Easter Island: Story & Controversies


The Story

1. Arrival

Easter Island--Rapa Nui is a tiny speck of land in the South Pacific. Formed by a series of massive volcanic eruptions, the island was only inhabited by sea birds and dragonflies for millions of years. Its steep slopes, however, stood out like a beacon to a weary group of Polynesian seafarers. How long their voyage took or their reasons for leaving their home country are questions that we'll never have the answer to, but we can imagine their joy at seeing this sight after what must have been months at sea.

Lava tubes and pounding waves have created hundreds of sea caves and a treacherous coastline. There are only a few small areas that are safe for anchorages. Located in the South Pacific between Chile and Tahiti, Easter Island is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. Roughly triangular and covering only 64 square miles, it formed when a plume of hot material rose from deep within Earth's interior, burned through the crust and erupted onto the surface as lava.
Today, volcanic cones are found at each point of the island. The largest, Rano Kau is easily visible from space. The highest is Terevaka, which rises to 11674 feet above sea level. There are over 70 eruptive centers on the island but none has known activity since the island was colonized 1300 years ago.


This sheltered sand beach is close to Anakena, where the legends say King Hoto Matua landed his double hulled canoe, thus beginning the occupation of Easter Island.

Ovahe Beach, North Shore 
Anakena, a beautiful white sand beach stands out from the rest of the coastline, which is either sharp black lava rock or vertical cliff faces hundreds of feet tall.
It is at Anakena that the legends say Hotu Matua landed and began the colonization of the island. Excavations of this area have discovered that it was an important site and it boasts one of the best collections of erected moai on the island, Ahu Naunau.

The voyagers started constructing villages and houses made in an unusual elliptical shape. It has been speculated that this style of construction started when the new arrivals turned their boats upside down for quick housing. There were literally hundreds of remains of these foundations on the island in the 1800's, but most were destroyed by the missionaries to make fences.

Indeed, the missionaries did more damage to the island's history than even the Peruvian slave traders, which carted off most of the island's population. Those who escaped by hiding in the island's many caves were "saved" by these missionaries, who proceeded to destroy all the islanders' wooden sculptures, religious artifacts and most importantly, the Rongo-Rongo tablets, which contained a record of the lost language of the Rapa Nui. So few of these tablets remain that no one has been able to decipher them.

The first islanders found a lush island, filled with giant palms which they used to build boats and housing. The plants they brought with them did well in the rich volcanic soil and by AD 1550 population on the island hit a high of between 7000 and 9000.

Distinct clans formed as the population increased and various population centers grew up in different areas of the island. One thing tied them all together however — the statue construction and the cult that formed around it.

2. Statue Construction

It is unclear why the Easter Islanders turned to statue construction on such a massive scale. Their obsession with it ultimately brought about their downfall as they depleted more and more of the forests for use in the process of moving the giant moai. While the why is a mystery, where it happened and to a large degree how it happened is fairly clear. Each moai was born from the massive caldera of Rano Raraku.


The soft volcanic tuff was perfect material for statue carving. Using harder volcanic rock implements they were able to first sketch out the moai's outline in the rock wall and then systematically chip away at it until the moai was held in place by a thin "keel."

The moai carvers were master craftsmen that had rose through the ranks of a "carver's guild." The production of the statues was most likely through conscripted labor with many rituals and ceremonies performed throughout the process. The stone carvers were ingenious in making the most out of sections of rock. Moai can be seen carved in all directions in the cliff face. If a defect would appear in the rock the statue would be abandoned and they moved on to another area. They took advantage of fissures in the volcanic walls and also variations in colors. In short they were true artists.

Finally when a statue was finished, it was broken off its keel and slid carefully down the slope using ropes tied to giant palm trunks which were sunk in specially prepared holes in rim of the crater. At the base of the crater they were raised up and final decorations were carved into its torso and back. Coral and obsidian eyes were placed in as a final touch, although some suggest these were only placed in the statues on special occasions. Preparation was then made for transport across the island to various ahu.

The ahu were the ceremonial platforms built to support collections of moai. As evidence of the difficulty moving the moai, many can be seen along the paths of ancient roadways where they broke along the way and were abandoned.

