Easter Island has been a famous tourism destination for long time, especially because of its unique ancient statues. The island also still becomes the object of archeologists’ researches since it still has several mysteries, waiting to be solved.
Easter Island is a name given by Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutch explorer. He found the island on April 5, 1722, exactly on Easter Sunday, when he was looking for David’s Island. He called it “Paasch-Eyland”, which means “Easter Island”. It’s also called “Rapa Nui”, “Rapa”, and “Rapa Iti” by the Polynesians.
The subtropical maritime island is one of the remotest inhabited islands in the world with Pitcairn Island as its closest inhabited neighbour (2,075 km) to the west. Its nearest continent is America, at 3,512 km, and is now claimed by Chile as its island. It’s a triangular-shaped volcanic island.
When it was discovered back in 1722 by Europeans, it was a dry island with no trees over ten feet in height. It was in poor condition. At the time, 2,000 inhabitants lived in the area were thin and malnourished. There were also no other animals seen besides Polynesian rats. The natives also had very little numbers of boats. Another mystery is the statues they saw standing in some points of the island, gazing to the sea.
1. The Mysteries
So far, Easter Island still keeps some secrets of its past, especially about the statues, and its civilization extinction. However, some theories have been revealed and some have been considered as the best answers for both mysteries.
a. The Statues
887 whole-body statues, known as Moai or “Easter Island Heads”, are still gazing to the sea after about 5-8 centuries. The word “Moai” means “Image” in English. The statues are varied in height, weight, and location. They have no legs, and some of them are busts. The multiton behemoths’ average height is about 4 meters high, with the average width at the base about 1.6 meters. Made of tuff (a compressed volcanic ash), they weighed around 12.5 tonnes a piece.
Some theories about the Moai statues have surfaced for years. Here are some of the theories:
- Aliens came to the earth and planted the statues as signals for their fellows to come and rescue them.
- The statues were built by a great race of guilders who were stranded on Easter Island before they were rescued.
- The ancient natives carved the statues to worship their Gods or ancestors (either just a general worship or a plea to their Gods to rescue them from a catastrophic incident in the past). – This theory is the one widely-approved now.
There are still hundreds of incomplete Moai statues to carve. The experts are still not sure when exactly the natives began to stop carving the Moai statues. There is an indication that the project was stopped after chaos dominated the lives of the ancient natives. I’m going to talk more about the catastrophic incident and chaos soon.
There have been some debates on how to transport the massive statues to the place they stand right now. Here are some efforts to solve the mystery:
- Czech engineer Pavel Pavel tried to solve the mystery. He worked with Norwegian explorer-adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and a team of 17 helpers to propel an upright, 13-foot (4-meter), nine-ton Moai forward with twisting motions, keeping the statue fully upright at all times. That was in 1986. But Pavel’s team damaged the Moai’s base and had to stop.
- In 1987, U.S. archaeologist Charles Love and a team of 25 erected a 13-foot (4-meter), nine-ton model upright on a wooden sledge and moved it over log rollers, advancing it 148 feet (45 meters) in two minutes.
- Descendents of Polynesian settlers on the island believe that the statues move by themselves. “We know the truth,” said Suri Tuki, 25, a Polynesian tour guide. “The statues walked.”
- Archaeologists Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo of California State University Long Beach believed that 18 people could, with three strong ropes and a bit of practice, easily maneuver a 10-foot, 5-ton moai replica a few hundred yards. This newest theory was revealed in 2012.
b. The Ancient Civilization
Polynesian ancient natives or ancient Rapa Nui people came to inhabit the island back in 1200 A.D. When they came to the island at the time, Easter Island was a sub-tropical forest with so many tall Easter Island Palms, which could grow up over 50 feet. The likes of Paschalococos (The largest palm trees in the world), Alphitonia zizyphoides, and Elaeocarpus rarotongensis were also believed to grow in the forest. At least, there were six species of native land birds live around the island.
The civilization developed rapidly. The natives started to build a complex social structure with a centralized government and religious priests. Along with the rapid development of system, the number of population was also rapidly increasing. The people made a living by farming, fishing, and hunting. To build houses to stay and canoes to fish, they cut trees in the forests. The Easter islanders hunted porpoises for a steady diet. For a while, things went well for the society.
Between the year of 1250 A.D. until 1500 A.D., the Easter islanders started to build Moai statues. More woods were cut to create ropes or wooden sledges in order to move the statues to locations the local people wanted them to be. Around this era, the number of woods started to decrease rapidly. The seeds from the trees, which fell to the ground, didn’t grow as new trees since Polynesian rats consumed them all. According to the experts, the rats weren’t the native animals of the island. They were brought in by the ancient Rapa Nui people once they arrived in the island. The population of the rats were steadily increasing. The islanders did consume them as well, but otherwise they didn’t have other predators. Hampering the trees in the forest to grow, the outnumbered rats also ate birds’ eggs. As a consequence, the number of birds in the island were also continuously decreasing.
Around 1400 A.D., the Easter island palms went extinct. Just like dominoes effects, afterward, the ancient Rapa Nui people couldn’t make other canoes to hunt fish in the sea. As a consequence, they couldn’t consume fish like porpoises anymore. Thus, they began to focus on hunting land birds, migratory birds, and mollusks. However, soon, the number of animals were severely reduced. Their crop fields were also not successful enough to harvest because of soil erosion. The strong wind may also become the factor though the people have tried to protect their plants by building a barricade of stones as a shield to the wind. Furthermore, drinking water supplies dried up when drought came. Before Europeans arrived in the island, the ancient natives’ lives started to turn into chaos. The catastrophic drought and starvation due to lack of food devastated the civilization system. They started to fight against each other for food, which turned into civil war. The frustrated society then gradually turned their lifestyle into cannibalism. After the Europeans came, there were just little signs of the ancient civilization in that island. There were also only small numbers of people still lived there.
After the European settled in the island, the Rapa Nui people were still not so lucky since the newcomers brought deadly diseases. By 1877, only 111 Rapa Nui people survived in the island.
In short, the civilization were extinct because of deforestation, drought, starvation, civil war, and illness. An American scientist and 1998’s Pulitzer prize winner, Jared Diamond said that the fall of the civilization is “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources” and “a worst-case scenario for what may lie ahead of us in our own future.”
Nowadays, Easter island has become a famous tourism destination. It’s also one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.