Although archaeologists have proposed numerous theories about the inhabitants, their culture, and their tragic decline, much of Easter Island's eerie past remains a mystery. The spooky tale of Easter Island serves as a lesson in Oceania's history as well as a warning against environmental exploitation. The Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722, gave Easter Island its name. The island, also known as Rapa Nui and Isla de Pascua, was a desolate wasteland for generations, serving as a blank canvas for the numerous moai that adorned its cliffs and beaches.
The most iconic aspect of Easter Island are the gigantic stone statues known as moai. The moai, which were made from volcanic ash, can weigh up to 82 tons and stand up to 32.63 feet tall. However, given that the original moai were destroyed years ago, the repaired ones that are still standing today are a tribute to contemporary archaeological efforts. It's important to comprehend who made these amazing monuments in order to comprehend how they functioned. Polynesia, a scattering of almost a thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean, was where the inhabitants of Easter Island were from. Polynesians are adept navigators and seafarers.
The ancient inhabitants of the island built seaworthy vessels out of wood, using the sky as their compass. The Easter Islanders are thought to have sailed from East Polynesia in the year 400. and that they spent two weeks at sea before coming to rest on the island's shores. We don't know if they realized Easter Island even existed or if they were diverted from their intended destination by strong winds and choppy seas brought on by a weather pattern similar to El Nio. Whatever the reason for their journey or the aim of their final destination, they sought safety in a very foreign land.
Following the Polynesian name for the island, Rapa Nui, the Polynesian sailors that founded Easter Island are known as Rapanui. The Rapanui's advanced civilization lasted for a very long time. But a significant change was about to take place. The same individuals who built the magnificent moai would permanently change the island's environment. When their society was at its height, they would be talented artists and engineers, but in their darkest, most hopeless moments, they would become merciless warriors. Few civilizations have ever risen and destroyed as quickly or as mysteriously. This essay will teach us about the complex culture of the Easter Islanders and their quick fall into ruin. The island itself and how its inhabitants adjusted to it will be covered next.
The Island's History
One of the most isolated places on earth, Easter Island is a tiny piece of land. Although Chile is the nearest neighbor, at about 2,299 miles, it is not exactly a next-door neighbor. Easter Island is a triangle-shaped island that is only 64 square miles in size. Easter Island, like many other oceanic islands, was formed by volcanic eruptions. Rano Kau, the largest volcano there, can really be viewed from space. Although the island's turquoise waters and white sand beaches may appear ideal, don't plan on going there for your honeymoon just yet. Other notable formations include enormous, jagged cliffs, gloomy caverns, and volcanic craters.
Scientists believe the island was once a lush paradise with up to 16 million palm trees based on soil samples and dating techniques. Life on the island was scarce millions of years before the arrival of the Polynesians. There aren't enough nutrients in the ocean waters nearby to support coral reefs or a large number of fish. Only mollusks, lizards, and insects could be found inland. The most animated visitors to the island were seabirds, who may have even left behind seeds that later sprouted into the lush palm forest. New plants and animals were brought by the Polynesians. They carried taro, sweet potatoes, and bananas on their voyage, which they planted on the island. Their food was mostly vegetarian, however they also brought a few chickens and learned to deep-sea fish for dolphins and porpoises that were nearby.
The Rapanui constructed their homes in an elliptical shape, just like their canoes. The Rapanui kept busy by growing their population and adapting to life on the island. While the number of islanders that traveled from Polynesia to the island is unknown, it is clear that the population increased quickly. On Easter Island, 7,000–9,000 Rapanui were residing by the year 1150. Various researchers suggest that early Rapanui engaged in inbreeding, which led to a rapid growth in population as well as some morphological variations among the islanders. For example, it was common for Rapanui to have six toes on each foot.
The Rapanui may have separated themselves from Polynesia by thousands of kilometers, yet they preserved Polynesian culture in their new country. The Rapanui were governed by tribe chiefs who attempted to instill a sense of mana, or political and spiritual authority. Through worship and artistic expression that revered the gods and the ancestors, mana was implanted in vital ways. Tattooing, petroglyphs, music, dancing, and string figures—which were employed in storytelling—were some of these creative forms. However, there is little doubt that the moai is their most important artistic creation. We will discover more about how these Goliaths were made in the part that follows.
The Legendary Moai
There are Moai outside of Easter Island. The moai were built as an act of piety since no other piece of art completely captured mana the way these enormous statues did. You can see structures similar to them in Tahiti and Hawaii, but nowhere else are they as astounding in size, number, and craftsmanship. They were first constructed by the Rapanui in 1200 A.D. These statues were created on a far smaller scale than the gigantic, towering moai, which would appear around 1600. Moai craftspeople acquired specialized techniques for creating these gods, much like a guild of craftsmen. The painters' studio was located in the Rano Raraku volcano's crater. There were enormous quantities of the porous, light rock known as compacted volcanic ash. The rock was ochre and orange in color and naturally firm and malleable.
Despite the fact that each moai is thought to have symbolized a different ancestor, they all share a similar appearance as a result of the procedure used to create them. The first step for the artists was to trace the moai's outline in the rock. After completing this pattern, they would chisel the rock away until only the unfinished moai and a flat base, or keel, were left. The deliberate care with which the moai were transported from the volcano to their ahu, or platforms, on the island's outskirts, was equivalent to the meticulous precision that went into their creation. Maybe their purpose was to protect the seashore. Some of their features were adorned with obsidian and coral, and their stone eyes looked inward toward the island.
