Since its 'discovery' in 1722, Easter Island has mystified people the world over. The massive moai statues, erected despite the tiny population and inferior technology of the natives, have captivated armchair scientists and field workers alike. In particular, the fact that no living islander was capable of making the statues at the time of European contact and that their explanation of the statues' locations were that they had walked there, has led to radical theories involving space aliens or sunken continents. The truth may be less fantastic, but it is no less fascinating, and certainly carries much more importance for the greater history of the human species.
Easter Island is the most isolated habitable land in the world, 1,400 miles (2,300km) from the nearest inhabited island and about 2,000 miles (3,474km) from the nearest continent, South America. It is about 64 square miles (166 square km) in area. The natives call the island 'Te Pito-te-henua', meaning 'land's end', although more common modern names are the official Chilean name Isla de Pascua and Rapa Nui, meaning 'big Rapa' to distinguish the island from another one named Rapa. Located at 27° south latitude, 109° west longitude, it enjoys a subtropical climate. The island is volcanic and is riddled with innumerable tunnels, the remnants of old lava flows. There are no rivers, and the only standing water is in the volcanic craters at the three edges of the island.
Before human contact, Easter was covered with a thick subtropical rainforest. By far the most common tree was a palm closely related to the Chilean wine palm (Jubea chilensis). These palms grew to some 65 feet (20m) high with trunks 3 feet (1m) thick. The land was covered with thick, fertile volcanic ash, received about 47 inches (1,200mm) of rain annually and had an average temperature of about 69°F (20.5°C). There were at least six medium-sized species of flightless landbirds and a profusion of sealife, including large schools of porpoises.
Despite a number of theories to the contrary1, archaeological records indicate that it is entirely certain that Easter Island was first settled by Polynesian sailors around the year 300 AD. According to native legends, the first settlement was founded by the culture hero2 Hotu Matua. The majority of native Polynesian crops were unable to grow due to the relatively temperate Easter Island climate. Only sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), bananas (Musa sp.), sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and small amounts of taro (Alocasia cucullata) could ever grow on Easter, and only sweet potato ever became a source of any significant food value. Of the three major Polynesian domestic animals (pig, chicken, and dog) only chickens survived the rigours of settlement, and they were not widespread for most of the history of the island.
As in many other cases, the initial colonists depended heavily upon native resources to sustain them until land could be cleared and crops raised to fruiting age. All six flightless bird species became extinct early on, and the numbers of migrating seabirds took a sharp dip. Nevertheless, the community survived. Sweet potatoes grew quickly with little effort, and sustained a large population. As the population grew, the forest was cleared bit by bit for more cropland until, around 700, more than half of the island was deforested. This incessant activity was partly a result of the widespread excess leisure time brought about by the fertility of the land. Essentially, many people were put to work felling trees because they didn't really have much of anything to do. This is another pattern commonly seen in Polynesian societies, which often built massive and complex systems of irrigation to produce surpluses far beyond the requirements of the population of the time.
The Golden Age of Statue Carving
Cultural practices sprang up to fill the idle hours. Largely ritualistic voyages to the Sala-y-Gomez Reef, 260 miles (415km) away, to gather seabird eggs took place once a year. Chicken raising became a bit of a popular hobby, since the chickens were not used for food but only in ritual sacrifices and fortune telling. Instead, protein came from the porpoises which were harpooned en masse. The entire lifestyle of every person on the island came to be dominated by ritual and ceremony. The political and religious organization of the island was dominated by the ariki henua, head of the royal Miru clan and a direct descendant of Hotu Matua.
As elsewhere in Polynesia, religion was centred around the open-air temple called an ahu3 which was the site for many rituals. Over time the increasing population and competition among tribes led to the development of larger and more durable ahu, sometimes adorned with small statues carved with basalt picks (toki) from tuff4. These small statues by 1100 AD evolved into the much larger moai which were placed on the ahu of very large or powerful clans. They were carved at the tuff quarry at Rano Araku and finished off with shining black-and-white stone eyes when raised into place. The first moai was 16 feet (5m) tall and weighed 20 tons (18,000kg).
