Dr Ruth Tinker explores Easter Island’s ‘monumental history’
One of the great things about travelling is learning about other peoples and places. I recently visited one of the most fascinating of places - Easter Island. History argues about when the Rapa Nui arrived on the remote Pacific island. Legend says that chief Hotu Matu’a led his extended family there in a few canoes between 200 and 300 AD.
Radiocarbon dating suggests 700 AD as a better date, while some scientists believe it could be as late as 1200 AD.
The island, which is a triangle roughly 23 km by 11km, is extremely isolated even today. It is five hours flying time from Chile, and almost as far from Tahiti. The nearest island community is Pitcairn Island, a town of 50 souls, which is 2000 km away.
The people flourished, farming and using large log canoes to fish off shore. The population probably peaked at around 15,000. The people brought bananas, taro and chickens with them but also, unfortunately, rats.
The island was thickly forested when the immigrants arrived, but by the time Europeans started visiting, the landscape was cleared of almost all the trees. The timbers had been used in making dwellings, canoes, for cooking fuel and for carving and moving enormous statues called moai. The rats are variously blamed for aiding the deforestation, but also have been said to have been eaten when protein became scarce.
Twenty one species of trees and all species of land birds became extinct through a combination of overharvesting and overhunting, rat predation, and climate change. Loss of large trees meant that residents were no longer able to make seaworthy canoes, significantly diminishing their fishing abilities. The native tropical forests had provided ideal shade cover for soil, but with much of the native forest destroyed, the topsoil became eroded. This caused a sharp decline in agricultural production, a problem further exacerbated by the loss of land birds and the collapse in seabird populations as a potential source of food.
By the 18th century, residents of the island were largely sustained by farming, with domestic chickens as the primary source of protein.
How many moai and why?
One thing we do know is that today there are around 900 moai on Easter Island. These were carved from volcanic tuff, and average 5 m tall. They are thought to have been a way to honour and capture the “mana” or good fortune and good will from community leaders when they died. They were carved from the hillside of the largest volcano, which one can still visit.
Tumbled along the hillside are stones in various stages of completion. Some still embedded in the surrounding rock and others stand part way down the hill. Still others are face down. They were transported to the village and many were placed upright on raised platforms called ahu. The platforms often contained the bones of villagers. Most moai face the village, and have their backs to the ocean. The mana was thought to have been channelled through their eyes, so they needed to see the village.
What happened to the islanders?
The story of the islanders is reminiscent of many non-European societies. Having peaked at 15,000 the population declined through hunger and protein deficiency. The people pushed over many of the moai believing they were no longer supporting the villages. A new religion took hold, known now as the Birdman Cult. The fittest and bravest competed to win the right to rule the island for the year. They climbed down a cliff (which was the side of the volcanic caldera), and swam a kilometre to a tiny island. There they climbed the island cliff and waited for the birds to arrive to nest. The winner was the man who was first back to the main island carrying an intact egg.
When Captain James Cook visited in 1774 he estimated the population as down to 700 men and only 30 women, after what he thought was a civil war. In the 1860s the islanders were taken by slavers to Peru. They brought back European diseases, including smallpox, TB and syphilis. By 1877 only 111 islanders remained.
Easter Island life today
Easter Island was taken over by most of the colonial powers at different times through the last 150 years. It was annexed by Chile in 1888, and the island leased for sheep grazing. Chile installed a civil governor in 1965. These days only Rapa Nui can own land. Islanders pay no taxes to Chile, but Chile supplies education, medical and all other services.
Given their isolation, I think the islanders have a pretty good deal. They are not wealthy. They have a beautiful island, a great surfing break, monumental history and some deep mysteries for visitors to explore.