Any student of environmental science is familiar with the story of Easter Island. I was in my high school environmental science class when I first heard about this remote island. Just like the Mayans or the Incas, there is an air of mystery and many questions surrounding the history of the Rapa Nui. How and why did they carve the enormous Moai (giant statues), how did they move them across the island, why on earth would they cut down all their trees? Some of these questions have been answered by archaeologists and anthropologists, but many questions still remain.
Easter Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It is located 3700km from the coast of Chile and 4200 km east from Tahiti. Many people do not realize that the island belongs to the country of Chile, actually many people do not realize that the place exists at all. The island was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. There are three main volcanoes that form the points of the triangular shape of the 163 sq km island. Less than 6,000 people live on Rapa Nui today. There is some debate among scientists as to when the island was first populated, but the consensus is that Polynesian seafarers arrived somewhere between 1300-1700 years ago, making the island one of the last populated places on earth.
Most of the coastline is quite treacherous with lava tubes and crashing waves creating hundreds of sea caves. There are just two sandy beaches and only a small number of places that provide safe anchorages for boats. Legend has it that Hotu Matua was a king who originally colonized the island by landing at Anakena beach. This beach has become an important archaeological site where many Moai are located. There were several Moai erected at this site which may have celebrated this legend. The giant statues are made of volcanic rock and were constructed by master craftsmen directly at the quarry. There are almost 900 Moai dispersed throughout the island and they range from 14 feet to as big as 70 feet tall. It is believed that the Moai were a sign of success and power and that tribes began to use the Moai as a form of competition. Moving these giant sculptures required man power and ingenuity. In addition to using palm trees for home building and fire, logs were also used as rollers to move the statues to their various platforms around the island.
After many decades of competition between tribes, the Rapa Nui culture reached its apex. The depletion of the island’s forests led to the demise of the people. Without the trees to prevent erosion, crops were washed away. Hungry people began to battle and the once robust population was greatly reduced.
After the devastation, the ancient beliefs were replaced by the cult of the Birdman. Part of this tradition involved a competition where each clan would choose their strongest warrior to run down the side of a volcano carrying a surfboard like bundle. Then they would climb down into the water and they would paddle their bundle out to an islet to collect the egg of a nesting tern. Sometimes they would have to wait for weeks on the islets for the birds to arrive. The first warrior who was able to successfully bring back an egg in tact was named the Birdman and would become the chief of all the clans.
Once the population began to stabilize, tragedy again struck the island in the form of slave traders, who devastated the island’s healthy population. Then later still, the missionaries came and decimated the culture and destroyed precious artifacts, artwork, and tablets that were instrumental in understanding the history and the language of the island. The history of Easter Island is tragic yet fascinating and is a testament of what can happen when we deplete our resources.
Israel had an amazing time during his two weeks on the island. He made connections beginning on the very first day with his surreal, chance meeting of a fisherman upon his crash landing on the island. He connected deeply with the fisherman’s family and was immediately treated as kin. The family insisted that he stay with them and wouldn’t allow him to stay at a hotel. He enjoyed many barbeques, parties, and celebrations with them. He felt an unusual sense of unity and friendship with these people.
He was able to become part of the society there. The people of the island are extremely proud of their culture and enjoyed showing it off to him. The society is also very isolated, but chooses to be so. There are only two flights a day to the island, one to Santiago and the other to Tahiti. The small town atmosphere is extremely friendly with everyone greeting each other in the street. He said the church there is an incredible union of cultures between the Catholic religion and the ancient Birdman cult. The priest even wears a crown of feathers during mass. One funny thing he saw was at the post office which has a prominent display of letters to the Easter bunny. He was really able to immerse himself in the culture by walking to ceremonial places and living among the family.
Much of the island is now a national park, but you can only camp there if you are with a native Rapa Nui. Israel enjoyed renting a bike to ride around the island, in doing so he was able to go to the quarry where the Moai were made, which locals call the factory. He rode to the ceremonial grounds of the bird man tradition, as well as to the beach where Hotu Matua first came to Rapa Nui. One of his favorite places where he often went was to a cave where the birdman would swim to the islote. There was an ancient tradition where the older people, before their death, would choose a cave to make as their final resting place and they would go there to spend their final days and finally pass away. Many skeletons have been found in the caves by anthropologists.
Israel loved the food there, it seemed like every day he was texting me to tell me about some amazing thing he ate. He enjoyed eating grilled fish, lobster, tuna empanadas, fresh ceviche, and of course, drinking Chilean wine. He loved to pick guavas from the abundant guava trees.
He also loved swimming in the refreshing water. Israel said there was amazing water visibility while snorkeling and he saw colorful coral, parrotfish, angelfish, butterfly fish, and sea urchins. They even saw tunas jumping in front of the sailboat as they came into the island.
Due to the terrible internet, I was only able to actually talk to Israel once during his time there. He would text me interesting things about the island or what he did that day, but it’s really hard to get a feel for everything he did and he experienced via text. I’ve done my best to translate Israel’s account of his time there.
I love studying history, especially of interesting ancient cultures. Here are a few sources I used to help me learn more about this fascinating society, without these none of the things he told me would have made any sense.
This is a wonderful in depth article about the island. http://www.mysteriousplaces.com/easter_island/
There was a documentary on Nova about trying to recreate how to move the statues that I can’t access from here, but there is interesting information on the PBS website about the island. It’s also a great resource to teach the kids since there are some interactive games as well. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/
This is a short and sweet resource. http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/easter-island/
180° South movie was on Netflix and also discusses Easter Island a bit and is also a really great documentary.