About Easter Island

Excerpted from Big Stone Head: Easter Island and Pop Culture, by James Teitelbaum.
©2009 James Teitelbaum

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) was formed when three volcanoes - Poike, Rano Kau, and Terevaka - merged together, creating a landmass between them.  The oldest of the three, Poike, is about three million years old, while the newest and largest - Terevaka - rose from the South East Pacific Plateau about 100,000 years ago.  Other volcanic features make up the landscape, including lava tubes, caves, the crater Rano Raraku, and the cinder cone Puna Pau.

The best guess we have about when Rapa Nui was settled is about 400 a.d.  According to legend and lore, the settlers were led by one Hotu Matu’a.  They came from what is now known as French Polynesia, probably the vicinity of the Marquesas islands and more specifically from the island of Mangareva.   Theories about a South American origin for the Rapanui people were finally disproved definitively after Erika Hagelber’s 1994 DNA study of twelve ancient Easter Island skeletons.

Hotu Matu’a must have been some great navigator: Easter Island is a tiny, tiny speck of land, some 64 square miles in size.  It is in the middle of nowhere.  It is the most remote inhabited spot in the world, bar none.  When Jacob Roggeveen came across it, the inhabitants had been completely isolated for 1,300 years (assuming a colonization date of 400 a.d.), and were completely unaware that there were any other people in the world.  If you were standing on the slopes of Ranu Raraku, you would be about 2,300 miles (3,701 km) west of the Chilean coast, about 1,260 miles (2,027 km) southeast of Pitcairn, the nearest inhabited landmass (home of the descendants of the HMS Bounty), 3,700 miles (5,955 km) from freezing Antarctica, 4,300 miles (6,920 km) southeast of Hawai’i, and 2,515 miles (4,050 km) from Tahiti.  

I wouldn’t try to swim it, if I were you.

And in a canoe?  

That’s how Hotu Matu’a did it.

Matu’a set off with a small fleet on a voyage of discovery and colonization.  How many others before him tried and failed - or tried and died?  Had the ragtag fleet changed their course by a single degree, or less, they would have sailed right past their new home.  Landing at the next landmass in their path - South America - entailed spending several weeks further at sea, in the unlikely event that the mariners lived that long, or that their vessels remained seaworthy.  However, these people were expert sailors, reading the waves, observing the stars, following the birds.  They knew what they were doing.  The small fleet of Hotu Matu’a carried chickens, seeds, and women, everything the settlers needed to start over on their new island paradise.  Still, these provisions could not have been without limit, and the travelers could not have been in very good shape when land was miraculously sighted.  After what must have been four to six weeks at sea, they landed at Anakena beach, the only sand beach on the island.  The rest of the shore is made up of jagged rocky volcanic cliffs.  

Somehow they managed to survive and prosper.  The early history of this island seems rather uneventful (perhaps they were resting up from the arduous journey!) but a few centuries after landing at Anakena beach, the settlers - who never advanced technologically beyond the stone age, inventing neither metals nor the wheel - began to carve the moai in tribute to the greatest of their deceased clan leaders.  Over a period of at least six hundred years, peaking somewhere between 1200 a.d. and 1500 a.d., the moai were carved from the volcanic tuff of Rano Raraku.  The vast majority of the moai were coaxed from the southwest side of the Rano Raraku crater with stone axes and a lot of hard work.  They were set upright on the hillside just yards from the quarry, where the carving on their backs was completed.  At last they were dragged across the island to their ahu.  After being erected on the ahu, their eye sockets were carved out, and their eyes installed.  Only then were they considered to be alive, and imbued with their spiritual power.  The moai were also called aringa ora, or “living faces”, since each represented a particular ancestor.  Completed moai - placed upon their ahu and with eyes and pukao installed - embodied the spirit of the ancestor, and were named after that ancestor, whose mana protected his land and his family.  The great ahus were also unmistakable markers defining a clan’s territory.  The moai building became a feverish obsession for the Rapanui, with each clan competing to outdo each other, not unlike Egyptian Pharoahs each striving to make a pyramid bigger than his predecessor’s.  The idea of keeping up with the Joneses, of living beyond one’s means to give an impression that one’s clan is more wealthy or more powerful than their neighbor is a concept that was understood just fine by this society, who believed that they were the only people on Earth.

All of this toil wasn’t completed without a heavy cost to the people and to the ecosystem, however.  The deforestation of this paradise began sometime before the year 800 a.d., or a few centuries after the settlement of Easter Island.   The growing Easter Island population, which may have maxed out at as many as 20,000 people by a millennia after Hotu Matu’a’s landing, had a large need for resources that their island just couldn’t sustain.  Wood was needed to make canoes, to move moai, to build homes, and to burn for warmth and cooking.  Rats and birds consumed seeds and were in turn killed for food.  The vital palm trees were gone by about 1400 a.d., a victim of the moai builders’ insatiable need for timber.  The lack of trees also meant soil erosion, which in turn made growing crops more difficult.  Wind and rain took their toll on the soil without the grass, shrubs, and trees to keep the soil system stable.  By the end of the fifteenth century, the forest was more or less gone.  The hauhau tree dwindled in numbers, and the toromiro tree, a source of a good, useful, hard wood, finally became extinct just after Heyerdahl’s mid-twentieth century visits. 

©2009 James Teitelbaum