The rise and fall of Easter Island is a parable for our times; a warning from history of what happens when our selfish species doesn’t pay close attention to every detail of Planet Three’s precious natural resources.
On Easter Sunday 1722 Dutch sailor Jacob Roggeveen landed on a speck of volcanic land 12 miles long and 6 miles wide in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the remotest inhabited piece of land on the planet. Its nearest neighbour, Pitcairn Island, is 1,289 miles away and continental Chile is 2,100 miles away. It’s that remote.
was the first European to clap eyes on its then treeless shores dotted
with mighty stone platforms (ahu) supporting gigantic stone statues
(moai). Until that day the islanders thought their island was the whole
world and they were the only people.
and cultural evidence suggests that the first settlers probably came
from the Marquesas Islands 1,600 miles away, but nobody knows when. A
vague folk-memory passed down in creation myths existed, but the true
story of how they reached what they called Rapa Nui is lost in time.
What is certain is that the Polynesian settlers arrived with their stone tools, chickens, taro, sugar cane, bananas and stowaway rats to find an island paradise. When they arrived the island was thickly forested with five endemic species of land birds as well as migratory seabird colonies, the sea was heaving with fish and marine mammals and the soil was rich for verdant cultivation. Despite the lack of springs or rivers, the volcanic craters acted as reservoirs and it rained frequently enough for them never to have to worry. They’d do well here!
so they did, for perhaps a thousand years. The islanders’ unique
clan-based culture thrived and to honour their ancestors they built ahus
and erected moai. These were manu – sacred – invested with
deep spiritual power and ritual significance. With natural resources so
freely available, they could relax and indulge their passion for carving
in wood and stone. Indeed, they invested their energies in creating
stone statues on an industrial scale.
The population grew to
perhaps as many as 15,000 in the century before the Dutchman’s arrival.
That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Fish stocks dwindled. Seabird colonies
were plundered until few came to nest any more. Marine mammals were
hunted until none remained. Forests were cleared for cultivation, the
trees used for building boats, houses and paraphernalia required to
carve, move and erect statues.
When Roggeveen arrived he estimated
the population of the almost treeless island at about 2,500. Something
had happened in the previous hundred years. Most likely overpopulation
and environmental degradation had reached a tipping point, leading to
starvation and clan warfare over limited resources. Scholars are still
trying to discover the precise details. What is certain is that
Roggeveen’s arrival would lead to still greater catastrophe for the
Roggeveen noted the “remarkable stone figures, a good
30 feet in height”. He stayed a week; time enough to transmit one or two
European diseases and kill a dozen locals. The next Europeans came in
1770, when a Spanish ship moored up. It reported seeing the statues
still standing. Yet by the time Captain Cook dropped anchor just four
years later, he noted that many of the moai had been toppled and the
islanders were hungry and ‘wretched’. He noted the “…ratts which I
believe they eat as I saw a man with some in his hand which he seem’d
unwilling to part with…. Sea Birds but a few…. The Sea seems as barren
What was happening? Perhaps the environmental
degradation, combined with the arrival of Europeans had somehow
signalled that the ancestors were no longer powerful enough to provide
for and protect the islanders. Statue building was abruptly abandoned
and all the erect moai were knocked down. By 1825 every single moai was
down – all 288 of them that had been erected on ahus. Hundreds more were
abandoned in the quarries. With few natural resources and their faith
shattered, the people struggled for survival between themselves. Could
it get any worse? Oh yes.
In the 1860s Peruvian
slave-traders abducted more than half the population. Those that were
left squabbled over the vacated, treeless, almost barren land. There
were devastating outbreaks of smallpox, tuberculosis and Catholicism. By
1877, only 111 islanders were left. Much of the cultural heritage and
folklore was lost. In 1888 Chile annexed the island, confined the few
islanders to one small village and turned the bleak land into a sheep
There can be no doubt that what the islanders themselves
started through overpopulation and depletion of natural resources, was
finished by the arrival of Europeans polluting their sacred spaces,
transmitting diseases, enslaving and imprisoning the few that remained.
We homo sapiens like to think we’re smart. But as we gang rape Mother Earth for oil and minerals, poison the once-bountiful seas with effluent, pollute the air with noxious gases, cut down forests, greedily guzzle finite fresh water supplies, mercilessly extinguish other species and breed like fucking locusts, we appear not to be smart enough to learn Easter Island’s lessons and prevent our own downfall.
