Exploring Easter Island

(Part one was posted yesterday)

Why did the Islanders topple all the Moai?

At Raraku, Moai were carved at this Moai ‘factory’. The site looks like it was abandoned suddenly

It is important to note, that EVERY standing Moai you see on the island, was re-erected in the past 60-70 years. Every Moai was toppled by the Easter Islanders, as their society collapsed. This is a touchy subject with Easter Islander guides, and it’s one you need to be mindful as you are fed alternative theories (earthquakes and tsunamis, angry gods, a simple ‘we don’t know, but it wasn’t us’). When you consider the human cost of building these structures, while eking out a miserable existence to begin with, that a society would turn vehemently against itself, is a striking mystery.

At one point of the island, Orongo, you visit a site that was home to the “birdman” cult. This group of people appears to be a later innovation, some would say, rejecting the Moai-building tradition, and some would say supplementing it (like overlaying the Book of Mormon on Christianity). The structures you visit here show similarities to the houses you see elsewhere, but are distinctive on their own. In any event, my gut feeling after absorbing the limited literature available to me, is that it seems likely that the followers of the birdman cult, engaged in conflict with the late adherents to the Moai building culture. And the birdmen seem to have been effective in dominating significant resources.

We had a society disillusioned with the suffering and environmental collapse it was experiencing. Likely, a sense of failure or abandonment by whatever gods the Moai represented or were meant to appease occurred. An upstart cult forms up promising a different view, and indeed, shows a bit of developmental success. Add to this the evidence of cannibalism during the later periods of the society, and it starts to appear evident why the majestic statues were all knocked over. Again, these are my personal thoughts based on superficial study and observation.

#Planking is so 2010. This is #Moaiing


It is hard to pin down how many Easter Islanders remain today, or indeed if any of the long-term residents of Easter Island retain more than a fraction of ‘original’ Easter Islander DNA. Suffice to say, the residents of Hanga Roa (the capital of Easter Island) are passionate about their heritage, and the fact they are ‘Easter Islanders’ vs Chilean, vs other Polynesian peoples. It is also a bone of contention what the peak population before collapse might have been. Diamond cites estimates of 15 – 30,000. Others, particularly the more ‘apologetic’ scientists who disagree with Diamond, posit 3 – 5000. My hunch here is that Diamond has the better estimate. I’m no anthropologist, but as you tour the island, the remains of houses, the Ahu, the Moai, all  speak to a significant populace. Hanga Roa alone, today, supports about 3000 residents full time, and to suggest that the entire island only had that many people at its peak, considering the some 15 distinct cultures so far identified and what they built, seems implausible to me.

Assuming we went from 15,000+ to literally, a handful of survivors by around the turn of the 20th century, a major impact came from European influence. Easter Island suffered from slaver raids, the introduction of infectious diseases, and basic exploitation throughout its most sensitive and tenuous time frame. However, the reports from these early contacts paint a picture of a society already well on the way to collapse. Here again, one steps into controversial territory. Diamond cites deforestation and poor stewardship of limited natural resources, contributing to erosion, leading to starvation (and forced into cannibalism), with the icing on the cake being the evils brought to the island from initial contacts. Others will have you believe that the society was small in number to begin with, but doing just fine, thank you very much, until the slavers arrived and brought smallpox.

At Puna Pau, you walk through caves with quite a few human bones littering the floor. This little alcove we were told, held an entire body, and the discoloration seen in the limestone, caused by the process of mummification.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence suggesting a relatively cataclysmic and quick collapse, is the Moai “factory” site. At the National Park, you see Moai being hewn right out of the side of the mountain, and abandoned, partially complete. Other Moai are  tumbled down the side of the mountain face, perhaps toppled, perhaps abandoned on the way to their destination. Littered on the ground at this Moai “nursery” are obsidian scrapers, drills, and other simple tools used by the Islanders to create these masterpieces. In parts, it is impossible not to tread on them, and the temptation to pick up an artifact as a souvenir is very real indeed. The site has a feel of Pompeii, or of  Chaitén in Chile. It’s as if one day, no one was able to return to work, and time stopped. Fanciful? Perhaps. But compelling evidence of a societal collapse? It seems so.

In a nutshell :I think Diamond’s portrait is closer to reality than other accounts. It remains a mystery and a subject of continued study. And it is this sense of mystery that I encourage you to go to Easter Island. It is an infectious place, with enough speculation, facts, and facts yet to be known, where we don’t yet have the majority of the answers. Walking through sites where obsidian tools are exposed on the ground, prone to be picked up by tourists (don’t!), and walking through caves with human bones on the floor (victims of cannibalism: wear shoes, not thongs as I did – yuck!)  These are experiences usually reserved for scientists and extreme explorers. If you want a holiday experience that feels just a bit like science, archaeology and armchair anthropology mixed in, this destination is for you!

English: Detailed topographic map in English o...

English: Detailed topographic map in English of Easter Is. UTM projection, WGS84 datum, shaded relief Scale: 1:372,000 (precision: 93 m) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Categories: History, Travel

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1 reply


  1. Skeptical Moai is Skeptical « Two Different Girls

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