Easter Island History

Easter Sunday, and a ship crawls westward across thousands of miles of empty Pacific Ocean. Finally, over the horizon, a long island skims into view. fourteen hundred miles from the nearest inhabited land, it appears barren at first. Rugged miles, naked to the winds, give way to grassy volcanic craters littered with millions of black basalt rocks. Surf pounds the twisting coastline.


As the ship draws closer, however signs of habitation appear; a few dirt roads criss-crossing the island; a cluster of buildings by the harbour; islanders congregating to welcome the outsiders. And finally, rising from platforms set along the shore, rows of enormous stone statues emerge, gazing mutely inland, as astonishing and incongruous as Doric columns in this place and time.

The year could be 1722... or 1998. In 1722 the ship was that of Admiral Jacob Roggeveen, sent by the Dutch West India Company to find a low, sandy island sighted thirty-five years before. In 1998 the vessel is a commercial airliner flying in from Tahiti, and its passengers include NOVA's team of scientists, who have come in hopes of unravelling some of the mysteries that have surrounded the island since Roggaveen's voyage. Roggerveen named the place Easter Island, in honour of the date of his arrival. Twenty-three hundred miles roam the nearest major population centre, it is the most remote inhabited island on the planet, famous both for the utter isolation of the civilization it once harboured and for the statues its inhabitants sculpted, transported across the island and erected.

Between AD 1000 and 1600, the islanders carved about 900 statues, chipping them out of an ancient volcano with stone tools. The statue4s' characteristic jutting brows, elongated heads and sloping bodies give them an austere, brooding look. some are topped with heavy headdresses called pukao, cylindrical sculptures made of red scoria (a rough kind of lave); this material is also used, with coral, to give the effect of deep;-set eyes. The statues typically measure more than 12 feet tall, and some weigh as much as 82 tons. the islanders call the sculptures moai and their island Rapa Nui. When Rogerveen arrived, he saw many of the moai erect on their platforms, their backs to the sea, and the natives prostrating themselves in apparent worship before the images. these stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder,' he wrote in his log, '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.' His crew put their minds at ease when they wrongly 'discovered' that the statues were made of packed clay. 

Fifty-two years later, Captain James cook, after sailing south from New Zealand to avoid tropical currents and trade winds and weathering treacherous Antarctic blizzards and rough seas, became the second European to visit Rapa Nui. He recognized the moai as 'hewn stones' and wrote of the abu, or platforms, on which they stood: 'The workmanship is not inferior to the best plain piece of masonry we have in England. They use no sort of cement; yet the joints are exceedingly close, and the stones morticed and tenanted (sic) one into another, in a very artful manner.' Cook also articulated the puzzle that remains unsolved to this day: 'We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures, and afterwards place the large cylindric stones upon their heads.' 

Cook observed, however, that the islanders no longer worshipped the moai. They also no longer sculpted them, or even bothered to preserve or mend the ones that existed. If he had travelled inland, he would have found a startling sight: moai littered along paths like the discarded playthings of giants; others buried in soil u to their necks, and hundreds more in the quarry where they were sculpted, unfinished and abandoned. In the centuries since, a wave of expeditions has washed over the island, as explorers, archaeologists and anthropologists have grappled with unanswered questions. who were the original Rapanui? How and why did they carve, transport and erect their monolithic moai? And what happened to dissolve a civilization once unified enough to turn a mountain into a gallery of statues?

Rapanui folklore has it that the moai were moved by mana, or divine power. those who possessed mana were said to be able to command the moai to move. According to oral history, the moai 'walked' in their final resting spots. Like other archaeologists before her, Van Tilburg is sure there must be a more practical explanation. Indeed, the mystery is not that the Rapanui were able to move the moai. After all, there are plenty of ways to roll, drag or even 'walk' the moan upright across the island - even if the choices are limited by prehistoric technology. the question is exactly how they did it. Most experts agree that the original moai-movers must have used some sort of wooden sledge. since the moai were sculpted before they were transported, dragging them directly along the ground would have caused unacceptable damage. In 1955 Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl tied a 10-ton moai to a sledge made from a tree fork and 180 islanders helped him pull it a few yards over the sand. Although they succeeded in moving the moai, it took so many people that the method seemed impractical: it would have taken 1500 people, for example, to move Paro, the island's heaviest moai.

