Easter Island - Social and Political Organization

Social Organization. In addition to social distinctions based on kinship, Easter Island traditionally had four distinct social classes: noblemen ( ariki); priests ( ivi-atua); warriors ( matatoa); and servants and farmers ( kio). The ruler was the main high chief ( ariki-mau ) who traced his status to descent from Hotu-matua, the founder of the island. In reality, ariki were invested with considerable mana and were subject to numerous taboos, although they had little actual power. Little is known about the activities of priests, as the role had disappeared by the time missionaries arrived. Kio were war captives who worked for others or paid tribute in the form of percentage of their crops.

Political Organization. As noted above, the nominal rulers came from the ariki class, with succession to the position of high chief going to the oldest son at the time of his marriage. However, since this marriage was often delayed many years beyond that of most Easter Islanders, chiefs often held their position for some years. At the time of sustained Contact, warriors were the actual political leaders, reflecting a long history of fighting among the subtribes and the almost continuous fighting that followed the kidnapping of men in 1862. Today, the Easter Islanders are governed by Chile, with a Chilean governor, civil service, and police force providing services. Easter Islander representation is through the mayor of Hangoroa.

Social Control. Most early observers described theft as a common occurrence, with items stolen both from Europeans and from other Easter Islanders. Revenge was the major form of social control (actually it often led to warfare rather than peace) in early historic times. Taboos on the king, nobles, various foods, places, crops, death, and so on were a major aspect of everyday life and were rigorously enforced. Taboo violators were subject to beatings and even death. Although traditional taboos have now disappeared, they were still a strong infuence in the 1860s. Today, the laws of Chile are enforced by the Chilean police and government officials on the island.

Conflict. Wars were evidently common between the subtribes and especially between the eastern and western factions. Wars were often for revenge and involved ambushes, burning and looting villages, and the taking of captives, some of whom were tortured. War with Europeans was short-lived, and after the kidnapping in 1862 many Easter Islanders fled to inland caves upon the arrival of European ships.

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