Rapa Nui:

An Isle


By David Daly

Photo Courtesy of TravelingOtter

Technology often makes it feel as if the world is at our fingertips. Modern modes of travel allow us to go just about anywhere we can dream, with relative ease. It may seem like the world is getting smaller, and it's difficult to find anywhere that isn't overly inhabited.


But, there are still a few remote places rich in history and mystery. One such place is Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, which is the most remote inhabited island on the planet. Although technically part of Chile, this tiny island sits alone in the Pacific Ocean, located approximately 2,200 miles from the Chilean coast and nearly 3,000 miles from Tahiti.


A small triangular-shaped island, it covers just over 63 square miles, making it only slightly smaller than Washington D.C. 

Famous for the towering sculptures of human figures called moai, Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes approximately 110,000 years ago. These founding volcanoes are extinct. In fact, their craters cover large sections of the island.

Through genetic testing, researchers have confirmed the island was settled by Polynesian explorers around 700 A.D. Many questions still remain regarding the origins, the rise, and fall of Rapa Nui's people. Before the arrival of the first Europeans in 1722, the inhabitants of this small Pacific paradise moved through three major cultural evolution phases.


According to oral tradition, it was Hoto-Matua, a Polynesian ruler who traveled thousands of miles in two canoes to reach Rapa Nui. With King Hoto-Matua's exploration of the island, the first major cultural phase began. However, it would last only until about 850 A.D. 

When colonization began, Easter Island was covered in Rapa Nui palm trees, a species now extinct. According to researchers, pollen records indicate the trees disappeared around 1650. Although the island had no large mammals, it did have an abundant bird population. By some estimates, over 22 species of birds called Easter Island home, numbering in the millions. 


Rapa Nui's people flourished with plenty of fresh water and land for farming in this early period of its history. Yams, sweet potatoes, and bananas were typical crops on the island. Early pioneers brought chickens. But interestingly, they did not bring medium-sized livestock, such as goats and pigs, as Polynesian settlers had done in other locations they colonized.

Rats were not native to the island but became commonplace after the arrival of the first settlers. With no known predators, the rat population quickly exploded. Some scholars believe the rat community may have been as high as 3.1 million during this first cultural phase. Given the island's size, that is about 75 rats per acre. The abundant amount of palm trees supplied building materials for canoes. With boats, Rapa Nui's people were able to harvest food from the ocean, which provided lobster and tuna, both excellent sources of nutrition.

The Middle Phase of the cultural shift lasted from around 1050 to 1680. Secure with ample food and water supplies, the population grew. At its height, the island supported a population of between 10,000 and 12,000 people. During this period, the people of Easter Island began to sculpt the moai, which would be their most recognized archeological achievement.


These massive monolithic human figures, numbering almost 1,000, the moai are scattered across Rapa Nui. The majority are believed to have been built between 1400 and 1650. The statues were carved out of solidified ash from the Rano Raraku volcano near the southwest corner of the island. Incredibly, these statues were somehow moved from the quarry to various locations around the island without modern machinery. 


Most of the moai sculptures' average height is 20 feet tall, weighing around 20 tons. Yet, some are as tall as 33 feet and weigh over 80 tons. Many theories abound as to how moai were moved to their final locations. No one can be certain about how these giants were budged, in some cases, up to 11 miles without cranes, wheels, or even large animals.

A topknot made of a red rock called a pukao was placed atop the moai representational of powerful chieftains. It is believed the moai could also depict the Rapa Nui's ancestors. Some of the sculptures were set on large stone platforms called ahu. According to Rapa Nui tradition, burial remains were sometimes also placed in ahu.  


Always placed with their backs to the ocean, the moai continuously stand watch over the island. While the moai highlight the period's artistic and spiritual achievements, it is also during this phase when things began to unravel.


Many theories exist as to why the population and society began to decline. Still, experts believe it was likely due to a combination of factors.

The first major problem for the island began when the abundant palm tree forests started to disappear. Some researchers speculate this was related to the construction and movement of the moai. Others have attributed the decline to the rat population eating the palm nuts and preventing new trees from growing. 


Whatever the cause of deforestation, the lack of trees had several negative impacts. Without trees, the loose soil which sat on top of volcanic rock had little to anchor it down. As a result, erosion became a real concern. Several of the moai are even in danger of falling into the sea. Another dilemma came in the form of ocean salt. When the trees were plentiful, the salt spray was prevented from reaching farmlands.


Without this natural barrier, the salt, which can be toxic for plants, made farming more complicated, thereby lowering production levels. With a lack of palm trees, houses and canoes became challenging to build, which cut off the ocean, an important food source. These problems caused Rapa Nui's people to become virtual prisoners without enough resources to sustain the population.

As the last major cultural phase began around 1680, the Easter Island society began to fall apart. Clans began to fight over resources, and disagreements turned into open hostilities. The islanders' oral history maintains that the two main clans, the Short-Ears and Long-Ears, began a civil war. Rival clans toppled each other's moai, and eventually, they started killing one another.


Further evidence suggests that many people felt the underground world had become more desirable and resorted to living in the numerous caves and old lava tubes on the island. There is also strong evidence to suggest that the people of Rapa Nui were left with no other choice but to turn to cannibalism. 


It is not known how prevalent the practice was, but data suggests it did occur. Amid all the chaos, leaders began to look for a solution that would balance the limited resources and keep the clans from fighting. The answer became known as the Cult of the Birdman.

Rapa Nui has a few small islets off its coast, and one was called Motu Nui. This tiny island was the seasonal nesting ground of a bird known as the sooty tern. To end the violence, chieftains decided to hold an annual competition. Each clan leader would select a single competitor to represent them in the yearly event.


Instead of fighting on the battlefield, each representative would race from the clifftop village of Orongo on the edge of Rano Kau volcano and onto Motu Nui. Once on the islet, the young participant would search for the egg of a sooty tern. Once the egg was found, the warrior would swim back to Rapa Nui and race uphill to Orongo. The first one to return with the correct egg was the winner. The winning clan would then control the island's resources until the next competition.


Remarkably, the Cult of the Birdman was a thriving success, and for several decades Rapa Nui remained at peace. Until Easter morning of 1722, when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen landed on the island. It was then that Rapa Nui became widely known as Easter Island. For the people of Rapa Nui, Roggeveen's visit marked the start of the end. 

The people of Easter Island would go on to suffer many injustices. Many more explorers would come, and with them, disease and slave raids. In less than a decade, about 97% of the population was either removed from the island or dead. Although an official count was not conducted, the Dutchman's crew estimated Rapa Nui's population was down to 3,000 people, a far cry from the civilization's height of a little over 10,000 people. In 1888, the island was sold to Chile. 


The devastation caused by less than ten years of European incursion is the main reason why so little is known about Rapa Nui's history. Today, the descendants of the original settlers are working to rebuild their culture. Realizing the island's unique archeological value and the cultural importance of its people, part of the island is now a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. 


The story of Easter Island is a cautionary tale of abuse, the effects of climate change, deforestation, and overpopulation. The future is bright for Easter Island with eco and cultural tourism now an essential part of the local economy. There is a new chapter of hope for Rapa Nui and perhaps a lesson to preserve the beauty, resources, and tradition for future generations.

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