Easter Island (called Rapa Nui by the locals and Isla de Pascua by the Chilean government that annexed the territory in 1888) is famous for the monumental stone statues that were created by the native Rapa Nui population. It’s also one of the most remote inhabited places on earth.
The island’s first European visitor, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, called it Easter Island because he encountered it on Easter Sunday in 1722 while searching for another island. Roggeveen described the impressive standing monolithic statues and a population of white, Indian, and Polynesian people living in relative harmony and prosperity.
In 1774 British explorer James Cook visited Easter Island and reported the statues as being neglected with some having fallen down. He also described a much smaller population consisting mainly of Polynesians and living in privation.
There are many theories about the creation of the monolithic statues and the rise and fall of Rapa Nui civilization. Some theories blame the destruction on contact with Europeans, some blame clan warfare and overpopulation, and some make connections to aliens, the Bible and general mystical forces. On our tour of the Hanga Roa museum and the Rapa Nui national park, we heard the Rapa Nui/Thor Heyerdahl version, so I’m going to stick to that.
There is no question that the people who managed to find and populate this island were spectacular seafarers and navigators. The Hanga Roa museum described how the original inhabitants identified land from great distances, by identifying clouds, birds and other phenomena that indicated land. Heyerdahl theorized that the first colonizers arrived from South America, and the Rapa Nui theorized that the first visitors were Polynesian. Remains of homes found in the area have mainland and polynesian qualities, so both may be right.
[ruins of a Rapa Nui home]
Early colonizers of Rapa Nui, called the Long Ears (Hanau eepe) because of their (possibly artificially) elongated earlobes, began to sculpt the Moai sometime around 1200 AD, presumably to honour their first deceased ancestor. When a later group of short-eared (Hanua momoko) immigrants arrived on the island, perhaps from the West in the mid 16th century, the Long Ears gave them refuge, but they also put them to work carving Moai and doing general labor.
[Moai production line at the Rano Raraku quarry]
Nearly half of the Moai are still at Rano Raraku volcano quarry, the main production area where they were carved. Sculptors used only stone hand chisels. Hundreds of Moai were transported from Rano Raraku and set on ahu around the edges of the island. It is not known exactly how the moai were moved across the island but the process almost certainly required lots of muscle, ropes, and/or wooden sleds or rollers; as well as leveled tracks across the island (the Easter Island roads).
When Rogerveen ‘discovered’ Rapa Nui in 1722, he saw many of the moai erect on their platforms, their backs to the sea, and the natives prostrating themselves worshipping the images. He wrote in his log:
These stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder,for we could not understand how it was possible that people who are destitute of heavy or thick timber, and also of stout cordage, out of which to construct gear, had been able to erect them.’
The Rapa Nui culture thrived and the population grew, which led to a scarcity of resources. According to Rapa Nui legend the Short Ears massacred the Long-Ears. After their victory, they toppled all the moai.
Moai were pushed forwards to have their faces hidden. Some were toppled in such a way that their necks broke. The coral eyes that gave them spiritual power were crushed.
One cause of the environmental disaster may have been the moai industry, which required great amounts of wood for sledges. Archaeologists report finding scattered carving tools at the Rano Raraku quarry, an area that still has the air of being hastily abandoned. From a distance, the unclaimed moai look like monolithic misfit toys, forlornly waiting for a home.
During and after the wars, people turned to caves for shelter and tending small gardens for sustenance. Apparently the “Birdman cult” replaced the Moai/ancestor worship. According to our guide, some of the residents turned to cannibalism, kidnapping ‘the little juicy ones’ from other tribes to eat.
[Cave used as shelter]
Later European visitors didn’t help the beleaguered tribes:
Beginning in 1805, the Rapanui suffered half a century of slave raids by North and South American traders. These culminated in 1862 with the Great Peruvian Slave Raid. Eight Peruvian ships happened to meet at Easter Island with the same purpose in mind. They banded together and managed to capture more than 200 people, including the royal family of King Kaimakoi and nearly all the leading figures of Rapa Nui.
In response to pressure from the Catholic bishop of Tahiti and the French minister in Lima, the Peruvian government eventually ordered the return of all 1000 Rapanui now in captivity, but the effort was in vain. Ninety per cent of them died before the return journey, and most of the remaining hundred died of smallpox on the voyage back. The fifteen surviving slaves brought the smallpox home with them, and before long the entire island population had sunk to 111 desperate souls. The era of aboriginal culture on Rapa Nui was over. From a bountiful civilization with the resources and the leadership to build nearly a thousand monolithic statues, the Rapanui had been reduced to a handful of wary cave dwellers. Between 1866 and 1871, missionaries led by a Frenchman named Eugene Eyraud managed to convert the islanders to Christianity and brought new crops and livestock to the depleted landscape. The necessary casualties, of course, were the last vestiges of native culture. In 1888 Chile annexed the island that nobody wanted…
Rapa Nui society failed but unlike other Polynesian stone age cultures, the rapanui managed to achieve the spectacular greatness/failure trajectory that larger and more complex cultures (Rome, Great Britain, Egypt) travelled. The current residents of the island may depend on tourism, but they also have a lifestyle and a family support system that descendents of other once-great cultures would envy. Women walk with the grace of dancers, babies are everywhere, teenagers and middle aged folks can be found at the beaches on weekends, surfing or playing impromptu soccer games. European new agers and wanderers have set up restaurants serving delicious Chilean, French, Belgian and Spanish-influenced food. Paradise lost still looks an awful lot like paradise.
[The view from our cabana]
Although this remote place is easier to get to now, it’s still a bit of a hike. But it’s worth the effort.