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Easter Island’s Ethnographic Triangle:

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D.

Katherine Routledge (1866-1935), Alfred Métraux (1906-1963) and Juan Tepano (c.1867-1947)

This is a condensed and edited version of an unpublished paper given in the invited Presidential Session “The Ethnographer’s Discipline:  Alfred Métraux (1902-1963) in his Centenary” at the American Anthropological Association’s Centennial Meeting, New Orleans, 2002.  It was further edited for and presented at a session of the Pacific Arts Association meeting, Salem, Mass., 2005.

Field Notes, Travel Writing and Professional Ethnography

Field work, and the field notes such work produces, supplies the discipline of anthropology with new ethnographic information.  Before ethnography was established as a discipline in the 1840s, the critical and comparative observations of early Pacific voyagers produced rich accounts of Oceanic cultures.  “Recent studies of ethnography as a genre bring out the many tropes it shares with unscientific, lay forms such as travel writing.”

Consider the words of Alan Howard, in his foreword to Robert Borofsky’s Making History: “By examining the residues of ethnographic research…we can develop a more sensitive understanding not only of the peoples we study but of our own constructions about them.”  This paper examines the “residues” of research produced by two early investigators who were powerful personalities on Easter Island (Rapa Nui):  Katherine Pease Routledge and Alfred Métraux.

Between the first visit of Europeans to Rapa Nui in 1722 and the Peruvian slave raids (1862-1864) and subsequent introduction of Catholicism (1864-1866),  there were at least 55 ships’ calls (about one every 2.54 years).  These visits were largely, but not exclusively, random events, and the duration of each was from less than 24 hours to about 72 hours.  Naval officers, travelers, missionaries, and administrators produced secondary accounts in letters, diaries, journals, ships’ logs, and naval reports.  Published scientific writings from this era are scant but valuable, and include 1 in French, 3 in Spanish, 7 in English, and 10 in German.

From 1868 to 1935, however, the tide turned.  Seven organized or goal-oriented expeditions representing five nations of the world visited Rapa Nui.  The on-island stay for each ranged from 3.5 days to 17 months, and the disciplines represented included medicine, history, ethnography, museum studies, linguistics, and physical anthropology. Scientific reports were published by each expedition and specific types or classes of objects were systematically sought and collected.  Three individuals with backgrounds in the arts published in the “travel writing as ethnography” genre.

The Ethnographers

Katherine Pease Routledge (1866-1935), co-leader with her husband of the Mana Expedition to Easter Island, 1913-1915, held one of Oxford’s first degrees awarded to women (honors in modern history). She had field experience as an ethnographer in East Africa (with a major co-authored report to her credit). She was a member of the Oxford Anthropological society and had solid connections in the developing field of British ethnography. Her unpublished field notes are arguably the most important, largely untapped resource in Rapa Nui studies.

Swiss ethnographer Alfred Métraux (1902-1963) was a trained professional whose wide-ranging career was established before his sojourn on Rapa Nui.  He carried out fieldwork as a member of the Franco-Belgian Expedition to Easter Island, July 1934 to January 1935.  His report, published in English by the Bishop Museum in 1940, is a baseline ethnographic source.  Neither the Mana Expedition nor the Franco-Belgian expedition included an archaeologist.  O.G.S. Crawford quit the Mana Expedition within weeks of its departure from England, and French archaeologist Charles-Louis Watelin of the Franco-Belgian expedition died at sea before reaching Rapa Nui.

The Setting

Rapa Nui is isolated in the East Pacific, in an extreme windward position, at 270 9’ S latitude, 1090 26’ W longitude. It is 2,300 miles west of Chile and 1,400 miles east of Pitcairn, its nearest neighbor. Mangareva lies just beyond Pitcairn.  Rapa Nui has no protective reef. Its roughly triangular shape was created about three million years ago by the coalescing flows of three massive submarine volcanoes—each of which marks a point of the triangle. Smaller volcanic cones punctuate a landscape of gently rolling hills and grassy, rock-strewn slopes. Winds are changeable but nearly constant, and the southeast trade winds dominate from October to April. The climate is subtropical, but Rapa Nui is no quintessential South Seas paradise. Environmental hazards include drought and tidal waves.  Its chief characteristic is geographic isolation.

Routledge was 48 years old when she arrived on Rapa Nui, while Métraux was only 32.  Each experienced isolation as Rapa Nui’s most profoundly affecting attribute.  Both suffered at various times in their lives from significant depression, including while on Rapa Nui. While Routledge, in general, found the island liberating, Métraux found it confining.  While Routledge sought independence in the field, Métraux preferred the interchange of his colleagues. While Routledge immersed herself in the larger cultural experience, Métraux appears to have been alienated by it.