Heyerdahl's colleague William Mulloy returned in 1960 and tried a different approach. he fashioned a vertical A-frame, like two legs of a tripod, from which he suspended a horizontal, Y-shaped sledge. The moai Paro was placed face-down on the sledge, with its belly fitting in the curve of the Y. Protected by the sledge, the moai's belly acted as a fulcrum or balance point, allowing the legs of the A-frame to be tipped forward in alternating steps, bipedal fashion. Using this method, Mulloy was able to move the largest moai using only ninety people. but the method was complex, required large trees, and placed stress on the statue's neck. Moreover, the frame would not have balanced properly for statues that did not have protruding bellies.

In 1986 Heyerdahl tried again, this time with the help of Czech archaeologist Pavel Pavel. Listening more literally to the legend of moai 'walking', they attached four ropes to an upright moai, and twenty pullers 'walked' it along, rocking it from edge to edge the way one might move a refrigerator. although Heyrdahl and Pavel succeeded in 'walking' a moai along level ground for a short distance, the method seemed ill suited for long distances and steep slopes. Damage to the base of the moai forced them to halt the experiment.

Canoe technology was essential to the survival and spread of Polynesian culture. In ancient times, outrigger canoes allowed people to travel safely from island to island. These canoes are distinguished by two beams that extend from one side of the hull. the beams stabilize the vessel and keep it from capsizing. In th4e larger vessels used on longer voyages, they act as crossbeams to bind two hulls together. The Polynesians built wooden ladders, complete with rungs and rails, and extended them into the water. they used ropes to lower the canoes down the ladders at the beginning of a voyage, and at the end dragged their boats up the ladders on to the shore. They used similar structures to transport giant logs down the mountain to build their canoes.

The issue of whether or not the Rapanui were in fact Polynesian has been a source of fierce debate for much of the past hundred years. French anthropologist Alfred Metraux made an expedition to Easter Island in 1934 and was the first to conclude that the natives were exclusively Polynesian. Thor Heyerdahl, however, became convinced that although Polynesians had entered the population later, the original Rapanui were South American Indians. He believed that the trade winds and prevailing currents make it far easier to sail to Easter Island from the east than from the west. When Heyerdahl first espoused this idea, the experts said that the precolonial South Americans could never have travelled that far in their primitive boats. so in 1947, in an early foray into experimental archaeology, Heyerdahl built a balsa raft in the style of the Incas and sailed it with five companions from Peru to Polynesia. the Kon-Tiki covered over 5000 miles in 101 days and, though it didn't hit Rapa Nui, it shoed that it well might have.

Ancient Rapanui folklore, too, told of the island being settled by a divine king named Machaa, who 'steered in the direction of the setting sun' to find the island. Stories tell how Machaa's people, later called the Long Ears because of their elongated earlobes, began to sculpt the moai about fifty years later, presumably to honour their first deceased ancestor. The another race colonized the island, this time arriving from the west. These 'Short-Ears' helped the Long-Ears build the moai, but scarcity of resources led to war between the two groups. According to legend, the Short Ears, massacred the Long-Ears in a battle at Poike Ditch. After their victory, they toppled all the moai. To this day many Rapanui claim this legend as their history. In Heyerdahl's estimation, the moai were 'characteristic of the pre-Inca period of northwestern South America'. He claimed that the moai were very similar to monolithic structures in Tiahuanaco, Peru, and that their type was hardly found elsewhere in Polynesia. He also asserted that the stone architecture of the island., the stone picks used to carve volcanic rock, the huts built like reed boats, the reed boats themselves, the bottle gourds, sweet potatoes, and the practice of elongating ear lobes with heavy earrings could all be traced to pre-Inca South America.

Heyerdahl's notions coincided nicely with native myths; he also had a charismatic presence, a romantic life story, and a series of best-selling books describing his endeavours and conclusions. by 1989, when he published Easter Island: The Mystery Solved, he had succeeded in persuading the general public of his ideas. His professional colleagues, however, have been less impressed. The Rapa Nui Archaeological survey, a Chilean - American co-operative effort that began in 1968 and continues today, dismantled Heyerdahl's argument point by point. Seeking a comprehensive description of the island, the survey archaeologists have sketched, mapped and measured 19,000 items, including 240 ahu, 886 moai, 2536 earth ovens and 3224 house foundations. They found that the ahu were more similar to stone altars common throughout Polynesia than they were to the ruins of Tiahuanaco. Heyerdahl had postulated that the South American had brought the reed plant with them, but pollen analysis showed that the reeds used in the reed boats had been growing on Easter Island for more than 30,000 years, while the island was settled some time between AD 400 and 750. Excavations at Poike Ditch unearthed no mass of human remains to suggest a great battle having taken place there. On the other hand, skeletal remains that have been excavated from various sites on the island show definite Polynesian characteristics.