A thousand years ago, a small group of polynesians paddled the worlds
greatest ocean in search of a new land. For generations, their
ancestors had expanded eastwards in the vast Pacific Ocean, guided only
by the stars. A new piece of land was found. The settlers of this tiny
virgin island called their new home Te Pito o te Henua, meaning “The
Navel of the World”. The name was seen fit as they were thinking that
there can be no place more distant than this… and they were right.
Generations passed, and the inhabitants of what was to be known as
Rapa Nui, built a civilization of art, capable of carving, raising and
transporting hundreds of gigantic monolith statues, using nothing but
their own hands and stone. A glyphic writing called roŋo-roŋo was
evolved. A culture had risen, full of achievements, intellect, music and
legends – against all odds – in an environment where one would least
expect it. Children were well taught of their history and of who they
are. Up until today, the Rapa Nui people remember their lineage back to
the time when King Hotu Matu’a disembarked at the beach of Anakena
Expansion into Pacific Ocean
Southeast Asian settlers started expanding to the east into the Pacific Ocean. Being extremely isolated and located so far to the east, Rapa Nui was probably the last island to be settled in this expansion. Even today, linguistic traces can still be found in Southeast Asia from the time before the expansion to the Pacific Ocean had started, 4000 years ago.
Approx 1000 AD
The settlers reached Easter Island (read more about the first settlers at Easter Island). They found it lush with palm trees and other endemic vegetation growing all over the island. They gave their new home names fitting an island of such isolation, such as Te Pito o te Henua (The Navel of the World) and Mata ki te Raŋi (Eye(s) Looking Towards the Sky).
After a while, a second migration of only men arrived to the island. The new inhabitants had a different appearence; they were short and wide. They had a tradition of elongating their earlobes so that they hung down to the shoulders – a tradition that was later practiced also by the first group of settlers. To distinguish the two races they were given names. The first group was called Hanau Momoko – momoko being a duplication of the word moko – lizard – referring to that the people were tall and slender. The second group was called Hanau ‘E’epe (‘e’epe meaning broad or bulky).
At some point in time, all but one of the Hanau ‘E’epe were exterminated by the Hanau Momoko, which means that the Rapa Nui people of today are mainly descendants of the Hanau Momoko.
A civilization grew
The early inhabitants of Te Pito o te Henua learnt about the
nature of their island and did well in agriculture. The crops were
abundant enough for them to invest work into things that didn’t produce
any food back, and so they developed a tradition of building big
rectangular stone platforms called ahu where to bury their kings and important people.
Approx. 1400 – 1650
Probably during the 15th or 16th century, the civilization at this
small and isolated piece of land was highly advanced. The crops were
sufficiently abundant as to support a part of the population to
concentrate entirely on building bigger and bigger statues. These
megaliths were bought by other tribes and put on the grave platforms (ahu) to commemorate those who had passed away. They called the statues moai – to exist.
The islanders grew in numbers throughout the generations. Much of the lush palm tree forests were cut down and burnt to clear areas for crops. During the era of moai building, big quantities of lumber was needed for transportation of the statues. Across generations, more was cut than what sprouted and wood was getting less common. As a result, finished statues awaiting transport started to gather up in the volcanic quarry of Rano Raraku, where virtually all statues were carved. As ultimately the resources of big trees were depleted in the 17th century, the carvers stopped working.
Adapting to new climate
On the contrary to popular belief, the disappearence of the trees did
not estinguish the Rapa Nui culture. The islanders adapted well to
their tree-less island. The lack of trees made winds dry up the land,
but the islanders used different techniques to keep the humidity in the
soil. One is the manavai – rings of stone that protected the
soil it surrounded to dry out. The less obvious kīkiri was also used –
areas covered in stone that would keep the soil below humid. The rain
water would also bring minerals from the stones into the earth. Traces
of usage of these techniques are highly abundant all over Rapa Nui.
Taŋata manu – birdman competition at Orongo
Approx. 1700 – 1866
From the beginning of the 18th century, when the moai carving period had ended, people started dedicating themselves to some extent to the tangata manu or birdman competitions in the village of Orongo, situated on the cliffs of volcano Rano Kau. Once the nesting season of the manutara bird (en. sooty tern) started, one representative from each tribe would swim out to the small islet Motu Nui. The first competitor to obtain an egg would swim back and win the title of tangata manu for his chieftain, which would grant great priviledges for both of them as well as the rest of the tribe.
The first well-documented European contact happened in 1722 with the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen (even if he possibly was not the one to discover Easter Island). He arrived on Easter day, and chose to name the island thereafter. Instantly after disembarking they killed 12 people and injured many more for coming too close. It surely had a great impact on the islanders to see such an advanced technology that the Dutch showed.