Two Expeditions:  Worlds Apart

The Routledges arrived on Rapa Nui aboard Mana, a state-of-the-art yacht choking on tons of food, equipment, medical supplies and luxuries of every description.  In sharp contrast, the 250 Rapa Nui people who greeted them were living in a repressed and impoverished state. They were confined to the island’s only village (Hanga Roa) and to a tiny surrounding patchwork of about six acres. The rest of the island—more than 90% of its surface—was leased by an international sheep ranching concern (“the Company”). The only crop foods were bananas and sweet potatoes grown in small household plots. Big, deep-sea fish were rarely available, and smaller coastal fish and sea urchins were commonly eaten. Milk was rare and meat so expensive that sheep and cattle were regularly poached.

Mataveri farm—on land that was once the staging ground for ancient, exotic birdman (tangata manu) ceremonies—was Company headquarters and home to Percy Edmunds, a Scotch-English collector, entrepreneur and resident ranch manager.  Although only a mile distant, Hanga Roa and Mataveri were worlds apart.  Hanga Roa had no school, no medical care, no sanitary facilities and only one or two water cisterns. Mataveri was a comfortable European enclave strictly off-limits to all but a chosen few. Workmen were given seasonal work shearing sheep or running stock, and wages of about twenty to forty centavos a day were credited against purchases in the Company store. Most families were enslaved by debt.

The Franco-Belgian Expedition was transported to Rapa Nui by the French navy aboard the man-of-war Rigault-de-Genouilly. The expedition arrived in July, 1934 and departed in January, 1935, less than a month after Katherine Routledge died in Ticehurst, an insane asylum near Somerset. The population of the island was 456, all “entirely derived from the 111 natives left after the abandonment of the island by the French missionaries in 1872.”  Henri Lavachery, a museum curator and rock art enthusiast, a Chilean doctor intending to study leprosy, and Métraux made up the team. Lavachery and Métraux believed that Mana Expedition papers had been lost.

The Consultant

Juan Tepano Huki was the son of Victoria Veriamu and Rano, her third husband. Tepano was baptized Catholic and had served in the Chilean military, where he acquired a sense of personal discipline, punctuality and familiarity with weapons.  Upon his return to the island in 1901 he was named “headman” of the community and, in 1902, appointed “mayor” by the Company. He was a man of the wider world, the conduit between Hanga Roa and Mataveri, between the islanders and the Company.  He had police power in the village and freedom to travel the island.

The delicately self-sustaining Rapa Nui world constantly tried either to save itself from outsiders or to benefit from contact with them, and the community guarded its resources carefully. Because Tepano received so much support from outsiders he, in turn, lost some familial support. By 1934-35, Tepano believed that the anthropologists and archaeologists he worked with were building reputations and getting rich from his hard-won knowledge.

The Triangle:  Routledge, Tepano and Métraux

Katherine Routledge immediately grasped Tepano’s central role in island society.   “Any real success” she had on the island, Katherine wrote in The Mystery of Easter Island, was “due to the intelligence of one individual known as Juan Tepano.”  Such praise later encouraged Alfred Métraux to seek out Tepano.  Métraux said that Tepano was Katherine’s “interpreter,” and had “retained” from his contact with her “a keen interest in the past. He is intelligent, quick, and proud of his reputation as the maori [expert] of the old folklore. When other natives are asked about their ancestors they always refer to Juan Tepano.”

Tepano had thus become, in the course of 21 years between the Mana Expedition and the Franco-Belgian Expedition, the Rapa Nui community’s recognized expert in their traditions. This change in status, from respected, feared, and envied “headman” in his 40s to revered cultural elder in his 60s, was not an accident.  It was constructed by Tepano in his own interest and as a direct result of his field work with Katherine Routledge.  Before working with her, and by his own admission, Tepano regretted not knowing more about his culture. He regretted not listening to his elders.

When Tepano orchestrated and facilitated a circle of ethnographic contacts for Routledge, however, he came into regular contact with them as her translator. He was exposed to objects and artifacts he had never seen on the island through the photographs, museum catalogs and books she brought with her and shared with him.  He absorbed new information from the field discoveries they made together. Tepano’s contact with Routledge changed his life, and the information he later shared with Métraux was, in a real way, enriched—some would say contaminated—by his intimate contact with Katherine Routledge.

Mores and Methods: Sex, Lies and Fieldnotes

During his work with Routledge, Tepano looked after a small group of elderly men who were without family, and he brokered or arranged fruitful contacts for her with them and a half-dozen others.  Jotefa Maherenga was the oldest man on the island at the time.  “Kapiera” (Gabriel Revahiva), “Porotu” (Juan; Hongi Atua a Ure Auviri), “Te Haha” (Ramón Te Haha) and others met with Katherine in what anthropologists call “veranda interviews.”  She paid them in food or favors, and developed fruitful relationships with most of them.  However, she had poor social relationships with young Rapa Nui males. They kept their distance because Juan Tepano had “assumed the attitude of watch-dog” over her.