It is believed that the statues were commissioned commemorative images of lineage heads. However, the moai are not portraits of specific individuals although some may have inscriptions or other markings that linked them with specific chiefs. Why they chose the stylized design of the angular face and long phallus shaped bodies is unclear and is one of the greatest mysteries of the Rapa Nui.


While there are some other stone sculptures made by Polynesians, none is similar to the moai. In parts of South America, some statues have been found which resemble the "kneeling" statue on Rano Raraku, but nothing anywhere else resembles the standardized moai design that the Rapa Nui carved over a thousand times.

3. Erecting the Moai

Once the statues were reasonably complete, they then had to be transported across the island to the platforms prepared for them. This involved a trek of 14 miles in some cases. How were these massive Moai moved to the sites? Barring any extraterrestrial influence it seems likely that they were rolled along the ancient roads that crisscrossed the island on logs lubricated with the oils from palm trees. Some suggest that they were moved in an upright position and kept stable by crews manning ropes. This mode would verify the island legends of the statues "walking" to their sites. From a distance seeing one of these great Moai moving along the road bobbing up and down as the logs moved underneath would surely have looked like a statue moving under its own power with a procession alongside it. What a sight that would have been!

However, recent computer simulations by Jo Anne von Tilburg at UCLA have shown that it would have been much simpler to position the Moai in a horizontal position on two large logs and then roll the whole unit along on other logs placed perpendicular to it. Using this method Van Tilburg calculated that an average moai could have been moved from the quarry to Ahu Akivi in less than 5 days, using approximately 70 men. Her theories were recently put to the test in a successful experiment to move a moai replica on Easter Island sponsored and filmed by Nova.

Once the journey was complete the Moai were positioned atop great platforms called ahu. Built at the edge of the ocean, the ahu required just as much engineering know-how and raw labor as the statue construction itself. It is here that the Easter Islanders' stonework skills can fully be appreciated. As seen in the images to the right of Ahu Naunau and Ahu Tahai, massive blocks and tons of fill were required to build the supports for the moai. Although they were an incredible engineering feat, most of the ahu built were less than elegant constructions. At one mysterious site, however, it was much different.

The stonework of Ahu Vai Uri (right) is compared to that of Ahu Vinapu (below) on the southern shore near Rano Kau. The detail shot shows the incredible precision in the stone fittings. It was this precision, so similar to the stonework done by the Incas, that gave Thor Heyerdahl the idea that the Easter Islanders had come from South America in reed boats on the prevailing currents. Stonework of this complexity had not been seen in Polynesia, but it was common in Peru. It's impossible to look at that site and not think of the exact type of stone fitting which is so common in sites like Machu Picchu. Most archaeologists consider the similarities a coincidence. If so, it is a remarkable one.


Soon ahu with erected moai were installed on all corners of the island, until over one thousand had been carved, and the population of the island also continued to grow. For decades the competition to build the biggest and best moai went on, and different ahu - each belonging to a different clan - formed an almost unbroken line along the coast of Easter Island. The culture had reached its zenith. And then something went terribly wrong . . .

4. Conflict: The Fall of the Moai

A chilling story of resource exploitation and destruction on Easter Island is beginning to come to light. The first westerners to discover the island wondered how any one could have survived on such a desolate, treeless place. Indeed, this was a mystery until recent core samples taken from the crater lakes showed that the island was heavily forested with a giant now-extinct palm while the Easter Island culture was active.

Apparently the islanders were greeted with a lush tropical paradise when they first discovered it. It must have seemed inexhaustible. The trees were cut for lumber for housing, wood for fires, and eventually for the rollers and lever-like devices used to move and erect the moai.

As the deforestation continued the moai building competition turned into an obsession. The quarry was producing moai at sizes that probably could never have been moved very far (one unfinished moai in the quarry is 70 feet tall!) And still the trees came down. With the loss of the forests, the land began to erode. The small amount of topsoil quickly washed into the sea. The crops began to fail and the clans turned on one another in a battle for the scarce resources. The symbols of the islanders' power and success, the moai, were toppled. Eyes were smashed out of the moai and often rocks were placed where the statues neck would fall so it would decapitate the moai. The violence grew worse and worse. It was said that the victors would eat their dead enemies to gain strength, bones found on the island show evidence of this cannibalism. With the scarce food supplies it may have been a question of hunger as well as being ceremonial. A spooky cave (up) at the southwest corner of the island, Ana Kai Tangata, is translated to "cave where men are eaten." Inside are pictographs painted in ochre and white of ghost like birds flying upwards. With no wood left to build boats, all the Rapa Nui people could do was look enviously at the birds that sail effortless through the sky. The Rapa Nui culture and community, which had developed over the past 300 years, collapsed.

