On the Origin of Species: Nosepass and Probopass

Investigating the inspirations behind Pokémon
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  • Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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This column has been written by Xan Hutcheon. It expresses the views of the columnist, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.

The first time I saw Nosepass, it really confused me. Based on its sprite in Ruby and Sapphire, it was hard to fathom exactly what it was. I can't be the only who thought its foot was its mouth, right? Anyway, it wasn't until I saw the official artwork that it all fell into place.

Nosepass and Probopass

Nosepass and Probopass are Pokémon for whom concept and appearance are very different things. In terms of concept, they're based on compasses, a connection especially evident from Probopass' iron filing mustache, as well as Nosepass' smooth, pivot-like movement in the 3D games. But what really interests me is the origin of their appearance, and that's what we'll be looking at today.

You may well be aware that the designs of Nosepass and Probopass were inspired by moai, also known as the "Easter Island heads"... even though, as we'll discover, they aren't merely heads. The story behind them is the story of a little-known culture that flourished in isolation for centuries.

Easter Island is one of the many islands of Polynesia, located in the southern Pacific Ocean. Since the late nineteenth century, it has belonged to Chile. Its name was coined by the Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen, who became the first European to discover the island on Easter Sunday of 1722. The Polynesian name for the island is Rapa Nui, though this name wouldn't have been used by the native population of the time. Nobody is quite sure what the original name of the island was.

Indeed, the early history of the island is all but unknown: historians can't even agree on when the island was first settled, with estimates ranging from 300 AD to 1200 AD, a gap of almost a thousand years. What we can be fairly sure of, however, is that the first moai were produced in around 1250, and that production continued until approximately 1500.

Moai partially buried in the slopes of Rano Raraku.

So, what precisely are moai, and why were they made? There are 887 moai in existence, most of them carved from a soft volcanic rock called tuff. They're stylized figures with large heads, prominent features and small bodies. Their size varies, but the tallest one ever completed was over 10 meters in height. Typically, a completed moai would be erected on a ceremonial stone platform called an ahu. Some ahu would have a whole row of moai. In most cases, ahu were located near the coast, with the moai facing inland.

From the mid-nineteenth century up until the 1950s, the only moai standing upright were on the slopes surrounding Rano Raraku, the volcanic crater which also served as the island's main quarry. These moai were buried up to their shoulders, their lower bodies not visible, and this explains why many people think of the moai as merely 'heads'.

Precisely how the moai were moved from the quarry where they were carved to their coastal locations is the subject of intense speculation. Some historians argue that they must have been placed flat on wooden rollers, while others claim that "walking" the upright statues to their destinations would have been a more efficient method. Either way, transporting the statues would have been a remarkable feat of engineering, requiring considerable manpower.

The statues represented deceased ancestors, whom the Rapanui believed were watching over them from the spirit world. It was thought that the living and the dead had a kind of symbiotic relationship: through making offerings to the statues, the living could provide the dead with a better place in the afterlife, and in return, the dead could bestow good health and good fortune upon the living. It is for this reason that most moai faced inland, away from the sea. The sea represented the spirit world, and the moai were looking inwards, towards the world of the living.

When Jakob Roggeveen first made contact with Easter Island, he observed many moai standing upright, but over the century that followed, most of the statues were toppled, until the only statues remaining upright were the partially buried ones at Rano Raraku. It seems that the population grew so large that the island was unable to sustain it, and a series of violent conflicts began to break out over what resources there were. The island's mythology changed to accommodate this more desperate state of affairs: the living could no longer contact the dead through the moai, but rather via humans chosen in a competition. Warriors from each tribe would compete to become tangata manu, or 'Bird Man'. This involved a grueling race through shark-infested waters to retrieve the first sooty tern egg of the season from a nearby islet. The winner gained control of the island's resources for that year. The cult of the Bird Man lasted for around a hundred years, and the moai – no longer the revered symbols they once were – were toppled.

A restored moai, complete with pukao and coral eyes.

Nowadays, moai are instantly recognizable symbols of Polynesian culture. From the 1950s onwards, there has been an effort to restore and preserve them, with many moai now standing once more. It's not uncommon to see them in the media, including video games: one example that springs instantly to my mind was the moai-themed Easton Kingdom of Super Mario Land. And this brings us back to the Pokémon franchise, and specifically Nosepass and Probopass.

I have to say that I feel a little sorry for Probopass. Of the many new evolutions introduced in Generation IV, Probopass was one of the least expected, and also one of the strangest. Now wearing an odd little red hat and featuring small, beady eyes, it's easy to dismiss Probopass as a mixture of random ideas that bear little relation to Nosepass' original concept. However, both the hat and the eyes are lifted directly from moai design. Many moai do indeed have cylindrical red hats, known as pukao. These aren't often seen because, just like most of the free-standing, full-body moai, moai with pukao were knocked down and have only been re-erected fairly recently. Similarly, it was discovered that the eye sockets of the moai were designed to hold eyes made of coral. Some moai have since had their eyes restored in this way.

In that context, Probopass makes a little more sense as an evolution of Nosepass. We can see Nosepass as the simple sort of moai that most of us imagine, while Probopass is the restored moai, complete with its red hat and coral eyes. And what of the iron filing mustache, and the 'mini-noses' that surround it? Ah, well, I never claimed that Probopass made perfect sense...

On the Origin of Species
By Xan Hutcheon
WooperCastformMawileManaphy and PhioneSandshrew and Sandslash
Turtwig, Grotle and TorterraRelicanthFarfetch'dPoochyena and Mightyena
Bronzor and BronzongNincada, Ninjask and ShedinjaParas and Parasect
JirachiChinchou and LanturnMeowthTrapinch, Vibrava and FlygonJynx
Lileep and CradilyCharmanderTreecko, Grovyle and SceptileOddish
Gloom and VileplumeMewNosepass and ProbopassShuppet and Banette
WoobatVenipede, Whirlipede and ScolipedeMagikarpVictreebel
Slowpoke, Slowbro and SlowkingDunsparceCorsolaStantlerAbsolLuvdisc