Easter Island: Mystery Solved!

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Boomer Traveller reached Easter Island through a mix of points and a $400 fat finger deal. The original inhabitants did not have it so easy. As geeks, Boomer Traveller did some research…

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) has nearly 1000 stone heads called Moai, some taller than a house.

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Easter Island has nearly 1000 Moai; the only ones standing on their platforms, like this one, were put back up in the last few decades after having been pulled down by the Rapa Nui in the 1700s.

It is one of the most isolated places on the planet. Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon-Tiki fame) theorized that the ancestors of the Inca populated the island (Polynesians came later), and carved the Moai in ancestor-worship. Although his theory of South American colonization has been discredited, there is evidence of Peruvian contact in the form of one distinctly Incan style stone wall.

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An Ahu wall, with Incan-style closely fitted blocks and a keysstone.

Historian Jared Diamond has popularized Rapa Nui as an object lesson in environmental destruction. The Island was once forested, but by the time Captain Cook visited in 1774, the forest was almost all gone, and the population was in severe decline. Diamond’s theory is that the Islanders had cut down all the palm trees to use as rollers to move the moai from the quarry to their villages. Since palm trees were a key resource – used for coconuts, making canoes so they could go fishing and generally live – cutting down all the trees essentially extinguished the culture of Rapa Nui. Others have elaborated on this theory, suggesting the Polynesian rats brought by the settlers as food ate the palm kernels, causing or at least contributing to the Island’s environmental collapse.

But we now know that the Moai were not moved on rollers (horrendously impractical with soft wood over rough ground), they were “walked” across the island standing up, by people pulling on ropes to rock them back and forth. No trees were harmed in the making of this film. Also, recent archaeological studies show the population was not in decline until close to the time of first European contact.

More recent theories suggest the island was colonized from Polynesia, probably the Marquesas, and possibly as recently as 800 years ago (though the generally accepted date is between 300 and 800 A.D.) Hoto Matu’a, who may have been a king’s younger son prone to getting in trouble, and was maybe told to go find his own place, arrived on Anakena beach with a party of favourites and camped out in a cave for a while.

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The AnaKena cave, where Hoto Matu’a and his followers are said to have spent their first nights on Easter Island.

Eventually, they established their own society. Being Polynesian, they built ceremonial platforms called Ahus. The Rapa Nui innovation was putting carvings of the ancestors on the platforms; over the generations, these grew into the enormous Moai made famous by Night at the Museum (“Gum-Gum for Dumb-Dumb”).

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Moai on their ceremonial Ahu platform.

Hotu Matu’a established a caste-oriented Polynesian culture. For the nobility, life was good: abundant food and plentiful serfs who carved these awesome statues of your ancestors to reinforce your importance and power.

Sometime around 1500, it all started to fall apart. They stopped carving Moai. The ancestor worship was largely replaced by the Birdman cult. Later, all the Moai were cast down.

The oral histories say there came the “Stocky People” (often mistranslated as “Long Ears”), who had superior stone-working skills. These newcomers did not get along well with the original inhabitants, and were later nearly or perhaps completely wiped out in a failed revolt. But the archaeology shows the decline of the Moai (and the rise of the “Birdman” cult) was already under way as early as 1500, though the population decline did not get going until closer to 1600.

So what happened? Boomer Traveller has a theory.

Away in South America, in around 1480, Tupac Inca Yupanqui got bored of conquering and subjugating up and down the coast, and sent a large trading party – 200 boats and 20,000 men – on a year-long expedition out into the Pacific Ocean to seek out new civilizations… to boldly go where no Inca had gone before.

Then, something strange happened in one of the lakes on Rapa Nui: South American algae (pond scum) started to grow. Probably no-one noticed. But the change in algae can be seen from their fossils in the mud.

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The lake in the crater where Moai were quarried.

Until then, the algae were all native Polynesian species. The lake mud was also full of rock dust from the carving of the Moai, many of which were quarried on the shores of the lake, making quite a mess. But at almost the exact same time that the algae changed, the flow of rock dust into the lake stopped: the algae changed, and the people of Rapa Nui stopped carving moai, both in around 1500. Coincidence? Boomer Traveller thinks not.

How did the South American algae get there? Imagine you are an Incan trading fleet. You will take food, and lots of freshwater in gourds or skins. And if you get blown off course, away from the rest of the fleet, and are lucky enough to find an inhabited island, one of the first things you will do is refill those containers, since fresh water is the scarcest of resources out on the open ocean. You will dump out any leftover old stale water (with its load of algae from where you first filled them in South America) and fill up with fresh water. The algae you dump will be happy being in a lake again and will go forth and multiply…

But if a boatload of strange men show up on pre-historic Easter Island after a storm, they probably end up as serfs, not royalty. They get put to work carving and hauling Moai, building walls (including one in a sort of Incan style)… until they get sufficiently mad about it to revolt.

Of course, they lost, and were nearly if not completely wiped out. But they took the old power structures and ancestor worship down with them, giving the Birdman cult a chance to soar.

It was only a few more decades before the Europeans arrived – Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, Spaniards around 1770, and Cpt. James Cook in 1774. Roggeveen saw a fertile, cultivated island whose population of about 3,000 was unusually tall. By the time Cook arrived 52 years later, most of the Moai had been cast down, the population was half of what it had been, and much of the farmland was abandoned.

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Moai toppled and broken.

Later, the Spaniards kidnapped about half of the surviving Rapa Nui to be slaves in their South American silver mines. Some came back, bringing European diseases with them. By 1877, the native population of the Island was down to just 111 native Rapa Nui.

Today Rapa Nui has a thriving population, and the best ceviche restaurants in the world. Chile owns the Island, and pours millions of dollars into it every year to support its developing economy and tourism industry. But the spirit of Rapa Nui is strong: there is a growing movement to separate from Chile and become once again an independent nation.

Historian Jared Diamond has used Easter Island as an object lesson in how humans fail to live in harmony with nature at our own risk. If Boomer Traveller’s theory is correct, failure to live in harmony with nature was never the problem, it was failure to live in harmony with each other.

Further Reading:

Boomertraveller developed this theory based largely on this paper: The end of moai quarrying and its effect on Lake Rano Raraku, Easter Island.

In addition to Wikipedia, other papers and books of interest are: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel; Variation in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) land use indicates production and population peaks prior to European contact; The ‘Walking’ Megalithic Statues (Moai) of Easter Island; Ecological Catastrophe and Collapse: The Myth of “Ecocide” on Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

2 Comments

    • Thanks!
      The ceviche is fantastic. There is also a Japanese restaurant – Kotaro – near the airport that is stunning. Do be prepared for expensive though – since very little grows on the island, prices for everything are fairly steep.

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