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The Lost History of Easter Island (Part 1)

 

Stranded in isolation, 2000 miles from the nearest inhabited shore, Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui has become famous as one of the most mysterious places in the world. Known in ancient times as Te Pito o te Henua (the Navel of the World), the island is most well known for its massive statues recognized throughout the world. But a plethora of other enigmas have intrigued researchers as well.

I stepped off the plane and soaked up the warm tropical air in the last rays of daylight. After a five-hour plane ride I had finally made it to one of the most remote unexplained places in the world. In fact, this lonely island can only be reached two ways, from Santiago, Chile in the east as I had come, or from Papeete, Tahiti to the west as I would go one week later.

After picking up my bag in the small terminal, I slid into the backseat of one of the few taxis on the island and took a two-minute ride to the Hanga Roa Hotel. The accommodation options on Easter Island are relatively limited. Only one hotel has air-conditioning and it wasn’t mine. My room did come complete with a fan and a small television. Unfortunately there was only one electrical outlet in the room, so I had to choose between the two. It wasn’t much of a choice though since the TV only received one or two channels and they were both in Spanish.

With a full week to explore the island, I was in no rush. My hotel offered full-day tours whisking visitors to all the major sites in a single day, but I wanted to discover the island at a more leisurely pace. The next morning I decided to walk around Hanga Roa, the only town on the island. Consisting of one main road, two craft markets, a few small hotels and several surprisingly good restaurants, Hanga Roa can be covered on foot quickly.

Just west of town, down a shaded dirt road I made my way to the island’s only museum, the Museo Antropologico Sebastian Englert. Housing a small collection of artifacts and statues discovered on the island, the museum is a good place to learn more about the island’s history and what is known about its unique culture.

The first confirmed European vessel to reach Rapa Nui was a Dutch ship commanded by Jacob Roggeveen that encountered the isolated shores on Easter Sunday, 1722 thereby giving the island its modern name. Roggeveen was actually searching for the islands of Mangareva far to the west and came upon Easter Island quite by accident. Stormy weather and rough seas prevented the Dutch from venturing ashore for more than a day, but even in this limited time, they were able to record a great deal of information on the status of the island at the time.

Roggeveen found the islanders to generally be friendly and accommodating. They seemed to have ample food and were in good spirits. The Dutch marveled at the colossal statues standing around the island and noted that the islanders seemed to pay the monuments great respect. It would be nearly fifty years before the next Europeans would lay eyes on the island.

In 1770 a Spanish expedition reached Easter Island and reported conditions to be much the same as the Dutch had recorded. However, four years later when Captain James Cook arrived, he found the island to be utterly changed and in a dismal state. Cook recorded the islanders as being thin and miserable with scarcely enough food to get by.

Even the land had transformed. In fact he did not see “anything which can induce ships that are not in the utmost distress to touch at this island.”1 Cook’s expedition was also the first to note that many of the massive statues that once proudly gazed out from the shore were now toppled and lay face-down or were purposely broken or disfigured.

Over the next hundred years a variety of vessels visited the island culminating in a massive slave raid in 1862 in which eight Peruvian ships decimated the local population taking with them the island king, his family and nearly all the learned men and people of stature on the island. Almost 1000 people were taken to work as slaves before the Peruvian government intervened and agreed to send the survivors back.

Disease and harsh working conditions had laid waste to these once proud people and only 100 individuals boarded the ship for the journey home. By the time they reached Easter Island, only 15 had survived the return trip and with them they brought a smallpox epidemic that few would escape. Within a few years, a population of thousands had been reduced to a mere one hundred and eleven.1

Of those who escaped the slave raids or survived the epidemic, much was learned about early life on the island. Unfortunately a great deal of information was lost forever. Many of the earliest foreign residents on the island were missionaries, intent on converting the local populace to Christianity. Through this process, many of the old beliefs were lost or suppressed and countless artifacts were destroyed in the belief that they represented pagan idols. This tremendous loss of early history has contributed greatly to the aura of mystery that still surrounds Easter Island to this day.

With a better understanding of the island’s past, I made my way back down to the coast to investigate some of the sights near town. Clouds were blowing in with a darkening sky as I arrived at Cook’s Bay, just north of Hanga Roa. Walking past three horses grazing lazily, I stared up at two of the great stone statues that the island is so famous for. Known as moai, these towering giants are the first images conjured when most people think of Easter Island. However all of the moai currently standing atop their platforms known as ahu were re-raised in modern times, having all been toppled by around 1860.

But what caused the great stone monuments to fall? Speculation has ranged from earthquakes to a volcanic eruption, but more recent evidence clearly indicates that the statues were felled by the locals themselves. Early accounts of the island tell us that the moai were built in the image of great rulers and that each had its own name. Indeed, while similar, no two moai look alike.