Although it is unknown how the moai were relocated, current ideas describe the Rapanui's method. When the statue was complete, it was cut off from its keel and ropes were used to lower it down the volcano. The moai was then placed on logs and transported to its ahu. There is disagreement over whether the statue was loaded vertically or horizontally. According to archaeologist Jo Anne von Tilburg, the moai were rolled along a double layer of logs, with the first layer serving as a platform to keep the statue stable and the second layer performing the rolling. To facilitate rolling, the Rapanui probably greased the logs with palm oil.
To provide highways for moai transportation, trees were cut down. The sculptures may have needed to be rolled to their ahu for a few weeks, requiring the assistance of close to 70 men. Finally, moai were hauled into position by utilizing ropes as pulleys and logs as levers. Their ahu were both artistic creations and technical marvels. Despite how ornately the ahu was carved and embellished, its main function was to support the weight of the giant. The Rapanui laboriously carved and carried their cherished moai to the coast. But then it abruptly stopped. We'll discover why in the section after this.
The Collapse of the Island
Easter Island reached the pinnacle of its civilization in the 1600s. Production of moais reached a record level. 887 moai were created between the years 1400 and 1600. Only 288 of them reached their ahu, with the remainder either staying inside the volcano or being trapped between Rano Raraku and their ahu. "El Gigante," the largest moai at 71.93 feet and 145–165 tons, never emerged from the pit because some of these moai were too awkward to manage. According to archeological research, highly competitive artists were likely to give up on a moai's creation if it started to show flaws.
The downfall of Easter Island was mostly caused by this reckless squandering of resources. The Rapanui overestimated the magnitude of their resources because they were so focused on their endeavors. In order to create the routes needed to carry moai, trees had to be felled. The Rapanui also cleared more trees to make deep-sea fishing canoes and farmed vast areas of land for gathering crops. What was once a pristine, lush paradise turned into a desert with no trees. The rain carried dirt away in the absence of strong trees and their roots. The terrain started to erode. Crops couldn't flourish in these circumstances. The Rapanui population peaked at 10,000, thus there were now even more people to support.
The Rapanui had little chance since they lacked the materials to construct canoes with which to leave the island. They started to switch on the moai. The Rapanui abandoned the sculptures, either believing their ancestral gods had cursed their society or realizing that excessive development had been the cause of their downfall. They knocked them over and gouged out their eyeballs. Some moai had their heads severed from their bodies by Rapanui, who placed pebbles where the moai's neck landed.
Additionally, the Rapanui turned against one another. The Rapanui broke into factions that competed for exclusive rights to still-fertile territory, but the ariki mau, head chief, had long ruled the island. The matato'a, or warrior commanders, were in charge of these factions. The mata'a, or spears and daggers, were made on the island during this gloomy period, according to archaeological evidence. Others, who were defeated, snuck into caves and spent the rest of their days there.
Still others prayed to Makemake, a new god, for assistance. They established the Birdman Cult, and for 12 moons they chose a Birdman to be their leader. The Birdman was picked in a contest to find the first sooty tern egg, and locals thought he was Makemake reincarnated. To get the riches, competitors would rush to the highest cliffs. The cult leader's tribesmen have food on hand thanks to the success of Birdman. No one wanted to lose since the losers were supposed to repeatedly stab themselves with spears. New explorers arrived on Easter Island just as things appeared to be at their worst. We will then discover the modifications they made.
How Westerners Discovered the Easter Islands
The culture and population of Easter Island were starting to be rebuilt by the Birdman Cult. In comparison to the eerie carvings of ghosts created by a society destined to extinction, petroglyphs depicting birds became much more common. It appeared as though life on Easter Island would be revived as crops like the sweet potato were beginning to bloom once more. However, when Westerners came, they brought a wide range of novel diseases and traditions. On April 5, 1722, the Dutch arrived first, followed by the Spanish in 1772 and James Cook's British party on March 13, 1774. It was their intention to take Easter Island for Spain when the Spanish first set foot there.
The Rapanui observed the peculiar writing custom of the Spaniards, and the chief was even provided with a pen and paper. The Rapanui chief's ambiguous characters were recognized as the official signature that handed the island over to Spain in this first writing attempt, which was essentially a form of deception. Many of the inventions introduced by Westerners to the island were less enjoyable than the art of writing. Along with unsavory stowaways like rats and cockroaches, travelers also brought disease to the island. There were only 110 Rapanui left by the turn of the century.
The Rapanui accepted their Christian God when missionaries arrived. The Rapanui gave up their culture, including their tattoos, their Rongorongo, and any shaky connections to the moai, in exchange for the salvation and prosperity these missionaries promised. The final moai was destroyed by the 1830s. The Rapanui began ranching and acquired new skills for managing their land. Easter Island was seized by Chile in 1888.
Easter Islands Today
There are now 2,000 people living in Easter Island. Many Rapanui have relocated to Chile, where they are citizens, for employment and educational opportunities. Polynesian culture is thriving and integrated with contemporary living. Archaeologists rebuilt the standing moai to show how the Rapanui were at peace with their past. The Rapanui are some of the friendliest people in the world, according to sociologists and tourists, and tourism plays a significant role in the island's culture. For a truly local experience, visitors visiting Easter Island may even choose to stay with a Rapanui host family.