Easter, you’ve probably heard of it. That religious holiday where people eat a lot of chocolate, and the time Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It is exactly that religious holiday that gave Easter Island its name. It was discovered by Dutch travelers in the 18th century and, struggling to think of a name, the explorers gave it the name Easter Island as it was found on Easter Sunday. The name was given and has stuck ever since.
The statues are almost 1,000 years old
Many hundreds of years before the Dutch explorers found the shores of Easter Island, the people who first inhabited it had been busy building the statues the island is now famed for. Scientists, using carbon dating methods, believe the date of construction of some of the oldest sculptures date back to the 12th century. It’s amazing that so many of these ancient statues have managed to stay standing after so many years, left behind for the world to marvel at.
What do the statues represent?
What led the ancient people of Easter Island to build these giant statues? The statues are known as Maoi, and some believe they are the physical manifestations of spirits, while others believe they represent family ancestors. Other groups think the statues have been built as a show of authority and power, lauding over visitors to the island how well-established and commanding the original people were on the island. It is thought they are a show of power, much like the ancient Egyptians would construct the pyramids.
A cure for leprosy?
One wild theory cooked up by historians is that the statues were believed to have been built in the hopes it would cure a leprosy problem on the island. Many of the statues have deformed faces or limbs, and it is thought these irregularly shaped body parts were designed to shock islanders into banishing sufferers to other islands. The shock value in disfiguring the parts of the body we place most value in, thing like the eyes, nose, and lips were thought to help undo the effects of leprosy.
It’s miles away from anything
If you look up Easter Island on a map, you’ll discover that there is very little else around it. It is incredibly isolated and the nearest mainland in Chile, which is over 2,000 miles away. In fact, the nearest land mass is Pitcairn Island, some 1,200 miles west of Easter Island. With basically no civilization nearby, the Islanders were incredibly isolated and lived their lives unknowing of any other people in the world.
The center of the world
Easter Island was so isolated from other communities that it was once believed to have been called To Pito o Te Henua, which has been translated to “The Center of the World.” This name is the oldest recorded for the island and although being the center of the world might seem like it was the epicenter, it in fact was given to reflect its isolation from everything and everyone else. The history of the island is still being pieced together because there were so few people arriving there.
The only people on Earth
All of the statues on the island face inward, rather than looking out to sea. The statues are often placed along the coastline, but it seems as though the ancient civilization living there had no fear of any outsiders arriving at their home. As far as the Islanders were concerned, they were the only people on Earth, so instead of having the statues look out to guard them from outsiders, the statues were positioned to face inward, looking instead upon those who lived on Easter Island.
How were the statues moved?
One question many historians and archaeologists have wondered is how the people who constructed the giant stone statues were able to get them from one place to another. They are huge constructions, and incredibly heavy, so an experiment was conducted. A Czech engineer and Norwegian adventurer collaborated and constructed their own Moai statue and tried moving it using ropes, but found that this damaged the statue. It is also thought that up to 100 people were used to simply push the statues into place, but the method remains a mystery.
The island was deforested
One thing that scientists do know for sure is that at some stage during the ancient civilization’s time on the island is that they removed all of the trees. These trees were understood to have been used to make things like canoes to allow the people on the island to fish, or explore more of the world for themselves. The people on the island believed that although they were ripping up all of the trees they would simply just grow back, but that didn’t prove to be the case.
Easter Islanders caused their downfall
It was the lack of foresight in ripping out all of the trees that some scientists believe caused the downfall of the ancient civilization who lived there. Because they ripped up all of the trees the island soon became uninhabitable and after they didn’t grow back, the island couldn’t sustain the amount of people living there. It was thought the population continued to grow, but without much to sustain life on Easter Island the people soon began to perish.
Another theory given for the demise of the people living on Easter Island was an infestation of rats. There has been evidence that there were rats living on the island after they were brought ashore by early settlers. These rats were believed to have eaten their way through all of the vegetation, robbing the people of vital food sources and causing them to starve. At one stage, there was assumed to have been a surplus of food, attracting the rats who might have otherwise stayed hidden on canoes.
There were almost 900 statues
There are an estimated 400 statues remaining on Easter Island, all in varying states, but by exploring the land, archaeologists believe that at one stage there were roughly 900 statues placed on the island. The statues have been found scattered all over the island, from the shoreline to the edges of the volcanoes found across the land. These statues were carved out of the volcanic rock that scientists believe are now dormant explosion factories.
