Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, remains largely a mystery to scientists, historians, and archeologists even today. The origins of its original inhabitants, the meaning of the massive statues, and the means of creating the monolithic stone objects all remain almost as shrouded in mystery as they were when Europeans first discovered the island in 1722.

Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island on earth. The coast of Tahiti lies 2,500 miles away, Chile is 2,300 miles away, and the closest island, Pitcairn Island, is 1,400 miles away and is only sparsely populated

The Polynesians were capable of navigation by the stars, but still the feat is amazing. Nobody has navigated a canoe to Easter Island since the early settlers in 400 AD.

Equally amazing are the giant stone statues of stylized human heads and bodies, called moai. They range in height from just under 4 feet tall to an enormous 72 feet. ("El Gigante") The tallest standing moai is just under 33 feet tall and weighs around 80 tons. These statues are carved out of volcanic ash and nearly 900 of them litter the island landscape. Almost a third of them are upright and on pedestals, moved without the aid of modern machinery. All of the standing moai are facing away from the ocean, probably serving as an object of worship or respect.

Scientists still have only theorized on ways that the moai could have been moved and erected safely, and without damage to the statue itself. (If the thing falls, it's unlikely that severe damage won't be suffered)

About 2,000 people currently inhabit the island, almost all of whom live in Hanga Roa on the west coast. They subsist largely on cattle, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, maize, and potatos, but tourism recently has helped fuel the economy. Flights leave from Chile, and tourists can stay in one of several hotels on the island, which has few roads for transport.


  • Encyclopaedia Brittanica - http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=32350&tocid=0
  • NOVA - www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/
  • When the Dutch landed on Easter Island in 1772, they discovered over 500 gigantic stone carvings of men's heads, between 10 and 40ft high. However, when the Dutch enslaved the Polynesian people in 1862, they slaughtered its priests and kings and were consequently unable to decipher the instructions on wooden tablets that they discovered. Recent research has shown that the statues- thought to be cult objects (possibly deifications of dead people)- were erected between AD 1000 and 1600. The fact that there are many unfinished and toppled statues on the island indicates that the cult was ended suddenly by a brutal civil war. Some traditions record such a war, in which the 'Short Ears' overthrew their warlords, the 'Long Ears', together with their statues.

    Polynesian society was theocratic in structure. Chiefs that were believed to be descendents of the gods, also held the position of high priest. The high priest would mediate between god and man to win the god's favor, and get food and supplies for the people. This power of mediation was known as mana. The mana entitled him to sacred rights (tapu, or taboo) over land, fishing grounds, and more. On most islands settled by the Polynesians, these two factors held society in balance, and carefully regulated relations between people and the chief.

    The Polynesians had found the island around the third century AD, and brought with them sweet potatoes, bananas, and sugar cane. Although with only a triangle of extinct volcanoes roughly seventy square miles in extent to work with, they harvested the land, and eventually raised a population of over 7000 people. Over the next 700 years, they managed to carve and raise more than 300 giant statues, generally about five times life-size, on extensive temple platforms. During the 16th century, the islanders also invented a script, which it is thought was used by priests to help memorize oral traditions and genealogies.

    Then things started to go wrong. The growing population "denuded the island's environment. Forest clearance reduced rainfall, and the fields yielded less; it also reduced the yield of timber from which canoes were built, thus diminishing the harvest of the sea." A new flaked obsidian spearhead called a mata'a appeared on the scene, along with a new warrior known as "'tangata rima toto'-the men with the bloodied hands." Two separate groups formed, and separate ends of the island were in a state of constant warfare. The chief began to lose his power, and his mana was no longer respected. Over the course of the war, the statues were systematically toppled, either to insult the mana of an enemy clan, or as a sign of rebellion by commoners against the chiefs whose mana had failed them. The theocratic state was replaced by a new system of government: "the men with the bloodied hands" competed to be the first to find an egg of the sooty tern (a type of bird) thus winning chieftainship-for a single year.

    Dutch voyager Roggeveen landed on Easter Island in 1722, and found a state of anarchy. By the end of the 19th century, their degeneration-"compounded by European slave-raiding and the diseases the Europeans had introduced"-had reduced the population to 111 people, who barely retained even the sketchiest oral traditions of their past. From their stories, as well as archaelogical evidence, historians put together a picture of what was known as the Decadent Phase. It showed endemic warfare, as well as possible signs of cannibalism.

    *This information was derived from "A History of Warfare" by John Keegan

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