Brief History of Easter Island (Home of the Moais)

Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) is an island of volcanic origin located around 3700 km from the Chilean mainland and around 4000 km from Tahiti. The island was uninhabited until settlement by presumably Eastpolynesian seafarers. Alternative theories suggest that the settlers may have, at least in part, originated from South America. The exact date of arrival of the first inhabitants is unknown but may have been as early as 400 AC. Due to the isolated location of the island, it is likely that after initial settlement, the islanders culture was able to developed entirely independently of outside influences. The Island is most famous for its Moai statues. The first of these statues is thought to have been made at around 900 AC, the last around 1700. The statues are thought to represent the reincarnation of former tribal leaders.

Moai Moais

Moais near Rano Raraku Quarry

Moais in Rano Raraku Crater

Moai statues were carved out of volcanic tuff* stone at the quarry in Rano Raraku crater. Statues were then transported to other locations on the Island where they were placed on ceremonial altars known as Ahu. It seems that at the Ahu, eye hollows were carved into the statues so that eyes made of coral with obsidian pupils could be added. Many of the statues appear to have also had Pukao (headknots) made of red tuff stone derived from the Puna Pao crater placed ontop of them. The Ahus served as the sites of worship for the islanders. At the height of civilization on the Easter Island between the 15th and 17th century it is estimated that 11 tribes with a total of between 10 and 20000 people lived peacefully on the Island. Each of these tribes had numerous Ahus on their territory. A total of at least 270 Ahus have now been discovered, as have over 900 Moai statues, including many in various states of completion that never left the quarry.

Rano Raraku Quarry, Moais Source Moais with Headknot and Eyes Moais Headknots, Puna Pao Quarry

Rano Raraku Quarry - All of the Moais Originate from this Location

Moai Restored to Original Condition with Headknot and Eyes

Puna Pao Quarry, Source of the Moai Headknots.

Moais, Ahu Tongariki Moais Moais, Ahu Nau-Nau, Anakena

Ahu Tongariki, the Largest Ahu on Easter Island

Huge Half-buried Moai Near Rano Raraku Quarry with Tourist Providing Scale

Ahu Nau-Nau, Anakena

The first Western people to find the Island were Dutch sailors. These arrived on Easter Sunday 1722 (Hence the name Easter Island). At this time, the indigenous culture still appears to have been reasonably intact, since ceremonies taking place at Ahus were observed. In 1770, the Spanish arrived and declared the Island their territory. In 1774, Thomas Cook landed on Easter Island and noted the desolate state of the inhabitants and the extensive destruction of the Ahus. Consequently, the civilization form that appears to have been peacefully sustained for maybe over a thousand years, appears to have totally collapsed in the mid-18th Century. The reasons behind the collapse of the local civilization were not immediately understood. Outside intervention does not appear to have been the direct cause, although it would seem surprising if the first contact with outsiders had not partially undermined the religious authority of the religious leaders on the island.

It now appears that as a result over high population density on the Island, more and more land had to be dedicated to agriculture (this can be seen by the increasing number of fire places in the later stages of the civilization). At a certain time, probably due to climatic influence (such as a sustained drought) it appears that even the additional agricultural land was unable to sustain the population. By studying the carbonized remains of wood found in fire places, it has been established that around the year 1640, there was a sudden stop in the use of wood for cooking purposes. This suggests that none of the originally 13 types of tree found on the Island were found there beyond this date. Presumably a combination of deforestation for agricultural purposes and drought had removed the last trees from the once densely-vegetated Island. The inhabitants must have suffered from malnutrition and were unable to leave the island since they had no wood for making their traditional boats (although it is questionable whether given boats they would have known where to go). The deteriorating living conditions appear to have caused unrest. Since even the carving of ever-larger Moais did not help, it appears that islanders eventually lost faith. The religious hierarchy was overthrown and fighting between the tribes took place. It is during this period that the Moais were thrown from their Ahus and activity in the quarries came to an end. The old cults were briefly replaced by the bird-man cult until Western civilization finally effectively put an end to the independent culture on the Island.

Moais Moais

Moais Thrown Over During Period of Unrest

Petroglyph Showing a Birdman Figure, Symbol of the Cult that Followed After the Moai Cult had been Abandoned

Although the original culture appears to have collapsed beforehand, western civilization did, as so often, eventually take its toll. On Christmas eve 1862, peruvian slave traders arrived and captured around 1000 islanders, which was the majority of the remaining population. These were taken to work in the Guano mines in Peru. Only 15 later returned. In 1870, only 110 of the traditional inhabitants remained. Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888. For a long time thereafter, the primary activity on the island was sheep-farming. However, today the main source of income is from tourism. A number of Moais have now been resurrected on their Ahus. These can be visited, as can the quarries in which the Moais and their headknots were carved. What makes the history of the Island particularly interesting is the fact that it can serve as an important example of how a civilization can sew the seeds of its own destruction. The environmental destruction resulting from the dense human population on the Island can arguably be extrapolated to the whole planet in present times. If we are not careful we may well end up trapped on a planet with a severely damaged environment unable to sustain us, much like the Easter Islanders were trapped on their Island.

* Tuff is a general name for consolidated ash or tephra (fragmented volcanic ejecta), usually with largest clasts less than 2cm in diameter. The material is erupted and is still hot when it hits the ground, resulting in consolidation and partial welding.

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