Their island was in shambles, and their villages and crops destroyed. There was no wood left on the island to build escape boats. The few survivors of the conflict, perhaps numbering as low as 750, began to pick up the pieces of their culture. One thing they left behind, however, were the moai....


Controversies

Who were the Easter Islanders?


For reasons still unknown they began carving giant statues out of volcanic rock. These monuments, known, as "moai" are some of the most incredible ancient relics ever discovered. The people of Easter Island called themselves the Rapa Nui. Where did they come from and why did they disappear? Science has learned much about the enigma of Easter Island and has put to rest some of the more bizarre theories, but questions and controversies remain.

Darwin pointed out how groups of animals living in remote places eventually take on unique characteristics and eventually turn them into distinct species. Such is the case with the people of Easter Island. As unique as a culture as they had become, the Rapa Nui left clues as to their origins in their language, art, and beliefs. Contemporary archeologists think it's an open and shut case - the first and only people ever to live on Easter Island were from an individual group of Polynesians that, once finding Easter, then had no contact with any other races.Until of course, that fateful day in 1722 when, on Easter Sunday, Dutch commander Jacob Roggeveen, became the first European to "discover" the island. What his crew witnessed and recorded once on the island has fueled speculation about the origins of the Rapa Nui ever since.

They reported a mixed race island with both dark skinned and light living together. Some were even described as having red hair and being sun-burnt looking! This does not fit well in the Polynesian only scenario and despite recent evidence that backs up a migration from another island in the South Pacific, archeologists still must argue the claims of the most well-known, but now, outcast archeologist/explorer Thor Heyerdahl.

Roggeveen's notes tell of the islanders being organized into several classes. The light skinned islanders wore large disks in extended earlobes. Their bodies were heavily tattooed and they worshipped the giant statues and performed ceremonies before them. How could light skinned people be living amongst Polynesians on such a remote island? According to Heyerdahl Easter Island was settled in stages over a period of years by at least two different cultures. One from Polynesia and the other from South America, possibly Peru, where mummies of red -headed individuals have been found along side those of black hair.

Heyerdahl also points to similarities between stone monuments in Bolivia that resemble the "kneeling" statue found on Rano Raraku. In Heyerdahl's view, the sea was alive thousands of years ago with large ocean going canoes that discovered and colonized islands far earlier than history suggests. He points to stories of an advanced Redheaded race in South America and currents that swept from Peru to Easter Island and his own famous trip in 1947 on a reed raft known as the Kon-Tiki expedition.

Contemporary archeologists will have none of it. They point to the long history of Polynesian settlement in the South Pacific and linguistic evidence that they say places origins most likely in the Marquesas or Pitcarn Island.

Heyerdahl, they say, dismisses Easter Island legends that speak of an origin from the west. Occording to them botanical and anthomorphic data collected clearly back up their view that the island was colonized only once from the west.

The attacks against his beliefs have been almost universal from the archeological community which will not even refer to Heyerdahl as an archeologist anymore. Heyerdahl has made it clear the feeling is mutual. Both sides in the debate accuse each other with making the evidence fit their own beliefs.

But there is a third origin story that as far fetched as it seems has scientific proof behind it. Around 1536 a Spanish ship, the San Lesmems was lost near Tahiti. Legends tell of the Basque survivors intermarrying with the Polynesians. Either they or their descendants set off from Tahiti to try and return home in the 1600's and were never seen again. Interestingly, genetic testing of pure blood Rapa Nui revealed the presence of Basque genes.

Could Easter Island have been settled by a lost crew of Polynesian and Spanish seafarers? Perhaps science will eventually give us a definitive answer on who the Rapa Nui were. Where ever they came from, the Rapa Nui were an amazing people. They built a highly organized and efficient society on a tiny island out of little or nothing and in the few short years it existed created an enigma that has puzzled the world ever since.

Mysterious Places
Easter Island: Story & Controversies Reviewed by The Riddler on 2:46:00 PM Rating: 5

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