Many have been damaged
Over the years many of the stones have been damaged, and there are now much less than there used to be. Some have been removed and placed in museums, but the majority of the stone statues have either remained on the island or have been destroyed. There were reports that at some point during history, the people who lived on the island destroyed many of the statues as unrest among the community grew. The residents reportedly rebelled against their leaders, and as a result, the statues were inadvertently damaged.
They are not just heads
Although most images of the Easter Island statues are of giant heads, when inspected more closely by archaeologists it was found that they have entire bodies that were buried beneath the ground. These statues really are an impressive feat of engineering from such an isolated community. They wouldn’t have seen them anywhere else, so came up with the idea of these statues among themselves, then not only would they create them but also find a way to transport them around their island getting them into place.
An out of this world theory
Of all the theories out there about the Easter Island statues, one theory looks to outer space for answers. Erich von Däniken theorized that the Easter Island statues were placed there by aliens, while also claiming in his book that the Egyptian pyramids were also put on our planet by extraterrestrial beings. While it’s a fun theory, it has been proven that the stone used to make the Moai was taken from the island, making it unlikely the aliens came along with their special delivery for Easter Island’s people.
World Heritage Site
Due to the intrigue and natural wonder of Easter Island, the entire land mass has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. This status ensures that the site will remain preserved for as long as possible, and UNESCO will do all they can to ensure the island remains much the way it was left all those years ago by the ancient people. The protection offered allows scientists and historians to visit the island and try to figure out the secrets the statues have left behind.
A standout statue
Although over 400 statues remain on Easter Island, there is one that seems to stand out from the rest of them. This is Tukuturi, a much more human-looking statue than the others on the island. This figure appears to be kneeling while all the other statues stand. Is this the story of man bowing down to worship at the feet of the Moai? No one knows for sure why this statue is so different from the others, but all anyone knows for sure is that Tukuturi one of a kind.
People were trapped on the island
After the Islanders ravaged the landscape and uprooted all of their trees, there came a point when no one else could leave the island. The trees had been used to make canoes, and if those controlling those sea vessels didn’t return, then there was the harsh reality that the people left on the island would never get off it. Perhaps it was this reality sinking in that lead those remaining to rise up against their leaders and spark the battles that would damage many of the Moai.
The volcano could blow
For such a small island, there are three volcanoes found on it, the tallest of which stands at a colossal 1,674 feet high. Easter Island is technically considered to be a volcano itself, but luckily for those who live there, and the statues, the volcanoes have been declared extinct. These extinct volcanoes pose no threat of eruption so the people who live there can relax, knowing that there will never be a time when they have to flee molten rock falling from the sky.
This statue is believed to represent the style in which the residents of Easter Island used to wear their hair. Although this looks much like a hat, it is thought that the Islanders would actually style their hair on top of their heads to look like hats. Maybe after they destroyed their trees they needed something to shade their heads from the sun so grew their hair to protect the top of their heads. Historians believe the Islanders thought that their hair possessed supernatural powers.
Much like modern societies have their own competitions, the ancient people living on Easter Island had a yearly sport of their own. Residents on the island would battle it out to be declared the legendary ‘Birdman,’ a title that was given to the winner of their own sport. The winner would be the first Islander to swim to a different island, returning with the first bird egg of the new season. The winner would be declared the Birdman and would hold that status in the community until next year’s competition.
The long and short
The stone statues are pretty big, these ancient figures have measured in at 33 feet tall and tip the scales at a humongous 82 tons. There was another statue found that was estimated to have measured in at 69 feet high and would have weighed around 27 tons, but it was discovered in an incomplete state. Although these Moai are thought to be standing, they do not have visible legs, barring Tukuturi, the kneeling human-like figure.
Special hidden markings
Not only are the statues incredible feats of engineering, but there are also some hidden messages engraved on them and hiding at their feet. One statue revealed to be hiding a crescent underneath it, believed to represent some form of canoe. On the stone statues is an ancient script, believed to reveal some secrets to the people who lived on Easter Island but the secrets will remain a mystery until someone can translate what the ancient symbols mean.