It seems that sometime in the late 1700’s, warring tribes finally turned their aggression towards the relics of the past and during this period many of the moai were toppled or defaced. Over the next hundred years the violence escalated and retaliation ensued causing the statues to be systematically brought down until none were left standing.2 What caused the individual island groups to become so destructive towards a past they once cherished is still an area of intense speculation and we may never know the real answers.

As the sky continued to darken, I pressed on, walking further north along the coast. It’s hard to stop walking on Easter Island since there is always another moai, ahu or other fascinating sight just out of reach. I passed platforms with standing moai and others where they still remained toppled, lying face-down in the earth. As I walked along a cove, the sky finally broke and pelted me with a light shower of rain.

Spotting a nearby cave, I dashed inside to wait out the storm. Easter Island is speckled with caves, and many are well hidden and now serve as hiding places for ancient family treasures. I looked around my cave, but couldn’t find anything of interest except for an old Coke can. As the sky cleared, I decided it was finally time to head back towards town.

The next morning I took a taxi south from Hanga Roa up to the top of the extinct volcanic crater Rano Kau, home to the ancient ceremonial site of Orongo. With a stunning view west across the Pacific, it was here that one of the most important ceremonies on Easter Island took place. Every Spring, chiefs from the major tribes throughout the island would come together at this village to participate in the birdman competition.

Each tribe would enter its own competitor who climbed 1000 feet down the steep cliffs and plunged into the ocean below. He would then swim through shark infested waters for over a mile to reach the tiny nearby island of Motu Nui where he would wait for the laying of the first egg from a migratory bird known as the sooty tern. The first competitor to return with the egg won the honor of becoming birdman for his master. Upon being crowned birdman, this individual went off to live a life of seclusion for one year where all his needs were attended and he was afforded many privileges.2

Since the birdman cult was a relatively late invention on Easter Island, the ceremonial center at Orongo has survived into modern times relatively intact. I walked along a well worn path past low circular stone-houses built into the hillside. Some of them contain painted artwork that is still barely visible. Unfortunately entrance is not permitted.

Past the houses I continued south along the edge of the cliffs. Early accounts of the island described an ahu called Rikiriki with a series of moai suspended impossibly mid-way up the sheer cliff-face between Orongo and the ocean below. Sadly, erosion from the fierce waves caused these statues to topple into the sea before they could be properly studied. Although documented by the Smithsonian in 1889, some researchers have even gone as far as dismissing the accounts of this ahu to pure fantasy and indeed many books on the island no longer mention this mysterious site.3

Returning back along the path, high above Motu Nui I came to a series of boulders called Mata Ngarau with images of the birdman and other motifs carved into them. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl spent many years trying to convince the world that the great stone monuments found on Easter Island were created by an expedition of Pre-Incan explorers arriving from Peru.

On the surface, much of his evidence seems compelling, but over the years many of Heyerdahl’s theories have not stood up to scrutiny. One of Heyerdahl’s dubious claims is that “the practice of ear lengthening is unknown in Polynesia, but Incas of royal birth adopted the habit of their predecessors by piercing their earlobes and putting large plugs in them.”1

While it is true that similar images can be found in both places, birdman symbols also show up in Polynesia as well, I had even photographed some myself on the distant island of Maui, Hawaii earlier in the year. It is true that there are striking similarities between Easter Island birdmen and motifs found in South American pottery, but the representation of a human-bird hybrid is by no means a concept exclusive to South America.

Heyerdahl tried to shape the island’s history in South American terms. He believed that Pre-Incan explorers first discovered the island and later set sail further west where they captured Polynesians whom they enslaved. However, over the years historians and archaeologists have come down strongly against Heyerdahl going as far as to portray many of his theories as racist

The currently accepted history of the island as described by mainstream scientists describes the earliest inhabitants coming solely from Polynesia. Any South American influences are attributed to Polynesians from Easter Island setting sail to South America and not the other way around. Even this contact is described as being extremely limited and is downplayed in the extreme by most researchers.2 The more I walked around the island and the more I saw, the more I became convinced that the true island history was more complex than either side wanted to admit.


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Further Reading:
The Enigmas of Easter Island
John Flenley & Paul Bahn

The Mystery of Easter Island
Katherine Routledge

Easter Island : The Mystery Solved
Thor Heyerdahl

Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria and the Pacific
David Hatcher Childress

Island at the End of the World : The Turbulent History of Easter Island
Steven Roger Fischer

 

Sources:
1) Thor Heyerdahl, Easter Island : The Mystery Solved (Random House, 1989).

2) John Flenley & Paul Bahn, The Enigmas of Easter Island (Oxford University Press, 2002).

3) David Hatcher Childress, Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria and the Pacific, (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1988).