As Admiral Roggeveen and his crew sailed in the lonely expanse of the South Pacific Ocean they came across a triangle of volcanic rock that was not on any of his maps. It is customary for explorers to name discoveries after themselves or members of their crew, however, as it was Easter Day 1722, Roggeveen named the island Easter Island.
The early inhabitants called it Te Pito O Te Henua, while it is also commonly known as Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua. Whatever name it bears it is an extremely interesting place. It is most well know for the gigantic stone head carvings that are placed around its shoreline.
Monoliths, Megaliths or Moai
These monoliths, known locally as Moai, are all mega statues, the biggest, Paro, weighing in at a monstrous 82 tons, stands nearly 10 metres high. The average stone is approximately 10 tons. These shaped monoliths simply litter the countryside and have become the island’s main tourist attraction.
The Remotest Place on Earth
The island is extremely remote being 2000 miles from the next closest land mass with population. Such solitude makes Rapa Nui one of the most remote places on earth, although Chile’s national airline does operate scheduled flights to the island via Tahiti.
Origins of the Islanders
There are many theories about where the Rapanui (the correct term for the indigenous people) first came from. Some observe that there is great similarity in the stonework of the Rapanui and that of the Inca’s of Central and South America. Another idea is that they are all that remain of a lost continent and one other, less popular theory is that they are the descendents of extra-terrestrial influence.
Archaeologists have, in some degree, provided sufficient evidence to now form valid conclusions that indicate that the island was first occupied around AD 400 by Polynesians. The linguistic patterns of the present people match very closely to the indigenous peoples of many cultures in the South Pacific, including the Maori of New Zealand, all of who were of Polynesian descent.
An Ecological Disaster
The island’s tiny ecosystem could not sustain its population once it had reached more than 10,000 people. The once lush forests of tall palms had been cleared and the trees used as rollers to move the moai to their erection points. The Rapanui grew too fast and simultaneously stripped their forests of food producing trees – environmentalists point to Napa Nui as a metaphor for ecological disaster.
The massive stone moai dot the coastline like an outward looking, ever vigilant, guard. The stones are not merely isolated on the coastal perimeter but also can be found in groups known to the locals as ahu. Islanders, prior to the arrival of Europeans, had toppled all of the coastal moai. Only archaeological preservation work has re-erected them and revived their former splendour. Most of the statues are shaped like a tall eyeless face and all look intently seaward.
Thus far, archaeology has not been able to provide answers concerning how they were made and more importantly, how they were transported. The common idea of rolling them on tree trunks provides a suggestion, and due to the lack of large vegetation on the island today, proponents of this theory allege that a gross over-extraction of trees for lithic transportation was the cause.
The Rapanui had primitive tools, sufficient to carve rock, but the moving and lifting up of single stones averaging 10 tons each, to an exactingly straight position, still remains a mystery. Puzzling also is why they were built.
Keeping Her Secret
Easter Island is jealously guarding her ancient history. Archaeological excavation work continues and archaeological restoration work is always being undertaken. There are many archaeological sites open to the public and although the pre-European Rapanui were cannibals it is unlikely that modern visitors will be invited as the dinner.
The islanders possessed the only written language in the Oceanic region; all other pacific island cultures had only an oral language before missionaries developed written languages for them. Rapa Nui is home to many ancient petroglyphs, woodcarvings, figurines, and tapa items. Its statues are shrouded in mystique making these magnificent carved stone statues the Stonehenge or Carnac of Oceania.