chauvet’s passion is also a double-edged sword, as his nationalism reveals itself from time to time in the ways he either exaggerates the importance or contributions of his fellow Frenchmen or denigrates “foreigners” (like Métraux 3 or Lavachery 4, two of whom unlike Chauvet not only visited the island but contributed significantly and voluminously to Easter Island scholarship). Neither is Chauvet always particularly sensitive or respectful about the Easter Islanders themselves — but, then, his was a time for better or worse before the influence of “political correctness”. Thus one gets an honest Chauvet even if an occasionally bigoted Chauvet.

That is why it is important for the reader to make a key distinction in understanding this text — between seeing Chauvet in an historical context and exercising caution in using it as a source of information on Easter Island. It serves both purposes but for utterly different reasons.

That’s also why this translation is extensively annotated, drawing upon seventy years of research not just in archaeology but in ethnography, epigraphy, linguistics, botany, palynology, limnology, geology, anatomy, physiology, genetics, and other scientific disciplines. However, one should see the annotations not as corrections to the text but as expansions to its coverage — such that the final product is a synergy of Chauvet’s early 20th century observations and our early 21st century knowledge.


• • •

For the most up-to-date information on Easter Island, the reader is encouraged to check out The Complete Guide to Easter Island (McLaughlin, 2004); for a look into the island’s not-too-distant past based on translations from 19th century visitors’ accounts, see Early Visitors to Easter Island (Altman, 2004); and, of course, the Easter Island Foundation’s Web site ( is the definitive source for the latest and most accurate information available today on Easter Island.



Notes About the Text and Presentation

This work has been not only painstakingly translated from the original French but extensively edited to correct misspellings and bring some consistency to the language and typography, where possible and practical. The content, however, hasn’t changed but has been qualified in the form of editor’s and translator’s notes (these appear in italics and can thus be differentiated from Chauvet’s own footnotes, which appear in Roman type). Chauvet’s original bibliography is included verbatim, however, and is thus fraught with errors, some of which are rather amusing (e.g, “Jack” Cook for Captain James Cook), reveal much about his approach to scholarship (or at least typesetting; Chauvet’s book was self-published), and would be nearly impossible to correct comprehensively. However, an up-to-date reference section has been provided, listing current and pertinent publications.

Chauvet’s illustrations and photographs are the cornerstone of the publication; indeed, there 68 plates with over 192 separate images (a few in color), representing nearly 60% of the total publication. Art historians as well as Easter Island researchers still use this rich storehouse of imagery in their scholarly pursuits and, together with other works featuring extensive coverage of Easter Island art, craftspersons on the island today use such material in creating historically accurate stone and wood souvenirs as well as serious, commissioned artwork. The illustrations and photos are presented in two formats for cross-reference purposes: 1) as large high-resolution renderings of the individual plates; and 2) as individual images described by figure on each plate (which are also hyper-linked in the body of the text). This dual format was chosen to enable the viewer or researcher to see the images in context and match references to plates in the text, but also to more fully delve into and appreciate the individual images on their own. Links to the images and plates as well as other documents can be directly accessed from either the Table of Contents or navigation menu at the bottom of each page following standard Web hyperlink protocols.




Shawn McLaughlin

Flagstaff, AZ





1. Editor's note: Preceding it were William Thomson’s "Te Pito te Henua or Easter Island" (1891); Katherine Routledge’s Mystery of Easter Island (1919); and the flawed Riddle of the Pacific by John MacMillan Brown (1924) but these were all out of print by the time Chauvet put pen to paper.

2. Editor's note: Including Heyerdahl’s Art of Easter Island (1976); Esen-Bauer’s 1500 Jahre Kultur der Osterinsel (1989); Seaver Kurze’s Ingrained Images (1997); and, to a lesser extent, Klellgren’s Splendid Isolation (2001).

3. Editor's note: One of the most important European ethnologists of the 20th century, Alfred Métraux was born in Switzerland in 1902 and studied under the renowned ethnologist Paul Rivet. In 1934, Métraux sailed to Easter Island to study Rapanui ethnography. He concluded that the natives were of Polynesian origin and that the extraordinary stone sculptures were actually created by the native people of the island. Métraux committed suicide in France in 1963.

4. Editor's note: Henri Lavachery (1885-1972) was an honorary professor at the University of Brussels, a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, associate curator at Brussels Cinquatenaire, honorary director of the Royal Belgian Museum of Art and History, and archaeologist on the Franco-Belgian Expedition to Easter Island in 1934.





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