For about 200 years the decline of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island remained one of the biggest mysteries of the time. When the Dutch landed on the island on Easter 1722 they were surprised at the quantity and size of the Moai statues the largest of which measured at 10m tall. After that point further visitations from Europeans reveal the Moais being toppled over. A series of catastrophic events for the natives of the island from disease to enslavement in Peru meant the loss of the oral history. This loss of oral history kept a mystery that was only just solved recently thanks to renewed interest.
The amazing story about Easter Island once you delve in, is not just these impressive statues. It is the story on how the Rapa Nui arrived. How they thrived enough on a treeless island, to have such a population. Create a knowledgeable society capable of building and moving such statues, the ecocide they created upon themselves, to survive this and after all this be wiped out by human diseases. Then reinvent themselves to find a peaceable medium for survival and co-existence only to be finished off by the slave trade in a nearby Spanish colony. This is certainly a lesson for currents trends in human society.
Much of the initial history of Easter Island is based on European accounts. Imagine the sentiments of the Dutch explorers who were the first Europeans and possibly first outsiders who came to visit the people of Easter Island or Rapa Nui; on that Easter day in 1722. What greeted them was a seashore dotted with well sculpted large statues called Moai’s, which could only have been the result of a sophisticated system of engineering, and a sophisticated culture to be able to deliver such marvels. Over the next 150 years the Moai were seen each visit more and more toppled over.
Arrival of Rapa Nui
Originally Europeans thought of Polynesian people as primitive and not capable of traversing the oceans by methods other than chance, let alone capable of building and moving statues of such volume. This idea has since been overturned. Rapa Nui people are said to have arrived from a central Polynesian continent, probably what would be modern day French Polynesia. These people had a vast knowledge of the the stars (and their trajectories),ocean currents and trade winds to get themselves from point A to point B. This helped them know which direction they should go and when was the best time to go in the direction they needed. They travelled from island to island in outriggers for purposes of inter island trade and colonization. These people are said to have arrived between 700AD- and 1200AD
Statue building is not an uncommon feature of Polynesian society. Tiki statues of various sizes are not uncommon among various Polynesian cultures. The uncommon thing here is the immensity of the statues on Easter Island. The population is said to have reached about 20,000 people at some stage. The various clans competed with each other to create the Moais dedicated to their ancestors. The human resources needed to sculpt, move and feed a population capable of this whole process would have been a strain on a small island like this. The Moais were sculpted from the earth using stone implements. Each one would take about to years to complete and were only first sculpted for the walking phase. Ask an Easter Island native how the Moai got to their final position and they will say they walked there. This is not entirely false. The statues were first build for the walking phase. They had a D shaped front for pivoting and deeply indented eyes for attaching ropes. They built roads at slopes between 3 and 6° to get the moai from the quarry to their platform. Scientific studies have shown that teams of rope pullers on either side would pull and the statue would pivot in a forward motion. Once the initial pull was started it would create its own momentum reducing the extreme energy needed to move a large object like this to its final resting place. Once it was there, the back, eyes and various other features were resculpted to stand up straight for a long amount of time. The moai building phase was said to take place between 1200AD and the complete deforestation phase around 1500AD
Ecocide is the process of destroying the objects which keep you alive and feed you to a point where you have nothing with which to survive. Evidence shows that the Rapa Nui arrived to an abundant island full of trees and birds. Population increased due to these abundant resources. It is suggested that as a farming society that trees served no purpose to them and they set about deforesting the island.Evidence also shows they were not the sole perpetrators of their decline. The rats that stowed away on the voyage to the island spread and increased numbers rapidly, then ate the seeds that would regenerate the forest. Trees were also needed to help in the Moai transportation process. But how could you cut the last tree down knowing it was the last tree? This is a question on how a society could do something they surely knew would lead to their demise. The next source of sustenance that was sent into extinction on the island was the abundant bird life. Evidence also shows a vast quantity of bird droppings suggesting abundant bird life.The last tree is said to have been cut down around 1500AD
After the last tree was cut down, inter clan warfare started. A new form of cropping, given there were no other resources to help in the farming process, rock mulching help them grow crops to feed the current population. The rocks kept the plants moist, and the decaying material that fell off the rocks would fertilise the soil. It seems they ad built themselves a cultural equilibrium despite the warring and lack of resources to help them.By the time the Dutch arrived, they didn’t note an island full of emaciated natives, and lacking food. The locals seemed were well fed and had noted sufficient food crops around the island. All the Moai were also erect.
The arrival of the Dutch brought more Europeans, and reports of more and more fallen Moai. It is said that given that they had brought themselves back from the brink into a survival equilibrium, the diseases that Europeans brought started to wreak havoc on the community, and they had no immunity to these introduced European diseases. Angry at their gods who had not helped them they turned from to a bird god and started knocking down the Moai. The final blow was a heartless crew of Peruvian slave ships that arrived in 1862 and captured around 1,000 natives from Easter Island. Many others threw themselves into the sea. Within a short amount of time in their new location many of these slaves died from diseases and from overworking. The remaining survivors were soon sent back to their home island, and brought with them a new disease which killed a further 4/5 of the survivors and the crew members. Once the remaining 15 arrived laden with diseases, the natives that had survived the initial raid were further decimated, by the same disease.
Few natives remained after this last decisive feat of nature, and so their oral history completely destroyed with only science left to decipher and pass on for the islanders to pique their curiosity and pride of the people they were and how they survived if only slightly to this point. Now under a new entity and a new equilibrium if not in a modern way to guarantee the success of the island of the giant statues. Some of the statues have been raised for the sake of the island, it’s people, for tourism and for science. And many lay around as evidence for the study of science