Mystery of Easter Island

by | History |

Mystery of Easter Island

In the Southern Pacific Ocean, a remote volcanic island looks out of the sea with giant stone statues. The Easter Island Statues. The 887 giant moai statues on Easter Island have turned one of the most isolated islands in the world into one of the most well known - and most mysterious.

So, what is the mystery behind the Easter Island Statues? Who put these giant stone heads on Easter Island and what was their purpose?

Let's dig out all the details in this post.

The island - known as Rapa Nui by its inhabitants - was first visited by Europeans in the 18th century, the population was estimated at between 1500 and 3000. However, that seemed far too small for the enormous work that would have been required to carve, move and lift the nearly 900 giant statues of Moai, into place.

Practically everyone has seen the iconic images of the Easter Island heads. What you may not have known is that the Easter Island heads actually have hidden buried bodies. Archaeologists have uncovered the bodies associated with the heads and found interesting discoveries that further our knowledge of the Easter Island civilization and how they created the monoliths.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui in Polynesian) is a Chilean island in the southern Pacific Ocean famous for its stone head statues called Moai. When you first see a Moai statue you are drawn to its disproportionately large head (compared to body length) and that is why they are commonly called “Easter Island Heads”.

Stepping foot on Easter Island you will find the most accommodation offerings in Hanga Roa, a short drive from the airport. Hanga Roa is the only town on the island and you will find that public transport is non-existent here.

Rano Raraku is known as the “nursery” of the stone head Moai statues. As you approach the site from the road you will begin to see the giant heads dotted along the hillside.

Easter Island Statues

A short away and you will arrive at Ahu Tongariki, which is the most photogenic of the statue sites. “Ahu” are village burial sites defined by a large flat stone platform with a seaward vertical wall.

“Pukao” are the hat-like features or top knots which are on top of some statues. They were made from a quarried red volcanic stone. These are actually later additions to the statues, possibly as late as the 16th century.

All of the Moai here were toppled over during the island’s civil war. And later in the twentieth century a tsunami hit the coastline and swept them inland.

The “statue-toppling” occurred in the 1750’s by tribes locked in civil war. Historians know roughly when the toppling took place because in the 1700’s the first European visitors reported seeing only standing statues, but then by Captain James Cook’s visit in 1774 many were reported toppled.

A longstanding point of contention over the years has been just how the moai statues on Easter Island got to their final resting places. The tallest of the statues, “Paro,” stands at almost 10 meters (33 ft) and weighs in at 74 metric tons (82 tons). All of them are immensely hard to move.

 

The island was settled by Polynesian explorers who spent weeks traveling the Pacific in open canoes. Calling them brave is an understatement.

Scientists think Rapa Nui could have been settled as early as 300 CE and as late as 1200 CE. We really don't know how old this civilization is.

The islanders invented a pictographic written language called Rongorongo that has not yet been deciphered.

The Easter Island Statues

The islanders carved and transported large stone statues called moai to the shores of the island. The moai are thought to represent ancestors of their creators, but no one is quite sure how the Islanders managed to move them.

The research underscored the isolation of these people, who lived on an outpost some 2,300 miles (3,700 km) west of South America and 1,100 miles (1,770 km) from the nearest island.

The Rapa Nui people formed a unique culture best known for the 900 monumental head-and-torso stone statues known as moai erected around Easter Island. The culture flourished starting around 1200.

Eventually, the giant palms that the Rapanui depended on dwindled. Many trees had been cut down to make room for agriculture; others had been burned for fire and used to transport statues across the island. The treeless terrain eroded nutrient-rich soil, and, with little wood to use for daily activities, the people turned to grass.

 

Many experts maintain that the settlers landed around 800 A.D. They believe the culture thrived for hundreds of years, breaking up into settlements and living off the fruitful land. According to this theory, the population grew to several thousand, freeing some of the labor force to work on the Moai. But as the trees disappeared and people began to starve, warfare broke out among the tribes.

The researchers believed Anakena would have been an attractive area for the Rapanui to land, and therefore may be one of the earliest settlement sites. In the top several layers of their excavation pit, the researchers found clear evidence of human presence: charcoal, tools - even bones, some of which had come from rats. Underneath they found soil that seemed absent of human contact.

The Mysterious Easter Island Statues

A 2014 genetic study had indicated interbreeding between the people of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, and native people in South America occurred roughly between 1300 and 1500. The new research, studying the DNA of three Rapa Nui people from the 1400s and 1500s and two from the 1800s, found no evidence of such mingling.

 

Today Rapa Nui is part of Chile, and tourism is the primary economic driver for islanders. Even when several hundred years of history are condensed into a few bullet points, there are multiple mysteries left unsolved.

Scientists may never find a conclusive answer to when the Polynesians colonized the island and why the civilization collapsed so quickly. Whether an invasive species of rodent or humans devastated the environment, Easter Island remains a cautionary tale for the world.