It is probable that younger Rapa Nui men, if not the entire community, assumed that sex was part of the bargain between Tepano and Katherine Routledge. Sex had always played a religious and economic role on Rapa Nui, just as it had in all other early island societies.  Routledge noted that, “sexual morality, as known to us, was not a strong point in life on the island.” Tepano’s proprietary “watch-dog” relationship with Routledge benefited him and enriched her work, but it also shaped and curtailed it.

Katherine, considering her “new woman” approach to life, held some quite startlingly conventional beliefs that, apparently, Tepano shared. As jefe or “headman” of the village, Tepano acted as a kind of policeman. Some say he was a prig and zealous enforcer of sexual morality in others—people in Hanga Roa sang a song, a little ditty to warn others when he was nearby. Such conservative notions of sexual propriety were part of the role Tepano played in the European world.

Victori Veriamu was Juan Tepano’s mother.  Her age in 1914 is uncertain, but she was probably the oldest Rapa Nui woman then living. Born in the eastern part of the island, literally in the shadow of the great statue quarries of Rano Raraku, Veriamu had had three husbands. Sadly, all of her children except Juan Tepano and a daughter—who lived in the leper colony—had perished in the mid-1800s. Her last husband, Rano (baptized “Iovani”), was also from the eastern sector; he was Tepano’s father and Veriamu’s favorite. When Métraux arrived in 1934-35 Veriamu was said to be 100 years old and no longer able to remember the past.  As a consequence, details of important early initiation and other ceremonies experienced by women or viewed through the eyes of females of the time are sparse in Routledge’s notes and lacking in Métraux’s.

In spite of Métraux’s acknowledgement of Tepano as a consultant, there is good evidence that their relationship was confrontational.  Tepano’s son Jorge worked at Orongo in 1954-55 with archaeologist Edwin N. Ferdon, Jr. of Thor Heyerdahl’s Norwegian Archaeological Expedition.  He told Ferdon that Alfred Métraux challenged his father often.  Their disagreements finally came to a head one evening when Tepano, deeply annoyed and angry, shoved Métraux out of his house.

In fact, the lion’s share of the credit for Métraux’s ethnographic detail goes not to Tepano but to the dazzling Isabel Chavez, who flatly enchanted Métraux, and to Victoria Rapahango, who was his chief consultant.  These two women opened doors to feminine custom that Katherine had never approached with Veriamu.  Both Métraux and Lavachery lavished expensive gifts on the women, including white silk stockings and fashionable clothing.  Lavachery was so taken with Victoria that he tried to persuade her to leave the island with him and attempted to adopt her daughter.

Routledge’s field notes are primarily scratch notes usually produced in full view of her consultants (except in the case of Juan Porotu, who disliked her note taking and refused to be photographed or drawn). She often conducted intensive group interviews or rambling gossip session translated by Tepano or a resident European named Varta..  Her field notes are thus of the type usually called “inscription,” in which Routledge as a participant-observer jotted down words or phrases.  During later “transcription” she used them to recall the whole thought or event.  Unfortunately, her scratch notes are incomplete or illegible.  Her final “descriptive” field notes were often written after the scratch notes were “cold” or not written at all.

Katherine painstakingly traced genealogies and connected a family web of almost two hundred Rapa Nui people. She considered information from a single source to be “inadmissible evidence.” Her methodology was to seek two individuals who could support a given point, thus giving her three statements. She rarely got that, but was able quite often to validate a statement with one other confirming opinion.  She applied tests of continuity and context, and sought corroboration.

Her husband William Scoresby Routledge, in contrast, was convinced that Katherine’s consultants were dishonest, making up stories to either please or mislead her. Tepano, to a certain extent, shared his cynicism—he once characterized one of his own relatives as “a liar.” One of the younger Rapa Nui women working at Mataveri derisively told Katherine that the old men she consulted did not know what they were talking about.  Routledge did not believe that her consultants deliberately invented stories, but did see the “tendency to glide” when “memory was vague”

As early as July, 1914 Tepano had begun to take “a real interest in the work.”  His mutually beneficial collaboration with Routledge grew and deepened over the seventeen months the expedition was on Easter Island.

By the time the Mana Expedition departed Routledge and Tepano had covered every inch of the island and were a field team of two—working together on the same task or separately pursuing the same elusive bit of information. Scattered throughout Katherine’s fieldnotes and journals are dozens of pencil sketches by Tepano with her notes in pen attached; pages torn from his Company account books and scribbled on by her hand; names of places, families, statues and clans given to her by old people and then scratched out and corrected by Tepano.

