By Kevin Mahoney
The most remote island on planet Earth, Easter Island, was first discovered by Polynesians in a two-canoe expedition around 450 AD. The settlers that followed would go on to build a society that would become isolated on the island for the next one thousand and three hundred years. Their culture, occupations, and struggles would remain a complete mystery to the rest of the world until the 18th century, and for many years afterward still.
The first outside visitor to the island of Rapa Nui, as it’s called by the natives, was Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. He found the island on Easter Day in 1722. When Roggeveen approached the coast of the island, he observed that the small island was surrounded by massive stone sculptures as high as 68 feet. They appeared over the ocean waves like divine guardians watching over the island, protecting it from outside forces. This was especially impressive looking because the island didn’t have a single tree over 10 feet high.
When Roggeveen landed and interacted with the islanders he could not fathom how this prehistoric civilization could have built or moved these enormous monuments. Theories ranged from Peruvian artisans visiting the island and building them to alien invaders dropping them out of the sky. How could these primitive people that were barely surviving and according to some reports had even resorted to cannibalism, have created these marvels of human ingenuity without even the technology of the wheel at their disposal.
In the Beginning
To begin to unravel the mystery we have to go back to the early days of the island. When Easter Island was first discovered it was covered with a lush forest, populated with at least 25 different species of trees and shrubs. The first organized migration to the island was headed by a chief named Hotu Matu’a along with his captain Tu’u ko Iho. They were voyagers from the Marquesas Islands who were fleeing their home after losing repeated battles to a rival chieftain.
When the expedition reached the island they found two lone men, Nga Tavake a Te Rona and Te Ohiro a Te Runu, little is known about their origins. The colonists settled on different parts of the island, although not too far apart as the whole of the island could be seen from it’s highest point.
The colony grew and developed a caste system that was always led by the eldest descendant of the island’s founder Hotu Matu’a. It is said that Hotu’s first heir Tu’u ma Heke, born on the island, was the leader who masterminded the statues. As high chief, Heke held power over the nine clans that developed and all of their respective chiefs. But his true power came from the “moai” statues, as they were called.
The moai represented god-like manifestations of the clan’s ancestors. According to the religion of the islanders, the moai imbued the leader with mana — a mystical combination of power, intelligence, and opulence. And the larger the moai the more mana the clan’s leader received. Thus the different clans would be in competition with one another to build larger and larger statues. This would also be spurned on by any sort of natural disaster or civil unrest because according to their religion most any problem could be solved by created larger statues. If there was a bad crop yield or a mutiny underway then it could only be solved with more mana from a larger moai.
The moai were made from compressed ash that surrounded the volcano on the island. Because the islanders had no tools they carved the statues from denser stones, slowly chipping away at a wall of rock until the shape was formed and could be carved out of the rock side, as if awakening the deities from the earth.
While this would be tiresome work and required a full year to complete just two statues, the nearly impossible task came after their creation. The volcano was near the center of the island but many of the statues were placed along the border. It has baffled archaeologists to this day how the islanders were able to move these insanely unwieldy works of art as far as 12 miles.
For many years it was thought that the statues must’ve been laid down upon logs and slowly pushed to their resting points. But now a more dominant theory has surfaced, one which was actually conceived based on the religion of the people.
According to oral histories, the statues were moved by a king named Tuu Ku Ihu with the help of the god Makemake, who with his divine power could command the statues to walk upright on their own.
Many archeologists now believe the islanders moved the statues while they were upright. Through some complex system of ropes they believe the statues could be rocked back and forth and made to “walk” from one end of the island to another. This would have required incredibly attuned coordination, it’s possible that the islanders developed a chant that would help them keep rhythm with one another as they “walked” the monuments.
The building of the moai dominated the culture of the island and became it’s near sole pursuit. All the natural resources, included all the wood and rope, were dedicated to the creation and transportation of these statues. The island is so small that there would have been a point when one of the inhabitants was cutting down the island’s last tree and could have feasibly known it was the last tree on the island.
The deforestation of the island is estimated to have happened around 1500. Because of the lack of supplies nearly half of the statues never made it to their intended resting point, many were left near the quarry where they were built, resting on the side of their heads forever.
The deforestation led to an ecological collapse that cut the population of Rapa Nui from it’s peak of 15,000 nearly in half to around 8,000.
Cult of the Birdman
Because the building of the statues became impossible, a new religion replaced the moai worship. This religion, referred to as the “Bird Man Cult” placed more emphasis on individuals rather than idols. Instead of ancestors connecting to the living through statues they would imbue power to the living through competition.
The religion involved an annual competition to find the first egg of the season on the nearby island Motu Nui. The contest was incredibly dangerous, it was held at Orongo, which was a narrow ridge on the island between a thousand foot drop into the ocean and a deep crater. The contestants would need to swim from Orongo to the smaller island, doing sharks and vicious rip tides, find an egg, then climb up the deadly steep sea cliff with the egg precariously balanced in a reed basket attached to the contestant’s forehead. Many contestants, who were all esteemed members of the community, would be killed.
The winning contestant would present the egg to his chief and would then have his head shaved and painted white. He was named a tangata-manu, a sought-after position of power, and was entitled to many gifts and a bountiful feast. He would then go and live in seclusion at a ceremonial house inside a cave for a full year, only eating, drinking, and sleeping. This would make his skin more and more pale so as to more closely resemble a bird.
The bird man cult was still being practiced when Roggeveen found the island. When he arrived he reported that there were two tribes, the Ha-nau-aa-epe, which he observed were distinct for their long ears, and the Ha-nau-mo-moko, which he described as “short-eared.” Although the written language of the island—rongo rongo—remains indecipherable, it’s theorized that the statues were created by the short-eared tribe under the command of the long-eared tribe.
Part of this theory is based on a revolt that occurred on the island in 1760. The short-eared tribe massacred the long-eared tribe for what has been interpreted as oppressing them for years. They left only one survivor. As a result of the civil war, the population of the island dropped again, to about 3,000 by 1774.
The avian religion so fervently displaced the moai worship that at a certain point in the island’s history “statue-toppling” became a form of aggression amongst warring tribes. And explains why many of the moai statues had fallen by the early 1800s.
The islanders were then struck by aggressors from outside the island. In 1862, eight Preuvian ships landed on the island and captured around 1,000 inhabitants, including the king and his son, and sold them all into slavery.
In the End
By 1877, only a little over 100 islanders remained and the bird man cult had ended, replaced by Christianity after European missionaries began constructing Roman Catholic churches on the island. In addition to their religion, Native islanders lost almost all of their culture at this time. The Catholics banned their body painting and tattooing and most of their artwork was destroyed.
In 1890 most all the inhabitants left for work in Tahiti as life on the island had become near unlivable. Eventually all pure Rapa Nui blood died out and the country was annexed by Chile. Though there are still those living on the island today that are blood relatives to natives.
The story of Rapa Nui is both inspiring and tragic. The people displayed an incomparable level of determination and ingenuity when you consider their isolation and resources. But they were marred by an over zealous commitment to their cult-like goals that caused them to destroy the ecosystem that was giving them life. It’s easy to look at them with judgment and fail to grasp how they could do that to themselves but consider the planet Earth as our own Easter Island within the universe and you’ll see in the grand scheme of things we all might be repeating the very same mistakes right now.