Easter Island is most famous for its colossal statues, the moai. The paleolithic inhabitants of Rapa Nui (the name they gave to Easter island) carved these statues over hundreds of years, then abruptly laid down their tools and stopped. Works in progress were abandoned; already-erected maoi were toppled and occasionally mutilated. But why did this happen? Who were these mysterious builders?
Easter Island is a triangular island located in the Pacific Ocean. At 63 square miles, it is tiny! It is also very isolated – Chile is 2237 miles away, while Pitcairn Island, famous for the mutiny on the Bounty, is a mere 1290 miles away, in the other direction.
Ancient Polynesian travellers settled on Easter Island, travelling by sea to arrive at their new home. Life on this new island wasn’t easy – the settlers endured famines, civil wars, slave raids, and the attention of the colonial Spanish. By far their biggest enemy was themselves, and the tragic consequences of their behaviour teach a lesson that’s valuable even today. The environmental destruction that the Islanders created would decimate their population and destroy the beauty of their island.
Easter Island is most famous for its stone statues, or maoi (pronounced moe-eye). A total of 887 moai have been found. These statues are not merely heads – shortened torsos are often buried by shifting soil.
Most moai were carved from tuff, volcanic ash that had hardened and turned to stone. Statues ranged from six to thirty feet, though most were only around 12 feet tall. Even then, each statue weighed a great deal – eighteen tons on average, though the largest is estimated at eighty tons. White coral eyes with obsidian pupils gave the moai the ability to “see”.
How these primitive islanders moved these heavy blocks is a mystery. Modern scientists believe that log rollers were used; others think that the moai were “walked” into place. Still, these theories do not explain how this stone-age culture could lift such massive blocks into place on tall stone platforms (called ahu). When asked, the Islanders said that the “mana”, or spiritual power, was used to move the stone statues.
Easter island is also home to many petroglyphs, pictures that have been carved into the rock. About 4000 still remain, spread over 1000 sites. Together, the petroglyphs on Easter Island are the richest known collection of Polynesian pictures known to mankind.
Easter Island residents developed a unique style of writing. Known as Rongorongo, this curious script remains undeciphered. Traditionally, only the ruling families and priests were literate; however, the island’s ruling class was destroyed starting in the 1860’s by slave raids and disease. Today, only 26 examples of Rongorongo still exist, and all attempts to translate it have been unsuccessful.
The descendants of the riginal inhabitants can still be found on Easter Island. The current island population of 3791 (as of the 2002 census) is comprised of 70% Rapa Nui (native Polynesians). Many inhabitants were lost due to slavery and disease, and the population has nbeen nearly destroyed.
Deforestation continues to be a problem on Easter Island. Still the picture is not entirely bleak. Scientists have studied the indigenous plants in the area. They are now on the way to reforesting the island. The tragedy of Easter Island can act as a lesson for us all on the importance of guarding our Mother Earth.