Jacob Roggeveen and his crew never reported seeing any statues that had fallen to the ground; every statue they saw was standing. They report that the islanders were well-built, strong and extremely white teeth; strong enough to open nuts with.
With Easter Island being known to the outside world, European visits gradually increase, especially during the 19th century.
1862 – 1863
The visiting Europeans generally estimate the islanders to be in the number of thousands, until the beginning of the 1860’s when 1500 islanders were taken to work as slaves, which would mean most able-bodied men. Among the kidnapped were the ruling king as well as the wise men who knew how to read the rongo-rongo script, which today no one is left to interpret.
The slaves worked in guano deposits at Chincha Islands and
plantations in Peru. A few of these were later released, all of which
died of small-pox on the return voyage, except for two people. These two
spread the disease to the rest of the Rapa Nui population. The natives
had no immune system towards this foreign disease, which resulted in an
aggressive decrease of the population. A few years later, only 111
people were left at the island.
Abandoning the old culture
Catholic missionary Eugenio Eyraud heard about the unfortunate happenings at Rapa Nui, so he went for a nine month visit in 1864. Two years later, he established a Catholic mission. The missionaries told the natives to abandon their old practises, such as that of the birdman competition, which they did. They converted all natives to christianity. No slave trade ever occurred at Easter Island again.
Annexation to Chile
No colonising country had any particular interest in Rapa Nui because
of its remoteness. Britain recommended Chile to claim it to keep France
from doing it first. In 1888, Chilean naval captain Policarpo Toro let the current Rapa Nui king Atamu Tekena (who wasn’t really of straight royal lineage, but only someone assigned by the real king to rule) sign a deed, giving Chile full and entire sovereignty over the island, while the Rapa Nui translation used words such as friendship and protection. Even so, 1888 is officially the year when Rapa Nui became Chilean.
The treaty also consisted of a symbolic act; Atamu Tekena took grass in one hand and dirt in the other. He gave Policarpo Toro
the grass and kept the dirt for himself, meaning that the Rapa Nui
people always will be true owners of their own land. Among Rapa Nui
people, Chileans are still today sometimes referred to as mauku – grass.
Williamson Balfour & Co.
1903 – 1953
Rapa Nui was left alone by Chile until 1903, when the British/Chilean company Williamson Balfour & Co. set up Easter Island Exploitation Company
and signed a contract to lease thei sland as a sheep farm for 50 years.
The natives were fenced in around guarded borders in the area that
today is the town of Hanga Roa to prevent sheep theft. Up to 70 000
sheep roamed the island freely. After 1936, conditions were improved.
Natives were able to visit the countryside if a permission in written
form had been asked and granted. Each family was also given a sheep
every now and then. After the Second World War, syntetic wool was
invented, which complicated the market for Easter Island Exploitation Company.
As a result of this, together with the constant native uprisings, the
company did not renew the contract, but left the island in 1953.
Rapa Nui today
The Rapa Nui people are today around 3000, though not many of the new-born have two Rapa Nui parents. The native language is not widely spoken; mostly among elders. People born in the 1980’s or later are often only able to hold simple conversation in Rapa Nui, and tend to change into Spanish quite quickly. Deeper knowledge of the ancient Rapa Nui language is today somewhat of an exclusivity.
Chile today takes well care of the Rapa Nui culture and the government does what it can to help the islanders to do the same. Through an institution called CONADI they offer to pay the costs of well-planned projects presented by the islanders that intend to help with the preservation of the culture in any way. One might see it as some kind of conciliation of the unfortunate events that the world has brought upon the small island of Rapa Nui.
Rongo-rongo – the lost Rapa Nui writing language
Rongo-rongo (roŋo-roŋo in Rapa Nui) is an ancient Easter Island glyph writing. It is the only known native writing in all of Polynesia. Rongo-rongo uses symbols of items, as with the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The rongo-rongo symbols were written on tablets of wood. Today, only around 25 rongo-rongo tablets are known to exist; all scattered at museums outside of Easter Island.
In 1862-1863, many slave raiders attacked Rapa Nui. All able-bodied men were taken, among them all the wise men who knew how to read and write rongo-rongo. Since then, no one knows how to interpret the tablets. Several linguists have tried, but there is no generally accepted theory of how to read the symbols.
Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island, bears witness to a unique cultural phenomenon. A society of Polynesian origin that settled there c. A.D. 300 established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the 10th to the 16th century this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures known as moai , which created an unrivalled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.
Outstanding Universal Value
Rapa Nui National Park is a protected Chilean wildlife area located
in Easter Island, which concentrates the legacy of the Rapa Nui culture.
This culture displayed extraordinary characteristics that are expressed
in singular architecture and sculpture within the Polynesian context.