One statue is missing an ear
There is one statue on the island that is missing an ear. Not because it was meant to cure leprosy or it was designed that way, but because someone hacked it off. A Finnish tourist managed to somehow get an ear off one of the statues, but he was spotted doing it. The police were informed and the man, Marko Kulju, was arrested. He could have faced seven years in prison, but escaped with a $17,000 fine. Following the incident, security has been increased to ensure it never happens again.
A monumental task
Almost all of the moai statues found on Easter Island were carved in the same place, a quarry site on the side of the dormant Rano Raraku volcano. They were hand carved out of solidified volcanic ash using chisels made of basalt stone. There would be numerous teams working on different statues at any given time, but it would still take 5-6 men roughly a year to finish carving a single statue. Speaking of the aforementioned quarry…
Works in progress
The quarry in Rano Raraku is located at the base of a volcanic crater, and supplied the stone for about 95 percent of the island’s moai. It still holds 397 of the statues, in fact, as only a quarter were ever installed in different places around the island and nearly half of all moai ever carved remain in the quarry to this day. The quarry was operational for about 500 years – until the 18th century – and any visitors wandering around receive a sort of crash course in the moai’s evolution.
This land is your land
Easter Island was actually privately owned for part of the 19th century, exchanging hands between businessmen. The last of them – English-Jewish plantation owner Alexander Salmon – sold the island off to Chile in 1888, and it annexed it later that same year. The island’s indigenous residents, however, were not granted Chilean citizenship until 1966. Interestingly, the Chilean parliament has only just recently passed a law saying any non-Rapa Nui people are barred from staying on the island for more than 30 consecutive days.
Biggest of the bunch
At one point in history, the island had almost 900 moai, but one of them stood – no pun intended head and shoulders above the rest. The moai, known as Paro, stood 32.15 feet tall and weighed 82 metric tons. Just for comparison’s sake, the average moai size is only 13 feet, and the average weight is 14 tons – which makes Paro about two and a half times taller and six times heavier than average! Unfortunately, Paro was toppled, likely during the island’s civil wars, and has yet to be restored.
Up on a pedestal
Wandering around Easter Island, a traveler will most likely stumble upon some “ahu,” or raised stone platforms that often house moai statues. The island has 313 ahu, but only 125 of them actually hold the statues. The biggest – and most famous – of them is Ahu Tongariki, which 720 feet long and holds 15 moai. The ahu are spaced approximately a half mile apart from each other, creating an almost unbroken line encircling the island’s perimeter.
Taking a tally
The last census taken of the island’s residents in 2012 showed there were 5,761 living on it, with about 60 percent of the population living there being of the native Rapa Nui people – and the others being Chileans or their offspring. Doesn’t sound like a lot? The all-time low for Easter Island’s population was 111 – all of them Rapa Nui – recorded in 1877. Of those 111 people, only 36 had descendants, but all of today’s Rapa Nui are genetically linked to those 36 people.
A theory debunked
Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who gained worldwide notoriety in 1947 for the Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific from South America to the Polynesian islands, popularized a theory about the Rapa Nui people that suggested they were descendants of Indians from the South American coast. He came up with the theory when he saw the moai, and thought they resembled art from the native South American population rather than anything Polynesian. The theory has since been debunked.
Bucking the trend
Remember we mentioned the moai all face away from the sea and into the island? Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate. One group of moai face the ocean, but there’s something much more interesting about them than their direction. The seven moai – all of equal shape and size – can be found on the Ahu Akivi platform. Originally built in the 1500s, the 270-foot platform served as a place of worship for the Rapa Nui, as its statues were found to be exactly facing sunset during Spring Equinox and have their backs to the sunrise during Autumn Equinox.
Statue status symbol
The moai were often commissioned by chiefs of various clans throughout the island, as they hoped the larger and more intricate the moai were, the greater their prestige would be. It all revolved around the concept of mana, which is central to the Polynesian worldview. Mana is understood to be a supernatural, spiritual force that denotes authority and influence. Naturally, as one impressive moai was completed, adding to the prestige of a particular chief, a rival chief would have his followers fashion a larger, more impressive one for himself.
What many people don’t realize is that apart from the famous moai, Easter Island is also rich with many other forms of rock carvings. The many caves that dot the island’s landscape, for example, have intricate petroglyphs – or pictures carved into the rock – depicting images from the natives’ life and culture. The island boasts 4,000 such glyphs in 1,000 locations, with the most common images found in these petroglyphs being the aforementioned Birdmen, sea turtles, and local gods.