Despite recent influxes of tourists and adventure seekers, Easter Island remains one of the most remote islands on Earth. There are excellent hotels, and a small airport connects the island with the mainland, yet, the mystery of the place remains. The famous moʻai, the giant stones that stand 40 feet tall, spark wonder and awe at the craftsmanship and work required to move and sculpt each one. Yet, somewhere deep inside, their sight also provokes fear. Fear of what we do not comprehend and of darkness in isolated places, primal and base fears of the other and the unknown. Yet these fears, hardened by centuries of colonialism and fictional adventure yarns of “primitives”, cannibals and strange tribes in the region, are unfounded. Easter Island is rich in culture, archaeological treasures and, yes, mystery.
The island is known to native inhabitants as Rapa Nui, being named Easter Island only after its “discovery” by the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday in 1722. The island was annexed by Chile in 1888 and is over 2,300 miles from the South American coast, being a staggering 1,289 miles from the next nearest island, Pitcairn. It ranks at number one on the United Nations’ isolation index. The native population of the island is a little over 2,000. Yet, this tiny island has become famed around the globe for the work carried out by their civilisation centuries ago, much of it confounding scientists and historians. Across 64 miles, there are well over 17,000 archaeological sites, including 300 religious temples and 887 “stone heads” known as moʻai.
How the population came to be there has puzzled scholars for centuries, with debate raging as to the origins of the indigenous people on Rapa Nui. Some contend they had come from South America, others suggest Polynesia. Either direction would have been an immense voyage and covered hundreds of miles of open ocean. Most favour the Polynesian theory and say the inhabitants arrived around 400 AD and settled some centuries afterwards. The idea is backed by both linguistic experts and archaeologists, with islanders thousands of miles apart being able to understand one another. In 1994, DNA from 12 skeletons found on the island was discovered to be Polynesian.
Legends on Rapa Nui tell of how some 1,500 years ago, a Polynesian chief by the name of Hotu Matu’a once lived on the paradise island of Hiva. One night, a dream told him that a disaster was to befall his land and that it would sink beneath the waves. Matu’a sent seven explorers toward the morning sun in search of a new home and salvation. After several days sail, they reached what would become known as Rapa Nui. The chief now travelled to the island in two great ships, settling there with his wife, family and 100 others. He named this new land Te pito o te henua, which means “the world’s navel”.
However, the Polynesian origins of Easter Island are not universally accepted, with the Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl believing that members of a pre-Inca society had left Peru in antiquity and sailed in the prevailing westerly trade winds. To prove his theory, in 1947, Heyerdahl sailed 4,300 nautical miles for three months on nothing more than a balsa raft that he named Kon Tiki. He successfully reached a reef near the Polynesian island of Puka Puka.
“Not a soul was to be seen on shore, only a deserted, petrified world with motionless stone heads gazing at us from their distant ridge, while other equally motionless stone men lay prostrate in a row on the lava blocks along the coast. The shadows were long, but nothing moved; nothing but the fiery red sun as it descended slowly into the black sea.”
Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku
Alongside the feasibility, Heyerdahl has pointed to the stonework on the island that he believes resemble Inca workmanship, being reminiscent of similar workings in Peru. Equally, the presence of the sweet potato in Polynesia is an oddity, with the only possible origin being South America. However, it’s also possible that Polynesians reached Peru and then returned home or that trade was established with the islands at some point that has been lost to history. Others point to aspects of the Hotu Matu’a legend as suggesting that the moʻai were already there when he arrived.
The archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg states, however, that “all archaeological, linguistic, and biological data” is suggestive of Polynesian origins alone.
One other legend may reconcile both theories. It is said that after the arrival of Hotu Matu’a, another group arrived on the island — the Hanau E’epe or “wide race”. These newcomers were described as stout and sturdy with very developed earlobes. Some have suggested these people may have been the Inca. Others indicate that these legends don’t refer to race at all and, instead, refer to different classes of society.
