Easter Island's ancient history: Exploring the mysteries

by Betsy Herbert

I've always been fascinated by the mysteries of Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui), which lies in the Pacific Ocean 2,400 miles west of Chile's mainland. One of the most remote populated islands in the world, Easter Island's nearest inhabited island, Pitcairn, lies 1,289 miles to its east.

Some of the remaining questions about Easter Island's ancient past include: How did people first get here? Why and how did they build the enormous stone figures that Easter Island is famous for, how did the island become a wasteland, and why did the population of Easter Island crash between 1500 and 1700 CE?

Easter Island, a province of Chile, is now relatively easy to visit. My flight from Tahiti took five hours. Easter Island was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Most of the island now lies within the Rapa Nui National Park, and there are plenty of accommodations in the main city of Hanga Roa.

The coastline of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, at Hanga Roa, the island's main town. The nearest populated island is PItcairn, 1,289 miles away.

Archaeologists still debate when the original inhabitants arrived in Rapa Nui, but it was probably sometime between 700 and 1100 CE when Polynesian islanders came ashore in canoes or catamaran-like boats. Thor Heyerdahl's famous Kon-Tiki voyages starting in 1947 demonstrated that such boats were capable of making the journey.

This schooner, which was anchored off the rocky coast of Easter Island during my stay, made me consider how rough it must have been for the original Polynesians to land here in their ancient boats in 700 A.D., and even for the Europeans in 1722.

This schooner, which was anchored off the rocky coast of Easter Island during my stay, made me consider how rough it must have been for the original Polynesians to land here in their ancient boats in 700 A.D., and even for the Europeans in 1722.

Easter Island is famous for its giant carved stone figures, called Moia, carved by the island's original inhabitants from the volcanic cliffs of the island and mounted on huge stone platforms. Many of the 887 Moia stand in lines facing the center of the island.

Looking down from the volcanic cliffs of Easter Island to a row of giant Moia along the coast.

Looking down from the volcanic cliffs of Easter Island to a row of giant Moia along the coast.

A closer view of these Moia, taken from 200 feet in front of them.

A closer view of these Moia, taken from 200 feet in front of them.

And closer still.

And closer still.

This is me standing in front of the Moia.

This is me standing in front of the Moia.

Other Moia are scattered around the island, some standing and some lying on the ground, as if waiting to be hauled to their designated spots and hoisted onto platforms.

The moai stand an average of 13 feet (4 meters) tall, weigh an average 14 tons and up to 82 tons.  Because there is no written history of the Rapa Nui people, nobody knows for certain why the islanders carved these figures or how exactly they were made and transported to their positions.

You can hike around the Moia scattered about the hillsides of Easter Island.

You can hike around the Moia scattered about the hillsides of Easter Island.

This photo shows the quarry from which the stone blocks were removed to carve the Moia, which were then transported down hill to platforms for mounting.

This photo shows the quarry from which the stone blocks were removed to carve the Moia, which were then transported down hill to platforms for mounting.

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl was the first archaeologist to study Easter Island. His crew discovered by using carbon dating that the denuded island had once been forested. Heyerdahl theorized that it had been deforested by its original inhabitants.

Scientists have since used have pollen studies to reconfirm that the island was once heavily forested with a giant tropical palm tree. These trees, some scientists believe, were burned to clear land for farming. They were also cut to serve as rollers to transport the huge Moia and for their fiber to make rope.

At its peak in the 1600s, the island's population reached approximately 15,000, but by the time Europeans arrived a century later in 1722, the population had dropped precipitously to 2,000–3,000.

Anthropologists mostly agree that the rapid decline of the Rapa Nui population was due to deforestation and loss of forest-dependent resources. However, considerable debate remains regarding the cause of the island's deforestation, whether it was primarily rampant over-cutting and burning by human inhabitants or seed consumption by introduced rats. Rats, which breed prolifically, are known to devour the native tree seeds and shoots. Archeologists know from studying deposits at human sites on the island that there were large populations on rats.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond has written about Easter Island's demise in his 2005 best-selling book Collapse. But Diamond published his hypothesis at least ten years earlier as a warning to the rest of the world:

In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?
— "Easter's End," 1995. Jared Diamond, Discover Magazine

Since then, researchers Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo from the University of Hawaii, challenge this hypothesis in their 2013 book The Statues That Walked. The authors place most of the blame for the eco-collapse of Easter Island on the rat, which they postulate arrived as stowaways on the boats of the first Polynesian settlers. With no natural enemies and a plentiful supply of tree roots to eat, the rats finished off the forest and left the humans to fend for themselves. That didn't work out to well for the humans, and hence the population crash.

Little remains of the original forest cover on Easter Island. Scientists know that it was once heavily forested, but the mystery remains as to how it got that way. Was it humans or rats that were primarily responsible?

Little remains of the original forest cover on Easter Island. Scientists know that it was once heavily forested, but the mystery remains as to how it got that way. Was it humans or rats that were primarily responsible?

Following the arrival of Europeans in 1772, the island's already diminished human population was almost completely wiped out by disease and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1860s. Chile claimed the island in 1888.

Until the 1960s, most of the island was owned by a private sheep rancher and the Rapa Nui people were confined to the city of Hanga Roa. The Rapa Nui were granted Chilean citizenship in 1966, but during the Pinochet regime from 1973 - 1990, the entire island was placed under martial law.

Today, the population of Easter Island is approximately 5,800, many of whom are descendants of the original Rap Nui inhabitants. The major source of income is tourism, with some 80,000 visitors per year.

It was a thrill to visit Easter Island, to hike around it, and to imagine how its current state came to be. Much of the mystery still remains, but no doubt that's part of what draws people here.

My next stop is Santiago, Chile where I will kick back for a few days before starting a tour of Patagonia, which spans both southern Chile and southern Argentina.