On September 21 Scoresby, Katherine, and four men dug out two statues in the interior of the quarry that turned out to be, in Katherine’s opinion, her single most important archaeological finds on the island. One of them was buried up to its chin and the other to mid-torso. On September 24 Tepano was at Mataveri and heard gossip that many toki had been taken from the excavations when Katherine’s back was turned.  He reported it to her and, two days later, Katherine refused to pay the men until the tools were returned.  Tepano, in fact, handled many of the expedition’s logistical details.

Did I make clear that if you have not got the 2 men to dig for us on Monday I should be so much obliged if you would hand the matter over to Juan [emphasis added] & [ask] him to find them if possible. Wages of $1 a day & mutton if they want potatoes etc they had better bring them.

Just a few months after the departure of the Franco-Belgian Expedition, Padre Sebastián Englert arrived.  He spent the next thirty-three years pursuing the Rapa Nui past.

Notwithstanding Métraux’s opinion that all was lost, Englert inventoried moai and other archaeological remains; recorded stories and legends; studied and spoke the Rapanui language, and published some of his findings. When the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition arrived, it was Padre Englert who took on Tepano’s traditional role of intermediary and liaison with the community, acting as archaeological guide and chief consultant. This was, of course, a significant departure from the methods of both Katherine Routledge and Alfred Métraux.


There were definite differences in the ways Routledge, Métraux and Tepano gathered information about the Rapa Nui past.  Those differences in style reveal their individual personalities and tastes as well as the nature of the island and its history.  Social, cultural, economic and ecological constraints acted on all of them.  Their individual strengths and weaknesses combined to produce a unique intellectual triangulation across time.

The principles and goals of field work articulated by Malinowski were recognized before 1914.  Routledge understood field work methods to include outlining native customs through direct questioning, the gathering of genealogies, and census taking.  She was significantly less successful at grasping the more imponderable aspects of island life through use of the Rapanui language.

Routledge’s approach to field work was humanistic and subjectivist.  Functional analyses involving charts, tables and cross-referenced inter-relationships between cultural events or human institutions utterly escaped her.  The “ticking clock” that she sensed every day, and that urged her on to rescue history threatened with extinction was embedded in her by Haddon, Rivers, Seligman and other anthropologists of the day who saw all field research as salvage work.

Katherine Routledge knew the four guides of ethnographic fieldwork:  learn the language; be authoritative but sympathetic; record everything precisely, and avoid preconceptions.  She succeeded at following only one of them:  authority and sympathy were inherent in her character.

Katherine Routledge had in common with Métraux two ways in which she understood her data:  as a collection of empirical facts (metonymic) and as images or patterns (metaphoric). She was, in fact, obsessed with patterns.  Métraux dealt with data as a hierarchical, functional or organizational whole, and sought temporal reality or relevance.  Both Routledge and Métraux achieved a certain degree of success in making difficult customs and fragmented beliefs comprehensible.

Tepano’s influence on the data is reflected in Katherine Routledge’s field notes and in Métraux’s published ethnographic report. It is also discernable in later records, including those of Englert. During demonstrations of self-taught carving prowess, language facility, and memory, Tepano communicated to younger members of the Rapa Nui community what he had learned as Routledge’s consultant, confidant and collaborator, and left a lasting imprint on Rapa Nui culture. He taught his daughter, Amelia, what he had learned from Veriamu.  In my own field work between 1982 and 1990, I have notes in which field assistants such as Felipe Teao A., and recognized elders and traditional authorities such as José Fati answered my questions by naming and referring directly to Juan Tepano.

Tepano observed and participated in group conversations in his own language.  Routledge staged group interactions and sought consensus through interpreters.

Métraux tried to followed-up on Routledge’s data through Tepano. At least two elderly women who were alive when Routledge was on the island were still living when Métraux arrived.  While he relied on Victoria Rapahango and Isabel Chavez, yet he confirmed much of what Routledge had collected.  He collated and summarized data, presenting it in the context of museum collections and in a cohesive and well-established scientific fashion.  Routledge and Métraux each collected a body of field data, and each interpreted that data in their own ways.  Tepano, in contrast, did much more:  he single-handedly identified, collected, recorded, influenced, shaped and reconstructed the quintessential data all researchers today regard as the ethnography of Rapa Nui.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. — Archaeologist; Director, UCLA Rock Art Archive, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology; Project Director, Easter Island Statue Project Conservation Initiative

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Posted on May 4th, 2009 by Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Ph.D. | Category: Historic Expeditions, Routledge |