The small island in the Pacific Ocean contains amazing vestiges of an outstanding cultural phenomenon which included the development of a society that built monumental sculptures and ended by conflict, over-population and environmental deterioration.
Easter Island is a triangle-shaped dot of about 164 square kilometers in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It is the most isolated inhabited island in the world located about 3200 km (2000 miles) away from South America and about 4,000 kilometres from Tahiti. In 1995 it was inscribed by the UNESCO as a cultural World Heritage Site under the name of "Rapa Nui National Park".
Discovery of Easter Island
When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggenveen landed on the Island on Easter Sunday, 1722, he was greatly surprised to see the giant stone statues guarding the coast of the island. Most of them were erect and faced inland, other were facing towards the ocean, some were torn down and many were still in various degrees of completion, several of them just started.
Seven moai at Ahu Akivi were restored in 1960 by the American archaeologist William Mulloy and his Chilean colleague, Gonzalo Figueroa. In contrast to most moai at other sites on the island, the moai at Ahu Akivi face the ocean.
Who carved them and why? Why so many of them? Why there were so different in size? What was the significance of the long ears, white eyes and huge red hats that covered their heads? How were they moved from the quarry and how were they erected on the platforms? What happened to the carvers?
Most of these questions still remain a mystery and are among the great enigmas of the ancient cultures of humanity. At that time the island had about 10 thousand inhabitants of Polynesian origin belonging to the so-called Rapa Nui ethnic people.
Moais at Ahu Tahai with the village of Hanga Roa in the background. On the right is Moai "Kote Riku" with stone hat and restored eyes.
What caused the collapse of the Rapa Nui people?
Several causes have been suggested for the collapse of the Rapa Nui population. These include the visits by European explorers who used the island as a point of call on their travels in Polynesia and brought diseases, smallpox and tuberculosis, for which the islanders had no defense. Peruvian bandits assaulted the island in search of slaves to work the guano deposits near Callao, Peru. Catholic missionaries removed many islanders to strengthen their work of evangelization and the exploitation of sugar plantations in Tahiti. Health problems caused by inbreeding, nutritional deficiencies and endocrine failures, were also the cause of many problems. The destruction of the trees, which were virtually eliminated and used for the construction of fishing vessels, brought desolation to the landscape. Once the boats rotted there was no more wood available to build new canoes for fishing. The soil eroded and fruit and vegetable crops failed. Conflicts and wars between clans fighting over the scarce resources, including water and food, ended up decimating the population. As a result, by 1877 there were only 110 destitute and dejected islanders remaining.
Moais on the slope of volcano Rano-Raraku. Most of these moais are still unfinished and remain near the quarry with most of the body underground.
Culture and archeology
The small population that survived the food shortages, diseases and wars did not include political or religious leaders or educated people so that the knowledge of their history was reduced to some oral traditions, the possession of some hieroglyphs written on wooden tablets known as "Rongorongo" which have never been deciphered, and some petroglyphs scattered in various parts of the island. And of course, the huge stone statues called Moai.
Petroglyphs are carved on smooth basalt rocks located along coastal areas and are often associated with ceremonial centers.
Moai facing inland at Ahu Tongariki. They were restored by Chilean archaeologist Claudio Cristino in the 1990s. The second moai from the right has a pukao on its head. The fifth moai from the right is the tallest moai on the island.
There are 877 stone statues of various sizes on the island. They were probably built in a span of about 300 years between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The highest of them, called “Paro”, weighs over 80 tons. Many statues were never finished and are still attached to the stone quarry on the slopes of Rano-Raraku volcano, including one that measures about 21 meters and weighs about 270 tons.
Chile takes control of Easter Island
In 1888, the Government of Chile took possession of the island through a treaty written in Spanish and Rapa Nui language mixed with Tahitian. The treaty lends itself to confusion and is still contested by the Islanders. They claim that the inhabitants of Easter Island would have ceded administrative rights to Chile, but reserved the right to ownership of the land.
Detailed topographic map of Easter Island. Note dots (miniature Moai) showing the locations of the stone statues around the Island.
The inhabitants of Easter Island were granted Chilean citizenship in 1966. Administratively, the island is part of the Region of Valparaíso. Currently, the population of Easter Island is about 4000 inhabitants of whom about 60% defined themselves as Rapa Nui, descendants of the original Polynesian ancestors.
In recent years (2009-2011) the Government of Chile has been studying legislation that would give the inhabitants of Easter Island some discretion over matters of self-government and the possibility of restricting the immigration of continental Chileans to the Island. Islanders also demand greater autonomy in managing the island as a tourist attraction of international level.
An outstanding travel destination
Journalist Larry Olsmted writes on travel destinations for Forbes magazine; he calls Easter Island “the most interesting place I have ever been”:
“Easter Island is a near total enigma, a ghost town of epic proportions, an entire culture vanished almost without a trace, leaving us nothing but the countless giant stone sculptures known as Moai and a lot of questions about why and how this mass extinction occurred…. What remains is a ghostly testament to a mystery that will probably never be answered…it is also a place of incredible beauty.”
Digital Journal visited Easter Island. The pictures accompanying this report support Olsmted’s enthusiastic assessment and that of thousands of others visitors that have travelled to this remote and fascinating destination.
LanChile is the only airline flying to Mataveri International Airport, Easter Island, from Santiago, Chile, or from Papeete, Tahiti.
“Easter Island is a deeply spiritual and moving place, and there is truly nothing else like it, and what is there can be seen no place else.” (Larry Olsmted, Forbes Mag. 2011).