This mystery began hundreds of years ago when a group of Polynesian explorers set off across the ocean in small wooden canoes. They used the daily ocean swells and the evening stars to navigate. To date, nobody knows what drove these people to leave their native land. What they found was a lush, uninhabited island paradise. They named their new home Rapa Nui. Today we know it better as Easter Island. This island has shrouded in myth and legend, ever since its discovery nearly 300 hundred years ago.
The story that is most debated is that of the mysterious Moai’, the giant stone statues that are found all ove the island, and more importantly how they were carved and transported. The second mystery of the island is how a thriving community could all but disappear in a matter of a few centuries.
When the explorers found themselves located on an as isolated island as they could have hoped to find, nearly 2,330 miles (ca.
3,750 km) from South America and over 1,100 from the the nearest inhabited island. They set cultivating the land and erecting Moai’, in tribute to their ancestors. These were chiseled out of the volcanic stone of the island. The fact that they were able to move these statues that are over 14 tons in weight and some cases over 16ft (ca. 5 m) tall only adds to the legends of the island. Historians and archeologists are divided when it comes to the mystery of how this small Island community managed to move these huge stone statues around.
We know that they had no animals such as oxen that could have been used. Instead, there are any number of theories being bandied about, One such theory argues that the Moai were carved by aliens, as at first sight it seems physically impossible that a primitive people managed to move these stones without some supernatural intervention.
This theory while entertaining has been firmly debunked as a little far-fetched. Other theories believe that the islanders used the giant palms as rollers to transport the statues, this theory has also been shelved due to the topographical nature of the island. A group of archeologists decided to recently test another theory that the statues were dragged using a series of ropes. The results of their test show that this method to move the statues was far more likely to have been the case. But to date we still do not know for sure how the statues were transported. As their society flourished, so too did the demand for one of the island’s most valuable resource, its giant palm trees. The islanders didn’t understand the damage they were doing until it was too late. They cut down trees to make room for agriculture, to build houses, to burn for fire and some argue to aid them transporting their giant statues around the island.
As the trees on the island started to dwindle there was little or no protection offered to the nutrient-rich soil when the trees eventually ran out the local started burning grass. When European explorers discovered the Island in 1722, they stumbled across a nearly barren landscape, That was the accepted story of how events unfolded on the island. The actual date that the Polynesians arrived at the island is still being debated. Historians and scientists argue they could have landed there as early as 800CE, where archaeologists believe the culture thrived for hundreds of years, eventually breaking up into different settlements scattered around the island. They believe that the population eventually peaked at a few thousand, this allowed labor to be allocated to the construction of the Moai. Society collapsed as the trees disappeared and war broke out between the different settlements as starvation set in, and they fought for survival.
Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse’ that the decline and eventual demise of the society of Rapa Nui is the earliest example of ecocide’, how the unchecked appetite of humanity can lead to the demise of civilization due to environmental degradation. A recent archaeological dig on the island has thrown this theory up in the air, however. Esteemed archaeologists from the University of Hawai’i and California State University, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo led a team of students to perform excavations at Anakena, a stretch of white sandy beach located on the island’s northern shore. They chose this location as it offered the most hospitable landing point on the island.
They deduced that it would be the most likely point for an early settlement. As they began to dig excavation pits they discovered clear evidence of human habitation. The top layers of the pit revealed the presence of tools and charcoal, it even contained some bones, many of them were rat bones. They dug deeper they found the soil was free from human contact. The content of this pit was analyzed to give a more accurate date of the arrival of the first settlers on the island. Samples of the dig were sent to a lab for radiocarbon dating, they fully expected the results to indicate a date around 800CE. Instead of their surprise, the analysis revealed the samples dated to 1200CE. This dating meant they arrived some 400 hundred years later than previously thought. More worryingly it meant that the complete deforestation of the island happened much faster than previously estimated. It indicated that the destruction of the natural environment was almost immediate.
