Every year, thousands of tourists from around the world take a long flight across the South Pacific to see the famous stone statues of Easter Island. Since 1722, when the first Europeans arrived, these megalithic figures, or moai, have intrigued visitors.Interest in how these artifacts were built and moved led to another puzzling question: What happened to the people who created them?In the prevailing account of the island's past, the native inhabitants—who refer to themselves as the Rapanui and to the island as Rapa Nui—once had a large and thriving society, but they doomed themselves by degrading their environment. According to this version of events, a small group of Polynesiansettlers arrived around 800 to 900 A.D., and the island's population grew slowly at first.
Around 1200 A.D., their growing numbers and an obsession with building moai led to increased pressure on the environment.
By the end of the 17th century, the Rapanui had deforested the island, triggering war, famine and cultural collapse.
Jared Diamond, a geographer
and physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has used
Rapa Nui as a parable of the dangers of environmental destruction. "In
just a few centuries," he wrote in a 1995 article for Discover
magazine, "the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove
their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society
spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?"
In his 2005 book Collapse, Diamond described Rapa Nui as "theclearest
example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own
Two key elements of
Diamond's account are the large number of Polynesians living on the
island and their propensity for felling trees. He reviews estimates of
the island's native population and says that he would not be surprised
if it exceeded 15,000 at its peak. Once the large stands of palm trees
were all cut down, the result was "starvation, a population crash, and
a descent into cannibalism." When Europeans arrived in the 18th
century, they found only a small remnant of this civilization.
Diamond is certainly not
alone in seeing Rapa Nui as an environmental morality tale. In their
book Easter Island, Earth Island, authors John R. Flenley of Massey
University in New Zealand and Paul G. Bahn worried about what the fate
of Rapa Nui means forthe......
Easter Island is the world's most isolated inhabited island. It is also one
of the most mysterious. Easter Island is roughly midway between Chile and
Tahiti. The triangular shaped island is made mostly of volcanic rock. Small
coral formations exist along the shoreline, but the lack of a coral reef has
allowed the sea to cut cliffs around much of the island. The coastline has many
lava tubes and volcanic caves. The only sandy beaches are on the northeast
The inhabitants of this charming and mysterious place called their land: Te
Pito o TeHenua, 'the navel of the world.'
It sits in the South Pacific Ocean 2,300 miles west of South America, 2,500
miles southeast of Tahiti, 4,300 miles south of Hawaii, 3,700 miles north of
Antarctica. The closest other inhabited island is 1,260 miles away - tiny
Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled in 1790.
Archaeological evidence indicates discovery of the island by Polynesians at
about 400 AD.
In 1722, a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, sighted and visited the island.
This happened to be on a Sunday, Easter Sunday to be precise, and the name
stuck: Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish). What he discovered on Easter Island were three distinct groups of people,
Dark skinned, Red skinned, and very Pale skinned People with red hair".
The Polynesian name of the island is Rapanui, which is a name given by a
Tahitian visitor in the 19th century who says that the island looked like the
Tahitian island of 'Rapa,' but bigger, 'Nui.' Inhabitants are of Polynesian descent, but for decades anthropologists have
argued the true origins of these people, some claiming that ancient
South-American mariners settled the island first. What many early explorers who visited the island found, was a scattered
population with almost no culture they could remember and without any links to
the outside world. The Easter islanders were easy prey for 19th century slave traders which
depreciated even more their precarious culture, knowledge of the past, and
skills of the ancestors...
One of the world's most famous yet least visited archaeological sites, Easter Island is a small, hilly, now treeless island of volcanic origin.Located in the Pacific Ocean at 27 degrees south of the equator and some 2200 miles (3600 kilometers) off the coast of Chile, it is considered to be the world’s most remote inhabited island.Sixty-three square miles in size and with three extinct volcanoes (the tallest rising to 1674 feet), the island is, technically speaking, a single massive volcano rising over ten thousand feet from the Pacific Ocean floor. The oldest known traditional name of the island is Te Pito o Te Henua, meaning ‘The Center (or Navel) of theWorld.’
In the 1860’s Tahitian sailors gave the island the name Rapa Nui,
meaning ‘Great Rapa,’ due to its resemblance to another island in
Polynesia called Rapa Iti, meaning ‘Little Rapa’.
The island received
its most well known current name from the Dutch sea captain Jacob
Roggeveen, who, on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722, became the first
European to visit.In the early 1950s, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (famous for his Kon-Tiki and Ra
raft voyages across the oceans) popularized the idea that the island
had been originally settled by advanced societies of Indians from the
coast of South America. Extensive archaeological, ethnographic, and
linguistic research has conclusively shown this hypothesis to be
inaccurate. It is now recognized that the original inhabitants of
Easter Island are of Polynesian stock (DNAextracts from skeletons have
recently confirmed this), that they most probably came from the
Marquesas or Society islands, and that they had arrived as early as 318
AD (carbon dating of reeds from a grave confirms this). At the time of
their arrival, the island was entirely covered with thick forests, was
teeming with land birds, and was the richest breeding site for seabirds
in the Polynesia region. Within a matter of centuries this profusion of
wildlife was destroyed by the islanders' way of life. The reasons are
today eminently clear. It is estimated that the original
colonists, who may have been lost at sea, arrived in only a few canoes
and numbered fewer than 100. Because of the plentiful bird, fish and
plant food sources, the population grew rapidly and gave rise to a rich
religious and artistic culture. However, the resource needs of the
growing population inevitablyoutpaced the island's......
On a dusty speck of rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the most
celebrated cultures in history found a foot-hold into the popular imagination.
The inhabitants of Easter Island created a cultural legacy that continues to
resonate today as tourists flock to the tiny Chilean possession to see for
themselves the impressive and distinctive statues, called Moai, which dot the
landscape and stare with empty eyes toward the endless ocean. They stand on
platform temples, called Ahu, which the islanders built up and enlarged over
the course of centuries. Tourists are astounded by the fine craftsmanship and
breath-taking beauty of Easter Island. Many believe a great mystery lies
Alternative history author
Graham Hancock believes that Easter Island is a focal point for a
vanished civilization whose influence stretches across millennia:
"The mystery of Easter Island so far seems to have involved... the mystery of
the master architects who first conceived the great Ahu and Moai [and] the
mystery of the master scribes who understood the Rongorongo language," he
wrote in Heaven's Mirror (1998).
Decades ago, anthropologist Robert Suggs wrote a history of Polynesia that was
a standard text on the subject. He firmly believed that archaeology had solved
most of the island's puzzles: "The mystery of this island, then, is largely of
an artificial nature, created for specific purposes by nonscientific authors."
He implied that those authors seek only fame and fortune, not truth. For that
reason, they obscure the history of the famous Moai.
The Moai of Easter Island are usually dated to the period between A.D. 1200 -
1650, and are considered a late addition to the Ahu platforms, which
originated with the founding of Easter Island. When I asked Graham Hancock to
comment on the age of the statues, he told me in August 2001 that the
archaeological dating is "probably correct as far as it goes, though not
necessarily the whole story." He referred me to Heaven's Mirror for a
full explanation of his views, so it is from their that I quote...