Heyerdahl's voyage in the Kon-Tiki was a great feat, and is showed what was possible. but it fell short of proving his thesis. In 1976 a group of Pacific islanders organized by University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney, sailed a replica of a traditional double canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti and back, proving that the Polynesians were equally capable of reaching Easter Island. The Polynesians of the first millennium were great sea voyagers and often set sail to the east, against the trade winds, in search of new lands. Over the centuries, they migrated to and populated Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, Hawaii and New Zealand. by contrast, the South American Indians had no history of long distance sea voyages. And most anthropologists agree that the linguistic, cultural and genetic evidence shows that though they could have drifted with the winds to Rapa Nui, they didn't. the professional consensus: the original Rapanui were Polynesians.

Katharine Routledge discovered the extent of the quarry in 1914. She was an Englishwoman and member of the royal Cruising club who had set sail on a streamlined twin-masted yacht with the support of the British Admiralty, the royal Society, the British Association, the royal Geographical Society and England's leading Pacific-island anthropologists. she spent sixteen months ashore, often alone with one crew member among the 250 Rapanui, while here ship sailed elsewhere, returning only periodically. She made meticulous notes on the people, their customs and language, and of course the moai. Her journals and the book she published in 1919 have been an inspiration to Easter Island researchers. At Rano Raraku, Routledge discovered that more than half the moai on the island were still in the quarry area. She noticed that none of these statues had eyes, while all the moai that had fallen from their ahu did. Apparently the eyes were carved and inserted just before the statues were set in position. Scattered around the quarry were toki -icks made of basalt, a harder rock than the volcanic tuff of the mountainside. The variously unfinished moai, some still untethered from the mountain, taught her much about the method of sculpting.

The artists began by chipping directly into the mountainside, outlining the profile, creating the figure face up. Eventually, when the front and sides were finished, the moai was attached only by its downward-facing back, which was shaped like the keel of a boat. Only then did he workers separate the moai from its volcanic womb and begin to move it down from the quarry. by studying the various states of the backs of the statues that she found standing upright in the dirt, she concluded that the backs were finished while in this position, before transportation to the the ahu. But why were hundreds of moai left unfinished, standing half-buried in the earth or suspended in mid-gestation in the quarry? What could have caused this isolated, apparently highly organised society to collapse and abandon the work of centuries? While the legend of the Long-Ears and the Short-Ears may be fictional, it appears that some sort of strife occurred among the Rapanui. Certainly, but the seventeenth century, the 'moai cult' was disintegrating. the most likely reason was the increasing scarcity of forests, tillable land and food. Lush forests once covered this windswept island. by analysing ancient pollen, scientists have determined that a species of palm tree called Jubaea chilensis flourished here at the time the first inhabitants arrived. Long before the island was first sighted by Europeans, however, the forests had disappeared. 'Nature has been exceedingly sparing of her favours to this spot,' wrote Captain Cook.

One cause of environmental degradation may have been the moai industry, which required great amounts of wood for sledges. (Canoes and canoe ladders, of course, also required wood.) today, the Jubaea chilensis palm trees have vanished. Eucalyptus groves planted by the Chilean government provide most of the island's wood. With the moai siphoning off much of the island's resources, tribes rebelled, toppling and decapitating the great statues. Nothing could bring back the forces and the fids denuded by overpopulation, however, the people turned to caves for shelter and tending small gardens for sustenance. There is evidence that famine even led some to cannibalism. the arrival of 'civilized' visitors hardly helped matters. 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, and Easter Island commenced its twentieth-century incarnation as a provider of quant figurines carved by natives.

This was the Easter Island that Katherine Routledge encountered in 1914. In the months that she camped out at Rano Raraku quarry, among the fallen giants of more prosperous times, she spent much of her energies trying to figure out the greatest mystery of the Rapanui: how did they transport these monoliths across miles of rugged countryside?

For centuries, the people of Rapa Nui organized themselves into a workforce of substantial power. They managed prodigious projects of sculpture, transport, and construction over the course of years for a single statue. But at some point the network fell apart; the centre would not hold. A society and a spiritual dynasty that must have seemed indomitable fell to pieces in the wake of war and famine. The icons of the passed age were toppled and left to crumble on the ground.


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