Easter Island is a fascinating and curious place. The strange statues that dot the island’s landscape have mystified people for hundreds of years. So how exactly were these giant monuments made? And what became of the people who created them? Well, now scientists have made a remarkable breakthrough – one that could shed light on the mysterious disappearance of Easter Island’s inhabitants.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to its indigenous people, is a small island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, it is today a quiet, isolated place that’s home to some 6,000 inhabitants. The island is famed the world over for the bizarre and enigmatic statues that litter the landscape and which amaze visitors.
The famous statues, known as “moai,” are easily recognizable by their distinct angular features. Yet although widely referred to as the “Easter Island heads,” many of them do in fact have bodies. Carved from a soft volcanic stone sometime between 1250 and 1500, the statues are said to represent the faces of the islanders’ glorified ancestors. There are thought to be nearly 900 moai in total, but mystery still surrounds the Polynesian craftsmen who made them.
The statues do, though, seem to provide evidence of a complex civilization. And yet when European explorers first set foot on the piece of land, they came across a relatively small population estimated to number no more than 3,000. The explorers, then, were puzzled. Surely the civilization that made these statues had to have been much larger?
The first expedition to reach Easter Island was led by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, and it made land on Easter Day in 1722. Roggeveen had been searching for new trade routes, and alongside Easter Island he also came across Samoa and other Pacific lands.
This came at a time when the Dutch were looking to dominate the world stage. The Age of Discovery had begun in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’ first voyage. And with the expeditions bankrolled by the Spanish, all the wealth of the new discoveries had made Spain a powerful empire. By the 18th century, though, the British and Dutch had also grown hungry for power and money. Consequently, they too had undertaken their own explorations.
Roggeveen didn’t stay long on Easter Island, however. A meeting between the islanders and the explorers ended in a violent exchange which killed more than a dozen locals and injured many more. Some 50 years subsequently passed before the next European visitors – two Spanish ships – made land in 1770. Captain Cook then made a brief visit in 1774 and reported seeing numerous toppled statues, but the island remained largely closed to the outside world until well into the next century.
Then, in the mid-1800s, a series of disasters decimated the island’s population. Peruvian slave traders raided Easter Island and carted off half of its people – before being forced to return some to their rightful homes. However, these returnees brought with them deadly smallpox. Tuberculosis also made an unwelcome appearance, while some islanders were evacuated by visiting missionaries. These three factors combined to reduce Easter Island’s population to a little over 100 by 1878.
Happily, though, the population has since recovered and stabilized. There is, furthermore, now a booming tourism industry that centers on the island’s otherworldly statues and natural beauty. Yet mystery still surrounds the fate of the people who created the moai.
That said, there are plenty of theories surrounding what exactly brought ruin to the people of Easter Island. Now, however, experts from the University of California and New York’s Binghamton University have published research that could provide a definitive answer. And yet trying to understand the island’s population collapse is a difficult task.
One popular theory involves the mysterious statues. Some think that the inhabitants used trees to roll the moai to their final destinations. Moreover, these theorists claim that the sheer amount of wood needed to do this deforested the island – and that this in turn led to an unstoppable, disastrous chain reaction in the island’s ecosystem.
It’s also possible that local people used the island’s trees to build canoes; these would have been used to catch fish. However, as the trees ran out – according to this line of thinking – so too did the islanders’ canoes, meaning they could no longer rely on the sea for food. The lack of trees also put paid to nesting birds – so that another source of nourishment was lost. Consequently, the theory goes, people switched to farming the land, but this led to soil erosion; and with the earth shorn of its nutrients, agriculture floundered and the local population gradually died out.
Other experts think that the deforestation of Easter Island forced people into cannibalism. Citing an old insult, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth,” academic Jared Diamond argues that, without fish, birds or vegetables to feast on, inhabitants turned to eating one another. However, many others disagree with his theory.
Yet more evidence suggests that internal wars could have contributed to the disappearance of Easter Island’s population. Around the same time that food supplies are believed to have begun to dwindle, a violent cult of warrior “bird men” emerged. It is possible, moreover, that this further deepened the crisis and could have led to more loss of life.
However, experts are now questioning the established theories concerning the collapse of Easter Island’s population. Researchers from Binghamton University have analyzed human, animal and botanical remains from archaeological sites on the island, and their findings challenge the traditional ecocide story.
Researchers believe that, rather than having over-farmed the land, islanders instead practiced some quite advanced agriculture. Professor Carl Lipo has said that the Easter Islanders “were enriching the soils in order to grow the crops.” His team have also found evidence to suggest that the native people never stopped eating fish. And this would indicate that before the arrival of Europeans, the people of Easter Island were creating a sustainable supply of food. Lipo believes the evidence indicates that people were adapting to their changing environment.
Other researchers, led by Cedric Puleston from the University of California, have also re-examined the area. Speaking to Science Daily, Puleston described his team’s work. He said, “We examined detailed maps, took soil samples around the island, placed weather stations, used population models and estimated sweet potato production.” Crunching the numbers, his team produced a radically different population model for the island – a model which challenges the established ecocide narrative.
The team concluded that the island could have supported farming on 19 percent of the land. This means that it may have been home to a far bigger population than has so far been thought. In fact, researchers insist that the island could have supported as many as 17,500 people – a number that is also reflected in archaeological evidence. It is therefore possible that the early explorers simply failed to correctly estimate the number of people on Easter Island.
So, all told, the two studies have radically challenged the story of the Easter Island ecocide. In a statement, Professor Lipo said, “The Rapa Nui people were smart about how they used their resources. All the misunderstanding comes from our preconceptions about what subsistence should look like.” Rather than struggling against the elements, then, the people who lived on the island could have thrived.
Instead of there having occurred catastrophic collapse, current research actually suggests that the population of Easter Island was stable – and successful – before the Europeans arrived. It seems that the islanders were able to adapt and change their environment. However, the full story is not yet known; yes, the strange statues of Easter Island may yet be hiding a few more secrets.