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The Evolution of Easter Island

Easter Island history

Famous for its giant stone statues, Easter Island is located 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) west of Chile, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Traditionally called Rapa Nui, the mystery of this island began when Dutch explorers landed on the island on Easter day of 1722. There are multiple theories but experts believe the original inhabitants arrived from Polynesia between 800 CE and 1200 CE.

The Moai statues of Easter Island

The statues of Easter Island are known as Moai. Carved from volcanic rock, a team of experts from UCLA recently discovered these large statues are more than just a head—underground exists a whole body, hidden from the modern world. Due to erosion over many centuries, the statues were essentially swallowed by the land, leaving only the heads visible.

In 1722 and 1770, explorer accounts describe standing statues. However, in 1774 many of the statues were reported to be toppled over. In 1838, the only standing Moai could be found on the slopes of Rano Raraku. It is unknown why the islanders would inflict damage on their own creations, but some believe it was due to a conflict between different tribes living on the island.

Easter Island history
Hidden bodies under the earth.
Photo credit: UCLA

The Moai were built by hand at a quarry in Rano Raraku, using chisels to carve intricate details from the hard stone. They were later transported to their final destination, though we do not know for sure how this happened. One theory suggests that statues were placed on top of logs and rolled to their destination. A more recent study implies that the statues “walked” by tilting them side to side while pulling forward. This also explains why many statues remain face-down next to roads across the island.

Only a quarter of the statues were placed at their intended location, and half of them remain at the quarry to this very day. Many appear to be randomly placed—most likely they were en-route when they fell over and could not be picked back up.

Over the past fifty years, historians and archaeologists have researched and restored some of the Moai on the island. They even used digital technology to reconstruct the largest statue named Paro.

What happened to the natives?

It is believed that a century before European settlers arrived, the population of the island peaked at 15,000 inhabitants. Sadly, the population decreased significantly in response to deforestation on the island. This can be traced back to Polynesian rats that appeared on the island with new settlers. Another theory claims that trees were used to roll the statues, devastating island forests.

With most trees gone, erosion caused a decline in agriculture production. This caused many of the islands birds to become extinct and resources to decrease to the point that there was not enough food to feed everyone.

When Spanish explorers arrived on Easter Island in 1770 they estimated only 3,000 people were still living there. Numbers continued to decline and, in 1774 the British arrived to find fewer than 800 people remaining—they believed this was the result (again) of civil war.

The population later rebounded to 2,000 when French explorers inhabited the island in 1786. Following a pandemic that wiped out much of the island, Jean-Baptiste Onésime Dutrou-Bornier purchased the land of those who passed, forcing out any remaining Rapa Nui people. He turned Easter Island into a sheep farm and, by 1877, there were only 111 residents left on the island.

Easter Island history

Easter Island history
Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island—one of the Moai locations that was restored in the 90s. Photo credit: Ian Sewell

Bornier was killed in 1876 and eventually the sheep farm fell into the hands of Alexander Ariʻipaea Vehiaitipare Salmon, Jr. By 1884 Salmon became the de facto ruler of Easter Island. He introduced tourism to generate income, but ended up selling his holdings to the Chilean government in 1888. Later that year the island was annexed.

Half of the island remained a sheep farm until 1953 and the rest was under the control of the Chilean Navy. The surviving Rapa Nui were confined to Hanga Roa, the largest city on the island, until 1966 when the island was reopened and they were granted Chilean citizenship.

In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage site. Since then the population of the island has been steadily growing—in 2017, it was reported to reach 7,750. According to a 2002 census, the Rapa Nui people now make up an estimated 60% of that population.

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