Partially buried moai statues on Easter Island. Image by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0)

Did Easter Island culture collapse? The answer is not simple.

Reposted from the article I wrote for Aeon (published 11th May 2016).
Image of partially buried moai statues on Easter Island by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0) 

Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is an island in the Pacific famous for the massive humanoid statues peppered along its coasts. These moai are commonly called stone heads, but actually most possess bodies, and the largest constructed stands at over 30 feet and weighs 82 tons. Ever since these monoliths were encountered by European explorers in the 18th century, the history of the island has been a topic of fascination and debate. Most captivating is the mystery of how almost 900 moai were carved and transported, mostly between 1250 CE and 1500 CE, only to be toppled and abandoned by the 18th century.

The history remains contentious and its scholarship is currently hosting a fierce debate between two rival camps. The first account, popularised by Jared Diamond in his bestselling book Collapse (2005), presents the island’s history as a cautionary tale of the destructive potential of humans to overexploit natural resources. A contradictory account has been advocated over the past decade by a group of scholars, led by the anthropologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, who contend that the ‘collapse’ Diamond describes is largely a European myth. Instead, continuity is the hallmark of settlement on Rapa Nui.


Misogi Cold Water Rituals (Pt 1)

This article also appears over on where I am very pleased to say I will now be a regular guest contributor. I’ll still be cross posting my articles here and will also post anything that falls outside the remit of the Genealogy of Religion blog. If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out some of the articles by Cris Campbell the creator of the Genealogy site, in fact I already recently recommended you to do so…

A misogi performance at Kanda Myōjin in Tokyo.

A misogi performance at Kanda Myōjin in Tokyo.

Misogi (禊) can loosely be translated as ritual purification by cold water and is a practice most strongly associated with Shintoism. It is also performed by practitioners of Shugendō, a syncretic ascetic sect with a long history in Japan, and by martial arts groups, such as Aikidō practitioners. The precise practices involved vary; at some locations the misogi is performed by immersion in streams/pools and at others by sitting or standing under waterfalls, sometimes the event involves collective practices by large groups (up to 200) and sometimes it is a solitary performance. But despite such diversity a clear unifying thread to all misogi practices is the endurance of cold water in order to purify oneself and by extension the surrounding community.

I’ve now participated in two misogi events: the first was held last year, in a small town called Kikonai in Hokkaidō in Northern Japan and the second was performed just last week, at Teppozu Inari Shrine in a suburb of central Tōkyō. Both events were spectacular and I was extremely fortunate to be invited to take part. However, these two events were also very different and I think they serve as a good illustration of how a single ‘type’ of ritual can be expressed differently, even when performed within the same country (Japan) and ostensibly within the same tradition (Shinto). In this first post, I’ll focus on my experience at the misogi in Kikonai last year, then in the next post I’ll make some comparisons with my experience at the recent event in Tōkyō and finally, I’ll relate both experiences to some important theories which I think help illuminate and explain some of the psychological aspects of these ritual performances.


Is there Religion in Japan? (Round 2)

The current debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess of the sun.

The ‘religion’ in Japan debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess.

A number of years ago I wrote a blog post about a lively debate between Timothy Fitzgerald and Ian Reader concerning whether it was appropriate to speak of ‘religion’ in Japan and whether the concept had any coherent significance prior to the arrival of the Western colonial powers and their ideological baggage. From my perspective a clear winner emerged from these exchanges (*spoiler* it did- see my previous post for details) but I’ve just become aware that, while working on my PhD, I seem to have missed a more competitive second round that has been taking place over the past few years, due in large part to the work of Jason Ānanda Josephson.


The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 2

Death of Cook

Having introduced the main players in the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate in my previous post it’s now time to turn to the main arguments, rebuttals and accusations that kept Captain Cook’s death as a hot topic in anthropology during the 90s.

A chronology of the relevant books/articles might be a good place to start:

1985– Marshall Sahlins publishes Islands of History which includes his discussion of Captain Cook’s death and how it is attributable to the mythical worldview the Hawaiian islanders subscribed to.

1992– Gananath Obeysekere publishes The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. This contains a searing attack on Marshall Sahlins’ (and other scholars) theories relating to Captain Cook and his interaction with the Hawaiian islanders. Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of having bought into a myth, by accepting colonial accounts at face value and failing to read the accounts critically.

