The island was barren and had no animal life...yet it had hundreds of massive stone statues
A Disappointing Discovery
Easter Island is a small island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, more than 2,000 miles away from Chile, its closest inhabited neighbor. On April 5, 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen accidentally discovered Easter Island while attempting to find a different island altogether. Roggeveen named it Easter Island because he discovered it on the holiday of Easter. The native islanders call the island “Rapa Nui,” and this is also what the islanders themselves are called.
As Roggeveen and the other members of his expedition approached it by ship, they thought it was nothing more than a sand dune. Once they landed, they saw that their initial assumption hadn’t been far off. The island was all but barren, and what little vegetation did exist was dry and unattractive.
Indeed, modern-day botanists have discovered that the island is home to just 47 native plant species, most of which are grasses, reeds, and climbing plants. There are only two tree species and two shrubs that are native to the island.
Native wildlife, too, is scarce. Researchers claim that the island is not home to anything larger than an insect!
The island seemed large enough to comfortably accommodate tens of thousands of inhabitants. But Roggeveen was surprised to discover that only about 2,000 Polynesians called the island their home. (Polynesia is the collective name given to the islands within the central and southern Pacific Ocean.)
The Dutch explorers were also taken aback at the islanders’ mode of transport. Ancient Polynesians were known for their remarkable seafaring skills. Roggeveen and his men were fully expecting to be greeted by sophisticated sea vessels, but were instead surprised to see that the Rapa Nui used simple canoes that were in terrible condition. In fact, Roggeveen wrote that the canoes were so small they could each carry only two passengers, and there were just three of four vessels for the entire island.
The shoddy canoes meant that the Rapa Nui couldn’t venture very far out on the ocean. They could certainly never make it to any of the other islands in the area. Basically, the islanders were completely cut off from the rest of the world, and the explorers got the impression that they hadn’t even known that other humans exist!
The explorers were in for an even bigger surprise. As they made their way further inland, they were amazed to see hundreds of human-shaped stone statues, each standing at least 10 feet high and weighing about 74 tons. The Rapa Nui called the statues “moai.” The moai were installed in groups on even bigger stone slabs, called “ahu.” The monoliths (upright blocks of stone) had been carved from solidified volcanic ash, which only existed on one part of the island. The explorers knew this because when they came across the quarry on the side of an extinct volcano, they saw hundreds of statues, all in various stages of completion, and all much taller than the statues that were installed along the coast. Clearly, the statues had been carved in this spot and then somehow hauled to different sites around the island. Also in the quarry were many chisels made of basalt stone, which the ancient Polynesians had used to carve the statues.
Roggeveen and his group were utterly flabbergasted! There wasn’t a tree taller than ten feet on the entire island. In fact, the Rapa Nui didn’t have anything with which to make a proper fire, let alone complex machinery. There were no large animals that could be used to haul such large stones. How had the ancient Polynesians managed to transport the moai across the island?
Were the ancestors of the Rapa Nui once sophisticated, organized and technologically advanced? Had woody trees and animals once flourished on the island? If so, why had it all disappeared? What disaster could possibly have caused such devastation to the wildlife?
Kon Tiki and other theories
For decades, researchers have pondered the mysteries of Easter Island. Dozens of theories attempt to explain how and why the statues came to be, and how the Rapa Nui civilization declined.
Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl believed that ancient South Americans could have reached Easter Island, despite its long distance from the continent. He theorized that they may have made the journey to Easter Island for ritual purposes connected to the moai. According to Heyerdahl, the South Americans would have brought with them, if not the statues themselves, then at least the knowledge, tools, and materials with which to create and transport the statues. In 1947, he built a raft using ancient South American methods and native materials. He named the raft Kon Tiki and set off with a small crew from Peru. After a journey of several weeks the Kon Tiki reached an island in French Polynesia, which proved that the journey would have indeed been possible in ancient times. However, there is no proof for this theory.
Today, researchers believe that the Rapa Nui were Polynesians who arrived to the island in about 400 AD. They are also convinced that the statues on Easter Island were created on the island with materials and technology that was available at the time. This means that in the 5th century, Easter Island looked very different than it looked when Roggeveen discovered it in the 18th century.
Scientists John Flenley and Sarah King have carried out painstaking research on the pollen of the island. Pollen analysis can tell researchers what types of plants once grew, even if those plant species have since become extinct. Flenley and King discovered that Easter Island had once been a flourishing subtropical forest, full of trees and lush greenery. In particular, the hauhau tree and the toromiro tree would have provided the Rapa Nui with ropes and firewood. Additionally, they discovered that Easter Island had once had its own unique species of palm tree, closely related to the Chilean palm tree that would have provided plenty of tall beams, as well as nuts and a maple syrup-like sap.
Archaeologists also discovered large quantities of dolphin bones. The ancient Rapa Nui ate dolphin, which they could only have caught far out at sea. The Easter palm tree would have provided them with the wood to build large canoes for dolphin-fishing. Other archaeological discoveries show that there were once many animal species living on the island, including seabirds and land birds, all of which would have made a nutritious meal.
So, what happened to the lush paradise that the Polynesians encountered when they arrived at the island 1,600 years ago? After decades of unanswered questions, researchers believe they have finally uncovered the mysteries of Easter Island.
When the Polynesians landed on the island, they discovered a paradise. They happily settled the beautiful island and gradually built a civilization. They began carving statues from the volcanic rock and used the island’s abundant resources to create a sophisticated transportation system to carry the statues around the island. As the centuries went by, the statues became larger and larger as the tribes competed with another (kind of like modern countries outdoing each other with taller skyscrapers). Eventually, the Rapa Nui were cutting down more trees than were growing in order to build fires, houses, canoes, and statue-hauling equipment.
As the forests dwindled, the birds and animals also disappeared. The Easter palm became extinct and the islanders could no longer build strong canoes to catch dolphins. Soon, they were left with few food options. As you can imagine, the people began fighting with each other — they even turned to cannibalism! Until today, the island is scattered with spearheads and daggers made of stone, which attest to the wars that were fought. By the time the Dutch explorers arrived, the population had dwindled from tens of thousands to just 2,000 and the land was practically bare. The islanders described to Roggeveen how the hereditary chieftain system was replaced by chaos as each warrior fended for himself in the fight for survival.
The once flourishing, populous Easter Island was reduced to a mere few plants and people by careless, reckless acts.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 882)
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