Of course, over time competition forced the creation of larger and larger moai. The largest ever placed, Paro, was 33 feet (10m) tall and weighed about 82 tons (74,000kg). More complex moai with red topknots known as pukao carved from another type of stone on the other end of the island were commissioned by the most prestigious tribes. With so much prestige based on your moai, stone carvers became a respected hereditary class on a level with priests. Other full-time specialists included woodcutters and rope-makers. Both were desperately needed, as huge numbers of wooden rollers and miles of bark rope5 were needed to transport a moai to its final resting place. The statue carving period lasted for about 550 years. In that time 220 statues were carved and placed, and at least 700 others carved and abandoned in the quarry for various reasons. The population at this period likely reached 10,000, although some authors have suggested as many as 20,000 inhabitants.
End of the Golden Age
Palm wood is extremely unsuitable for holding up heavy weights. Used for the transportation of massive stone statues the rollers quickly deteriorated. Trees were felled almost constantly for the 550 years of the statue-carving period until finally the entire island was denuded. With no real surface water and no plant growth the soil very quickly washed away. Crop yields plummeted, while at the same time the lack of wood meant no canoes, thus ending the porpoise hunts. Food supplies dwindled and specialist positions, including stone carving, were cut off from resources. The culture, which had peaked around 1500 AD, declined most sharply after 1650 AD. By 1680 statues were abandoned, half-finished in their quarries where they still stand or lie today.
The people were now unhappy, hungry, and without an outlet for their long-contained competitiveness. Almost instantaneously Easter Island society went from being stable, peaceful, and prosperous, to a violent mess. Obsidian daggers called mata'a began to be produced in the thousands. The natives abandoned their grass huts for the more easily defensible caves and the monarchy collapsed. Power fell into the hands of warriors known as tangata rimatoto, literally meaning 'men with bloody hands'. The only sources of protein were the chickens, which were now stored in stone chicken houses (hare moa), and captured enemy warriors. Cannibalism became a common practice necessary for survival. Finally, in the 1730s, raiding tribal forces began toppling the statues of enemy clans. The progress of this development can be traced by the accounts of European explorers, who first arrived in 1722. The final statue fell late in the 19th Century.
After the Statues
Despite the devastation and social strife left in the wake of this anarchist period, Easter Island society proved itself capable of achieving a new balance. With heavy hunting reducing the numbers of migrating seabirds and keeping them from nesting on Easter Island itself, the few remaining seabirds nested on three small offshore islets. The largest of these, Moto Nui, became the focus of a bizarre cult known today as the birdman cult. Each year the elders and representatives of the various tribes would gather at the ceremonial village of Orongo. A boy would be chosen to represent each tribe. The boys would then swim across to Moto Nui to await the laying of the first egg by the first Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata oahuensis), sometimes for weeks. When the egg was laid the boy that grabbed it and swam back to the mainland was proclaimed the birdman. He would be put into seclusion in a stone house for a year as a holy man, and his tribe would rule the island for that year.
Unfortunately, this new religion was just beginning to rebuild society when Peruvian slave traders came to the island in 1862, taking away some 2,000 of the perhaps 3,000 inhabitants at the time. After protests were made by the religious authorities in Peru the natives were returned, but by then only 15 survived the combination of brutality and disease. When the diseases (primarily smallpox) came back to Easter with the freed slaves, it further reduced the population to a final low of 111 inhabitants. The majority of modern-day islanders have little or no native blood, being the descendants of Chilean settlers.
A highly recommended book is Bahn and Flenley's Easter Island, Earth Island. For those with time, interesting information is also presented in P V Kirch's standard text On the Roads of the Wind.
Also recommended is the transcript of the BBC programme 'The Mystery of Easter Island'.
1 Including those of the noted anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl.
2 Anthropological term for the legendary or historical founder of a society who is the focus of stories that constitute part of cultural identity. Western examples might be Romulus or George Washington.
3 Or on some islands 'marae'.
4 Compressed volcanic ash.
5 Made from the bark of a shrub known to the natives as hau, probably of the genus Triufetta.