Easter Island is a small volcanic island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Chile and Tahiti. Until the island was colonised over 1300 years ago it was only inhabited by small insects and sea birds. In 400 AD, Easter Island was colonised by a group of Polynesian seafarers. It is this society’s story that has generated much interest and controversy over what happened on Easter Island so many years ago.
It is said that around 1600 years ago, King Hoto Matua landed on Anakena, a beach on the north shore of Easter island. Nearby he established the first settlement, as is indicated by the foundations of numerous buildings and the large number of stone figures (which are known as moai) in the area. As time passed the Polynesian settlers moved onto different areas of the island, forming their own different clans in the process. While these different clans developed largely different cultures, they were still united by the moai and the cult that was the reason for the moai’s creation.
Moai were large stone statues of a somewhat deformed head. These statues were created in large quantities and moved to different locations across Easter Island. It is unclear why the settlers built moai on such a massive scale. It was the obsession with Moai that lead to the island’s resources being depleted and thus the fall of the Easter Island civilization.
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The moai were carved from the sides of the massive caldera of the volcano Rano Raraku. Using implements made out of harder sections of rock the islanders would first sketch the outline of the moai onto the rock face, then slowly chip away at the surface until the moai was formed. The islanders were extremely serious about creating moai – it is believed that much of the labour used to carve out moai was in fact conscripted. Also, if a defect was found in the rock then regardless of how close the moai was to completion, the statue would be abandoned and work would begin on a new moai. Natural variations in the colour of the rock surface as well as the presence of fissures were also taken advantage of in order to create particularly attractive moai. After the statues had been carved they were removed from the rock face, where the finishing touches were made.
There is some debate over how the moai were transported across the island. According to legend, the moai “walked” to their resting place. This has given rise to the theory that that they were carried in an upright position, steadied by a team of workmen holding the statue in place with ropes. However, simulations have shown that this method is extremely inefficient and that the base of the moai would have sustained considerable damage in the process. It is argued that the Easter Islanders would have noticed this and would have transported the moai on its side using the trunks of palm trees to roll it along, and palm oil to lubricate the statue and the palm trunks, as this is by far the most efficient technique available to the Easter Islanders given their primitive technology.
Once the moai reached their intended location they were moved onto large stone platforms known as ahu. The ahu were an engineering feat in themselves. While they appear nowhere near as magnificent as moai, the knowledge required to build such a durable support for objects as heavy as the statues is immense. Moai and ahu were located near the ocean, looking out at the sea.
The Easter Islanders took great pride in their moai. It is believed the different clans competed with each other trying to build more spectacular moai than everyone else and thus prove their superiority.
The Fall of the Easter Island civilization is a chilling story about the consequences of resource depletion. Initially, Easter Island was covered by a tropical palm forest, however, as a consequence of the overuse of the island’s resources it is now mostly covered in grass. The islanders used lumber for things such as housing, firewood and eventually the construction of moai at such a rate that natural resources were unable to replenish. As the obsession with constructing moai intensified, more and more resources were wasted on the relatively pointless exercise. In one area, a 70 foot moai lies abandoned in the quarry after its builders realised transporting it would be impossible. As forests were cleared, topsoil eroded away into the sea causing crops to fail. In a fight for the remaining resources present on the island, civil war broke out between the clans on Easter Island. Islanders from various tribes would go around vandalising other tribes’ moai, the end result being that all the work that had gone into creating the hundreds of moai situated across the island was wasted. Cannibalism also took off, with islanders believing that by eating their enemies they would gain strength. Tragically, by the time the Easter Islanders realised they were running out of wood, there was not enough left to construct ships and find a new island to inhabit.
Disenchanted with the gods to which the moai had been dedicated, a new religion took over on Easter Island, called the birdman cult. Each year the island’s leadership was determined by who could slide down a steep slope, swim out to one of three islets in shark infested water, and retrieve intact a sooty tern egg (and you wonder why the civilisation collapsed). The Easter Islanders revered their new gods in a different but equally bizarre manner, carving over 480 glyphs into the basalt rocks found all over the island.
Just as the islanders were beginning to rebuild, slave traders discovered the island and sold all healthy individuals to slavery. The destruction of their religion and culture by missionaries was the death knell to Easter Island society. Annexation by Chile ensured that overseas influences eliminated the original Easter Island culture almost entirely.
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