Easter Island, the most remote inhabited island on the planet, is 3,700
kilometres from the coast of continental Chile and has an area of 16,628
hectares while the World Heritage property occupies an area of
approximately seven thousand hectares, including four nearby islets.
The Easter Island was colonized toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era by a small group of settlers from Eastern Polynesia, whose culture manifested itself between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries in great works such as the ahu –ceremonial platforms- and carved moai – colossal statues- representing ancestors. Rapa Nui National Park most prominent attributes are the archaeological sites. It is estimated that there are about 900 statues, more than 300 ceremonial platforms and thousands of structures related to agriculture, funeral rites, housing and production, and other types of activities. Prominent among the archaeological pieces are the moai that range in height from 2 m to 20 m and are for the most part carved from the yellow–brown lava tuff, using simple picks (toki) made from hard basalt and then lowered down the slopes into previously dug holes. There are many kinds of them and of different sizes: those in the process of being carved, those in the process of being moved to their final destinations –the ahu-, those being torn down and erected. The quarries (Rano Raraku and others) are invaluable evidence of the process of their carving. The ahu vary considerably in size and form; the most colossal is the Ahu Tongariki, with its 15 moai. There are certain constant features, notably a raised rectangular platform of large worked stones filled with rubble, a ramp often paved with rounded beach pebbles, and levelled area in front of the platform. Also extremely valuable are the rock art sites (pictographs and petroglyphs), which include a large variety of styles, techniques and motifs. Other archaeological sites are the caves, which also contain rock art. There is also a village of ceremonial nature named Orongo which stands out because of its location and architecture. While it has not attracted as much attention, the housing and productive structures are of extreme interest.
According to some studies, the depletion of natural resources had
brought about an ecological crisis and the decline of the ancient Rapa
Nui society by the 16th century, which led to decline and to
the spiritual transformation in which these megalithic monuments were
destroyed. The original cult of the ancestor was replaced by the cult
of the man-bird, which has as exceptional testimony the ceremonial
village of Orongo, located at the Rano Kau volcano. Fifty-four
semi-subterranean stone-houses of elliptical floor plans complement this
sacred place, profusely decorated with petroglyphs alluding to both the
man-bird and fertility. This cult would see its end in the middle of
the nineteenth century.
Colonization, the introduction of livestock, the confinement of the
original inhabitants to smaller areas, the dramatic effect of foreign
diseases and, above all, slavery, reduced the population of Rapa Nui to
little more than a hundred. Currently, the island is inhabited by
descendants of the ancient Rapa Nui as well as immigrants from diverse
backgrounds, accounting for a significant mixed population.
Critère (i): Rapa Nui National Park contains one of
the most remarkable cultural phenomena in the world. An artistic and
architectural tradition of great power and imagination was developed by a
society that was completely isolated from external cultural influences
of any kind for over a millennium.
Criterion (iii): Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island , bears witness to a unique cultural phenomenon. A society of Polynesian origin that settled there c. A.D. 300 established a powerful, imaginative and original tradition of monumental sculpture and architecture, free from any external influence. From the 10th to the 16th century this society built shrines and erected enormous stone figures known as moai, which created an unrivalled landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world.
Criterion (v): Rapa Nui National Park is a testimony
to the undeniably unique character of a culture that suffered a debacle
as a result of an ecological crisis followed by the irruption from the
outside world. The substantial remains of this culture blend with their
natural surroundings to create an unparalleled cultural landscape.
The Rapa Nui National Park covers approximately 40% of the island and
incorporates an ensemble of sites that is highly representative of the
totality of the archaeological sites and of the most outstanding
manifestations of their numerous typologies. The integrity of the
archaeological sites has been preserved, but the conservation of
materials is a matter of great concern and scientific research. The
management and conservation efforts, still insufficient, focus on
addressing anthropic factors and the effects of weathering, both on the
material -volcanic lava and tuff- and on the stability of structures.
Progress has been made in the closure of areas, monitoring and the
layout of roads so as to maintain the visual integrity of the landscape.
An increase has been observed in cattle that wander illegally inside
the Park limits. In terms of invasive vegetation, certain species have
proliferated and have had an impact on the landscape. At the same time,
they have adversely affected the structural stability which is being
addressed through the management of the sites.
The Rapa Nui National Park continues to exhibit a high degree of
authenticity because there has been little intervention since virtual
abandonment of the area in the later 19th century. A number of restorations and reconstructions of ahu have been made on the basis of strictly controlled scientific investigations, and there has been some re-erection of fallen moai, with replacement of the red stone headdresses, but these do not go beyond the permissible limits of anastylosis.