1995– Sahlins publishes How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook for examplea book length point-by-point rebuttal to Obeyesekere’s attacks on Sahlins’ research. Sahlins counterattacks Obeyesekere’s alternative account, claiming that he has cherry picked sources to support his theories, invented a universal ‘native’ mindset (based on Western values) and included errors which demonstrate clearly that he lacks important contextual knowledge about the region and the historical period.

1995– Obeyesekere publishes Cannibal Talk: The Man Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas, a work that further promotes his theory that most colonial stories about foreign cultures are myths, which have been uncritically accepted by scholars and the public in the modern age.

1995– The famous American Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes an account of the debate, describing it as part of the ‘Culture Wars’, in the New York Review of Books.

1997– A new edition of The Apotheosis of Captain Cook is published with an extended afterword in which, Obeyesekere offers some rebuttals to criticisms from Sahlins but primarily contends that Sahlins criticisms indicate that he has misunderstood his arguments.

1997– Robert Borofsky writes an excellent article in Current Anthropology summarising the debate and the issues surrounding it, which is followed by a number of short responses from various other anthropologists, including Obeyesekere and Sahlins.

These are the bare bones of the sources I’m drawing from and I would recommend that anyone really interested in the debate should really think about having a read through at least some of them. However, in case you can’t be bothered, what follows is a summary of some of the juicy bits and my thoughts about them.


The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse Part 1

Artistic representation of Cook's final moments

Artistic representation of Cook’s final moments

When the famous British explorer Captain James Cook was killed on a Hawaiian island in 1779 the Hawaiian tribesmen responsible removed his body from the beach, disemboweled it, baked it and then distributed the bones across a variety of their villages. These actions are not disputed by historians and were also not motivated by spite. They were, in fact, the traditional mortuary rites performed on the island for those of high status.

Unsurprisingly, these actions were interpreted by Cook’s crew as something entirely different. Rather than seeing the actions as displaying respect for a revered leader they regarded them as a hideous attempt to desecrate the remains of a fallen enemy. This difference of perception very nearly caused more bloodshed as, in the face of growing tension and a barely contained fury, Cook’s crew attempted to negotiate with the islanders for the return of his body, so that he could receive a traditional naval burial. The volatility of the situation is evident in the accounts written at the time, which contain reports describing how a number of the crew favoured attacking the islander’s villages and taking the body back by force and accounts of islanders performing a range of provocative acts on the shore directed towards the crew.

A large scale and bloody battle was avoided however as, after a few days and a number of minor skirmishes, the Hawaiians relented and returned enough of Cook’s remains to satisfy his furious crew (although there remains some doubt as to whether the remains returned were actually authentic). With the return of Cook’s remains to his crew the first (very literal) battle for Captain Cook’s corpse came to an end. After performing a Christian burial for Cook’s recovered remains his crew finally departed the Hawaiian islands to return to England and report their captain’s death.

Cook’s physical remains were now lost to the sea (or preserved in Hawaiian villages), yet this not be the final battle that his corpse was involved in.


Is there Religion in Japan?

Agon Shu's Hoshi Matsuri... one of many religious ceremonies in Japan

Agon Shu’s Hoshi Matsuri… one of many religious ceremonies in Japan

At first glance the question of whether or not religion exists in Japan seems like it is rather straightforward and may be even a slightly silly question to ask. I mean how could anyone doubt there is religion in Japan? Just look at all those Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples! And what about all those famous Zen monks or those new age religions? Aren’t those clearly signs of religion in Japan?

My answer would be yes… but despite this seemingly straightforward answer, the question continues to raise its ugly head in both academic papers and, more recently, in the comment section of my blog (in particular any time ‘religion’ is mentioned alongside the topic of ninjas)!

The basic arguments presented in both cases are almost indistinguishable. Which means that I can address the arguments of both the ninjutsu practitioners and the academics in one fell swoop… (or at least that’s the idea!)


God in the Lab Review Part 1: Itchy Ghosts

Yesterday I spent an enjoyable morning and afternoon attending a series of four talks organised by the London Centre for Inquiry titled ‘God in the Lab‘ (for the event website take a look here). As the title of the event suggests the talks were each based around the theme of researchers exploring religion from scientific perspectives. Each of the talks covered a different area and they were all very interesting (though some, it must be said, were presented more interestingly than others) and I thought that a good way to commit the event to my long term memory would be to write a review of it. Since each talk was on a different topic and included a heap of interesting research, I also thought it would be a good idea to write a seperate post reviewing each talk individually, rather than a mega post covering all four at once.  Below then is the first of a four part review of the event.