Easter Island Statue Project Official Website

Reflections on the Island

Christopher Weeks (guest contributor)

by Christopher Weeks,  December 8, 2003

On a map of the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is a dot – just fifteen miles wide at its longest dimension – in the middle of nowhere. Located two thousand four hundred miles west of South America and almost two thousand miles east of the nearest populated islands of Polynesia, it is the world’s most remote inhabited place. To the three thousand people who live here it is also known as ”Rapa Nui”, which is also how they identify their language and the culture which has been passed down to them through countless generations.

This is a place of spectacular natural beauty. In every direction the azure Pacific Ocean stretches to the horizon. On the shore, surf pounds against volcanic cliffs and outcroppings sending plumes of spray which dissolve into a blowing sea-mist. The cones of ancient volcanos punctuate the landscape, the largest ones rising several thousand feet with collapsed calderas at their center. Outside the main village, herds of horses and cattle graze peacefully under the watchful eye of an occasional vaquero.

But it is not the scenic beauty of Easter Island which distinguishes it. Similar scenes can be found in hundreds if not thousands of other tropical and sub-tropical islands around the world.

What makes Easter Island unique is its history represented by literally thousands of now mostly abandoned and collapsed remnants of a past – ceremonial sites, villages, and most prominently the immense and unique moai stone carvings of human figures ranging up to thirty feet tall and weighing up to twenty or thirty tons. Most of the moai lie half buried like silent witnesses ready to tell their story. Others have been toppled over or purposely broken as mute evidence of some past insurrection. Thousands of remnants. But remnants of what?

Over the last ninety years or so, dozens of anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnographers, and others have come to Easter Island to answer this question – remnants of what? Each has become captivated by the mysteries of this place, transfixed by its enigmas and unknowns, spell-bound by the way its past haunts its present. And each has wrestled with the question – what does it all mean?

Most experts agree on one thing – the island was first populated by a clan with origins in Polynesia which sailed almost 2,000 miles in large catamaran canoes, a trip which would have required a month or more. They arrived sometime in the fifth or sixth century AD, and brought with them what they needed to survive and indeed thrive in their new and abundant homeland.

For the next millennium, this population grew from less than one hundred individuals to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 inhabitants with an evolving structure of clans and hierarchies. By this time, the population had reached the limit of what was probably supportable by the island economy, especially given the fact that active trading with other cultures was out of the question

Beginning about 1100, this culture began to carve the moai – at first relatively small ones just seven or eight feet tall, but as time passed, larger and larger ones. By the seventeenth century, carving had been started on almost nine hundred. Many of these lie only partly finished and still largely embedded in the volcanic rock formations from which they were carved. But almost four hundred were brought out of the quarry and moved at least part of the way to one of the ceremonial sites which dot the island, some as much as eight or nine miles away. By any standard, it took a prodigious effort to carve these monoliths and move them several miles with nothing but the power of human hands.

Then the carving stopped. And many of the statues in transit were apparently simply left en route.

Based largely on folklore, the original natural abundance of Easter Island became nearly completely denuded by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Hardly a tree was left standing. There was no wood for canoes or fronds to weave. The bird population was decimated and the few remaining birds moved to offshore rocks where they were difficult to catch. Without trees for shade and water retention, agricultural production plummeted. Without large canoes, fishing was restricted to the shore line. In short, an ecological disaster ensued.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the island became embroiled in civil war for an extended period of time, perhaps because the resources of the island could no longer support the population. As a result the population started to decline rapidly, and the quality of life of the remaining clans also declined.

Strangely, sometime in the seventeenth century as carvers in the quarry devoted their efforts to ever larger moai, clans in other parts of the island began toppling over and even purposefully destroying the moai which had already been erected. By 1840, not a single moai was left standing on Easter Island. Today, restoration efforts have repaired several of the ceremonial platforms and re-erected about forty statues to their original positions.

By the early eighteenth century the island was “discovered”, first by the Dutch, then the English and Spanish and various other visitors from Europe and the United States. The islanders were at first amazed. However, most of these contacts resulted in exposing the islanders to sicknesses for which they had little resistance, and a further shock to their fragile culture and economy. In the nineteenth century, Peruvian slave-traders raided the island and kidnaped a thousand or more islanders for menial jobs in Peru.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the island population had declined to about one hundred fifty, all living in extreme poverty.

Today, visitors and experts are left with puzzling questions, theories, and conjectures to try to explain what happened.

Did the original inhabitants know that Easter Island existed when they set out over a thousand miles away to find a new place to settle? Or was Easter Island fortunate serendipity? After the initial settlement, was there any interchange with other Polynesians, or was Easter Island truly isolated from any contacts for over a thousand years? Were there contacts with South America during this time, as proposed by Thor Heyerdahl, and if so were these Easter Islanders sailing east, or South Americans sailing west?

Why did the Easter Islanders start carving moai, and what do these represent? Polynesian folklore indicates that these were seen as intermediaries capable of channeling “mana”, the hoped-for benevolence of a Supreme Being. But do these represent the deities themselves, or perhaps also embody some form of ancestral incarnation. Why carve so many, and erect as many as a dozen in one place? Some have suggested that the size and number of moai at each site may have also represented the relative status and power of individual families or clans.

How did the islanders, who had little technology, move moai weighing tens of tons long distances over rough terrain to their destined ceremonial platforms? Was the organization of this effort at the clan level, or was some larger central authority involved?

Later, why did the islanders systematically destroy the products of their work which had taken such prodigious energy to create? It is difficult to find any comparable instance in world history where an indigenous population has intentionally destroyed the primary artifacts of its own culture.

And then what caused much of the flora and fauna of Easter Island to become extinct or nearly so, to the point where humans were left with a subsistence economy? Was this the short-sighted act of the Islanders themselves consuming the basic resources necessary for their livelihood? Or is there some environmental explanation, some change in weather patterns or biological intrusion? And lastly, what does the collapse of the Easter Island environment mean for the world today? Is this a microcosm of the process by which deforestation, global warming, pollution and political conflicts will eventually reshape the world we live in, or is Easter Island just a small dot in world history which has meaning only in its own context?

Christopher Weeks December 8, 2003
(With deep appreciation to Dr. Jo Anne van Tilburg and Cristian Arevalo Pakarati, whose work has been the source of most of the facts and analysis cited).

Christopher Weeks (guest contributor)

Posted on May 4th, 2009 by (guest contributor) | Category: Guest Contribution |