Authenticity is being maintained and conservation interventions are
consistent with the Outstanding Universal Value of the property, with
prevailing sense of respect for the historical transformation of the
Rapa Nui culture, which, in a context of deep crisis, toppled the moai.
In this respect, it is important to consider that the Rapa Nui
National Park must provide an account of the various stages of the Rapa
Nui civilization, not excluding that of its crisis.
Protection and management requirements
The Rapa Nui National Park has two official protections. On one hand, since 1935 it has been a national park, administered by the National Forest Service of Chile (CONAF). On the other hand, the entire Easter Island was declared a National Monument in 1935 and the same was done with the islets adjacent to Easter Island in 1976. The property enjoys a solid legal and institutional framework for protection and management. There are two institutions responsible for this activity that coordinate with each other (National Monuments Council and CONAF) and with the community for conservation and management. There is a museum, the R. P. Sebastian Englert Museum of Anthropology, which supports research and conservation efforts. A management plan is in place which undergoes periodic review and there is a team in charge of Park administration. Nevertheless, site management becomes complex because of cultural differences and the reluctances from part of some sectors of the local community about State intervention. Liteblue
Visitor management is a great imperative, with challenges in
establishing carrying capacity and providing infrastructure of basic
services and interpretation. Also, it is necessary that the local
population effectively support the conservation effort, for example,
through livestock control.
A better dialogue is necessary among researchers to reach conclusions
on the available knowledge and to manage it in a functional manner
conducive to conservation; to systematize the information produced and
generate a periodic, comprehensive and sustainable monitoring system.
Additional staff and resources are needed for the administration and
care of the site, to reinforce the number and training of the park
rangers team, and to increase the operating budget. There is a constant
pressure on park lands; the State must prevent its illegal occupation.
The essential requirement for the protection and management of this
property lies in its multifaceted status as a World Heritage site, as a
reference point and basis for the development of the population of the
island, and repository of answers to fundamental questions that are far
from being revealed.
Easter Island, known as Rapa Nui by its inhabitants, has been surrounded in mystery ever since the Europeans first landed in 1722. Early visitors estimated a population of just 1,500-3,000, which seemed at odds with the nearly nine hundred giant statues dotted around the Island. How did this small community construct, transport and erect these large rock figures?
“Despite its almost complete isolation, the inhabitants of Easter Island created a complicated social structure and these amazing works of art before a dramatic change occurred,” says Dr. Cedric Puleston, lead author of this study, based at the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, USA. “We’ve tried to solve one piece of the puzzle — to figure out the maximum population size before it fell. It appears the island could have supported 17,500 people at its peak, which represents the upper end of the range of previous estimates.”
He adds, “If the population fell from 17,500 to the small number that
missionaries counted many years after European contact, it presents a
very different picture from the maximum population of 3,000 or less that
some have suggested.”
Previous archaeological evidence implies the indigenous people numbered far greater than the 1,500-3,000 individuals encountered in the 18th century. The population history of the island remains highly controversial. In addition to internal conflict, the population crash has been attributed to “ecocide,” in which the Island’s resources were exhausted by its inhabitants, reducing its ability to support human life.
Puleston and his colleagues examined the agricultural potential of the Island before these events occurred, to calculate how many people the Island could sustain.
“The project, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation,
involved a number of really good researchers, including archaeologists, a
local expert in Rapa Nui culture, a soil scientist, a biogeochemist,
and a population biologist, to get a thorough picture of what the island
was like before European contact,” he explains.
“We examined detailed maps, took soil samples around the Island,
placed weather stations, used population models and estimated sweet
potato production. When we had doubts about one of these factors we
looked at the range of its potential values to work out different
They found 19% of the Island could have been used to grow sweet
potatoes, which was the main food crop. By using information on how
birth and death rates at various ages depend on food availability, the
researchers calculated the population size that level of production
“The result is a wide range of possible maximum population sizes, but to get the smallest values you have to assume the worst of everything,” says Puleston. “If we compare our agriculture estimates with other Polynesian Islands, a population of 17,500 people on this size of island is entirely reasonable.” Liteblue Gov
He concludes, “Easter Island is fascinating because it represents an extreme example of a natural experiment in human adaptation, which began when people from a single cultural group spread quickly across the islands of the Pacific. The different environments they encountered on these islands generated a tremendous amount of variation in human behavior. As an extremely unusual case, in both its cultural achievements and its ecological transformation, Easter Island is remarkable and important. It retains an air of mystery, but it’s a real place and has a real history lived by real people. Dispelling that mystery brings us closer to understanding the nature of humanity.”