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Re-examining the mystery of Easter Island

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Recent research suggests that the most mysterious spot on the planet might be even more mysterious than we’d thought. The traditional theory that Easter Island’s society collapsed due to “in-fighting and over-exploitation of natural resources” has been thrown into serious doubt. The new culprits? Polynesian rats and European sailors.


Plonked in the middle of the Pacific (it’s the most isolated permanently-inhabited place in the world) and littered with mysterious stone heads known as moai, Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) is one of the most enigmatic and breathtaking places on the planet. Blessed with gorgeous eco-lodges, fascinating ruins, intoxicating culture, and jaw-dropping landscapes, it goes without saying that it’s one of those places you absolutely have to experience at least once in your lifetime.

Sunset over the moais of Easter Island. (Photo: Antonio Sánchez)

The island’s history is more contentious. But traditionally most of the conjecture has centered around the mysterious moai. Except for a few left-field conspiracy theories from folks like Thor Heyerdahl (who claimed that the island was populated by South Americans), the accepted timeline of Rapa Nui’s rise and fall has remained unchallenged by tourists and scientists alike. Until now.


The conventional narrative


For years, most tour guides, guidebooks, exploration journals (ours included) and mainstream publications (even History.com!) have told the same story. It goes something like this … About 1,200 years ago the first people arrived on Rapa Nui, having got there in canoes from Polynesia. Not long after their arrival, the first moai were built, but for the first four hundred years or so the population remained relatively small. This all changed around 1200 AD when a rapidly growing population started to make a serious dent on the Jubaea palms (the largest palm tree that ever lived) which once carpeted the island.

A 1914 watercolor sketch of Anakena Beach and the ceremonial site of Ahu Naunau. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Around 600 years ago, the island’s population is supposed to have peaked at 20,000 people with deforestation spiraling out of control. In the centuries that followed, timber and other resources on the small island grew ever scarcer until, by around 1680, the deforestation was nearly complete. This, the traditional narrative states, triggered clan warfare, famine and population collapse. When the first Europeans arrived in 1722 they found an island on its knees, the once thriving population reduced to a couple of thousand miserable souls.


Renowned historian, anthropologist and geographer Jared Diamond – the bestselling author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse – has even gone so far as to describe Rapa Nui as “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.”


The numbers don’t add up


When Anthropology professor Terry Hunt first visited Easter Island in May 2000, he had no intention of studying the island’s history. He had his sights set on other spots in the Pacific about which less was known. But somehow fate intervened and he found himself leading field trips to Rapa Nui, doing work which he expected to “help put the finishing touches on a well-established story.” The more information he and his students unearthed, however, the more he started to question everything he knew about Easter Island’s history.


The real bombshell came when Hunt and archaeologist Carl Lipo received the results of their 2004 excavations of Anakena Beach, the gorgeous strip of white sand where the island’s first settlers probably came ashore. (The beach remains the best spot on the island to take a dip or catch a tan; a stark contrast to the vertiginous cliffs which occupy most of the shoreline.)

The moais have become the trademark of the island. (Photo: Thomas Griggs)

After digging through yard upon yard of sand and turning up no artefacts of note, they hit a layer of clay which harbored a cornucopia of noteworthy finds: “charcoal fragments (indicating the use of fire), bones (including those of the Polynesian rat, a species that arrived with the colonists), and flaked obsidian shards (a clear sign of human handiwork).” Beneath this layer they found no sign of human activity. “Instead, the ancient clay was riddled with irregular voids – places where the soil had once molded itself around the roots of the long-gone Jubaea palm tree.”


When Hunt was first told that carbon dating had shown the Anakena artefacts to be only 800 years old he was “disappointed” – had he and his team erred in their methodology? But closer analysis of the results, coupled with the results of further excavations conducted a year later, led Hunt and Lipo to believe that “[their] results were not the problem.” Instead, the evidence strongly suggested that Easter Island had first been settled in 1200 AD – some four centuries later than previously assumed.


Hunt’s revised narrative


Further research since this Eureka moment has allowed Hunt and Lipo to propose an alternative timeline for Easter Island’s rise and fall … Around 1200 AD, a small group of Polynesian colonists arrived (bringing with them some Polynesian rats as stowaways) and soon thereafter began building moai. With a virgin island all to themselves, both human and rat populations grew rapidly – the latter devastatingly so.


Within 50 years, Hunt and Lipo reckon, the rat population had mushroomed out of control (they estimate rat numbers to have peaked at somewhere between 1.7 and 3 million!) and the rodents’ predilection for palm seeds had rendered the forest incapable of regenerating. The island’s human population, according to Hunt’s narrative, hit a peak of 3,000 people in around 1350 and remained steady until 1722 when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became the first European to discover the island (he landed on Easter Sunday – hence the name). By then the island was largely deforested and the islanders relied mainly on plants and grass for fuel.

Satellite view of Easter Island in 2019. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Granted, the Europeans did find an island community that had passed its peak, but the true catastrophe was only just beginning. Within minutes of Roggeveen setting foot on Rapa Nui, his men had shot a dozen islanders dead. Worse was still to come. “Newly introduced diseases, conflict with European invaders and enslavement,” (over 1,000 islanders were sold into slavery) meant that “by the late 1870s the number of native islanders numbered only around 100.” Easter Island, Hunt argues, didn’t self-implode – it was brought to its knees by European invaders. (You can read a more detailed explanation written by the man himself here. For an even more in-depth explanation, get yourself a copy of Hunt and Lipo’s book The Statues that Walked.)


The plot thickens


Since Hunt’s groundbreaking revelations, further evidence supporting his version of events has come to light. Most recently, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Pacific Archaeology suggested strongly that instead of being at war with one another, the various communities on Rapa Nui worked together to produce the island’s famous moai.


In an attempt “to gain a better understanding of how tool makers and statue carvers may have interacted,” a multinational scientific team comprising Dale Fredrick Simpson Jr, Jo Anne Van Tilburg, and Laure Dussubieux took a detailed look at stone tools which were used to carve the statues. Once the tools had been carefully analyzed, Van Tilburg and co discovered that the vast majority of the tools (17 of 21) came from one quarry complex. “Once the people found the quarry they liked, they stayed with it,” says Simpson. “For everyone to be using one type of stone, I believe they had to collaborate. That's why they were so successful – they were working together.”

Outer slopes of Rano Raraku with many moais, some half-buried, some still "under construction". (Photo: Wikipedia)

Compelling though the evidence may be, Van Tilburg urges caution in jumping to premature conclusions. “The near-exclusive use of one quarry to produce these seventeen tools supports a view of craft specialization based on information exchange, but we can't know at this stage if the interaction was collaborative. It may also have been coercive in some way. Human behavior is complex.”


Which all goes to show that when it comes to Easter Island’s history, all we can say for certain is that no-one will ever be able to say for certain what went down on this remote Pacific outpost hundreds (or is it thousands?) of years ago.


The mysterious beauty of Easter Island truly does have to be experienced to be believed. Check out our most popular Easter Island tours here and here, or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting the bespoke trip of your dreams. We can guarantee top-notch accommodations, stellar guides, and out of this world experiences. But we can’t promise you’ll answer all of your most burning questions about the modern-day mystery that is Easter Island.

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