Deeper Into Jeopardy! VI: Islands of the Pacific – $2000

Jeopardy! category: ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC (19-02-2014)

$2000 clue: Thor Heyerdahl believed this island was once colonized by a redheaded race from South America, possibly Peru

Correct response

The gist: Piloting the Kon-Tiki, a balsa-wood raft constructed based on drawings made by Spanish conquistadores in sixteenth-century Peru, Thor Heyerdahl and his six-man Norwegian-Swedish crew successfully sailed from Callao, Peru to a small islet in the French Polynesian Tuamotu island group. Although his aim was slightly off, he had demonstrated that it was theoretically possible for a craft built on ancient principles (albeit with modern provisions) to successfully sail halfway across the Pacific. He undertook the voyage to support his diffusionist hypothesis that Polynesia, and Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as it is known locally) was settled by sailors from South America, rather than from southeast Asia. Of course, demonstrating that it was possible is a far cry from demonstrating that it actually happened, and Heyerdahl’s theories were not widely accepted in his lifetime and remain so today.* The vast majority of researchers stick to the theory that modern Polynesians began migrating in small oceangoing vessels (possibly outrigger canoes) from the Malay Peninsula, not only south to Indonesia and east to Polynesia, but also west across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and Seychelles. Heyerdahl was making an admirable effort to explain some things he thought were curious about some Polynesian traits, such as he aforementioned red hair and masonry techniques, but ultimately those traits could be given much simpler explanations than his trans-Pacific pioneers.

Easter Island itself is a special territory of Chile, the closest significant land mass to the island, although even it is over 3200 kilometres away. It’s of course best known for its moai statues, the big stone statues (some with jaunty red hats) that were erected by Rapa Nui ancestors probably around 1250-1500 CE. The moai were certainly symbols of power, whether political, religious, or otherwise, but anthropological details beyond that are difficult to come by. They have been used as an example of competition as a driving force behind anthropological complexity – powerful people carved bigger, better heads as their rivals did so too, causing a chain reaction that required the development of more complex and sophisticated technology, social organizations, and so forth to sustain. By the time Europeans arrived at the island (Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first, discovering it on Easter Sunday, 1722), many of the moai had been toppled over, perhaps the result of internecine conflict among the islanders.

Map of Easter Island, with major ahu (moai platforms) indicated

The clue: There are a couple ways to get to the correct response for this clue. The first, of course, is knowing about Heyerdahl’s theories about the island, in particular its connection to South America, although some level of detail is needed there to know that it’s Easter Island specifically he was speculating about, and not another Polynesian island. Related is the red hair mentioned, which Heyerdahl observed on some islanders found curious enough to require external explanation. You might also be able to guess Easter Island with reasonable confidence, though, if you know the geography of the region, given its eastern location and (relative) proximity to South America. Plus, Easter Island is so vivid in the imagination of Jeopardy!’s demographic that I would be surprised if a category on Pacific islands didn’t mention it at all, so by the $2000 clue, it’s probably not a bad guess.

In Jeopardy!: Easter Island shows up (after weeding through all the clues about eastern islands) in 46 clues in the J!Archive. The vast majority, of course, are about the moai statues, but a fair number ask about its relationship, both political and geographic, to Chile, and the day on which it was found (e.g. “two days after Good Friday” or on “a holiday” – but don’t get that last one confused with Christmas Island!). This clue was probably the toughest of all of them, as it doesn’t mention any of the above, and is even potentially confusing by referencing Peru instead of Chile.

* Although a recent analysis suggests that Amerindians may have made a small contribution to the genetic makeup of Polynesia.

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