Hunt and his researchers suspected that as destructive as humans can be, they couldn’t possibly have been the cause of such a rapid decline in the natural ecosystem. They suspected the answer lay in the pits. Remember the rat bones that they found? This rat was not native to the island and had either been brought to the island by accident or by design as a source of food. Hunt asserted that the rats found themselves on an island devoid of natural predators, and with an abundance of food. Feasting on a diet of palm shoots and palm seeds their population exploded. The rats accelerated the process of deforestation, as the locals continued to cut down the trees the rats ensured the area could not naturally regenerate. According to Hunt’s theory, the rats led to the demise of the island. Some Easter Island scientists such as John Flentley, accept that in theory rats could be the cause of deforestation, but he doubts it would have happened so quickly.
Flentley’s research on the island indicated the presence of numerous charcoal pits. He reported that the local’s desire for charcoal led to the intense deforestation of the island and the eventual collapse of the island forests. Flentley first surveyed the island in 1977 and to date remains one of the few scientists to have studied the islands’ pollen, a crucial indicator of foresting. Flentley based much of his research in the islands volcanic craters as he believed they were one of the few sources of freshwater on the island. These large craters offered natural shelter for early settlers and the soil itself would have been perfect for the cultivation of crops. His research revealed that the pollen rate dropped off dramatically before 1000CE, calling into question Hunts assertion that the island was populated at a later date of 1200CE.
He believed it makes sense that these early settlement sites would have shown earlier indicators of deforestation than the rest of the island. He asserted that while Hunts beach site would have been the ideal location to store canoes and a point to fish from, it would not have been a natural choice for a settlement as they would have needed a source of freshwater. Flentley’s findings have been somewhat supported by that of Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has been studying the Moai for nearly 30 years. Having studied nearly 900 of the Easter Island statues. Van Tilberg and her colleagues agree that it makes little or no sense for early settlers to build these statues. They are equally skeptical of Hunt’s theory of later colonization. As they believe history indicates there would be no logical reason for a newly developing society to assign so much of their time and resources to the building of the Moai, each of which was a massive undertaking.
Activities such as these are indicators of a much more mature and developed society. Meaning that the settlers must have arrived at Rapa Nui far earlier than Hunt’s estimation of 1200CE. She acknowledges that the platform on which the statues stand may have been constructed by 1200CE, as other research indicates the islanders began the process of crop intensification around the same time. Hunt remains confident in his findings, as he believes too many scientists, get a date in their minds, invest a lot in telling a story and find it difficult to admit they might have it wrong. There is a strong case for his using this theory on his findings. Especially when you read the latest theory about the decline of the population of Rapa Nui.
Recent research conducted by Dr. Karen Croucher argued that the mystery of Easter Island is not just one of self-destruction. Rather, most of the blame should be placed at the foot of the western world. Before the arrival of Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. There is little evidence of disease on the island. But since its discovery, the islanders have been subjected to slavery, pests, and disease which resulted in the tragic demise of the island’s population. She argues that there is little evidence to support that the island civilization descended in ruin due to warfare as a result of deforestation and starvation.
Instead, she points to the horrific history of the Island in the 19th century. Persistent slave raids after 1862 drastically reduced the population of the island. The raider also left the islanders with the gift of smallpox and other western diseases that they had no natural immunity to. Their story is similar to that of the Native Americans. Missionaries landed on the island bringing more disease and as they tried to encourage the locals to abandon their long-held traditional beliefs. As hundreds of the Island inhabitants were dragged from the island to work as slaves in Tahiti the population eventually dropped to just 100 by 1877.
Easter Island remains most famous for its mysterious statues, and even today they difficult to accurately date, but one thing is for certain they remain as a testament to the once-thriving civilization that built them. Scientists continue to debate as they look for the key to unlock the mysteries of Easter Island. Whether the mystery of the demise of the island can be explained by the actions of islanders, an invasion of rats or the disease theory we may never know. The theory that Easter Island facts most support is that the island succumbed to the trail of destruction westerners have traditionally left in their wake, like many civilizations before them and since.