Amongst the archaeological and linguistic oddities of the island is the writing known as rongorongo or kohau rongo rongo to the indigenous population. The word rongorongo translates as “The Great Study” or “The Great Message”. The scripture consists of glyphs that are carved on wood or tablets and legends on the island say that the scripture is the language of Hotu Matu’a himself. These myths state that the founder of the island had 67 tablets which correspond with the 67 Maori pearls of wisdom on sailing and astronomy.
The glyphs of rongorongo consist of both pictographic and geometric shapes. When it was first reported by the French missionary Eugène Eyraud in 1864, some of the islanders were said to still understand its meaning. However, only the ruling families and priests were literate in the language, and none survived the period of colonialism. Despite numerous attempts since, the carvings have never been deciphered and rongorongo remains a lost language.
Easter Island is, of course, most famed for its carved statues known as moʻai. These standing stones were created as repositories for the mana of tribal leaders on the island, the inhabitants believing that they held their inner force. The word “moʻai” means “so that he can exist”. These elder stones would then protect the village from evil.
Perhaps the most impressive of the moʻai is known as El Gigante, standing 65 feet high and weighing almost 80 tons. The massive megalith stands over the road leading to the Rano Raraku volcano where the rock was utilised for the carving of the statues. These gigantic stones were hauled down the slopes of Rano Raraku, being carved at the base.
The moʻai were seemingly astrologically aligned, and most face inward toward the island, making the single statue that points out to the sea an oddity (main image). This single statue is located at Ahu Akivi, a special place for the Rapa Nui civilisation. The function is unknown, yet it may serve as a lookout. The inward nature of the other figures has been suggested as evidence that they served as protection to the islanders.
One of the statues, the Tukuturi, is even more mysterious than the rest. Being more “realistic” in its proportions, the Tukuturi statue is utterly different in terms of style, also being much smaller than the rest of the moʻai. The figure doesn’t seem to have the dignity of the elder statues. It is carved in a kneeling position with its hands on its knees and is made from a completely different type of stone.
Intriguingly, when archaeological excavations began at the island in 1914, researchers discovered that the Easter Island “heads” were not heads at all. Buried under the ground are the enormous connected bodies. The revelation only added to the awe-inspiring nature of the work that had been done and offered new insight into the culture and art. The heads, in fact, only measure around 3/8th of the total size of the statue, with the bodies featuring elongated fingers.
Many moʻai have been broken and lay on the ground following the previously mentioned rebellions in the 1500s. Following the uprisings, a new warrior class developed on the island that worshipped gods such as the Birdman and Makemake. They carved glyphs for these new gods on the moʻai, supplanting the old ways with a society centred on strength and power.
This so-called Birdman cult would appoint a new Tangata Manu or “birdman” every year following a test of strength and will. Contenders would descend from the volcanic crater Rano Kau and attempt to swim to the island of Motu Nui. There, they would wait for migrating sooty tern birds. The first to capture an egg and bring it home would be declared the winner, being granted absolute power for one year.
This period in the island’s history was marked by the advance of culture, with new huts and carvings springing up. However, deforestation and a scarcity of food also meant that cannibalism became rife, lasting an agonising two centuries. It was during this period that the moʻai were toppled, with none said to be standing when Europeans first visited the island.
The cult began to disappear on Easter Island after the first contact with the outside world in the 18th century. Yet, while the colonialists considered the island tribes “primitive” and backward for their ways, their “civilisation” showed little better morality as many were taken from the island to act as slaves in Peru. Colonialists brought new diseases, just as the conquistadors had once done on the mainland. There was smallpox, tuberculosis and STDs.
The French-Tahitian businessman Jean Baptiste Ounésime Dutrou-Bornier, known as Pito Pito, enslaved the island. Alongside missionaries, he created the Council of State of Rapa Nui, concentrating the majority of the population in Hanga Roa. He took a local woman by force from her husband, raped her and declared her his Queen. He declared himself to be “Juan I, King of Easter Island”. He ruled as a despot, splitting families and carrying out policies of torture and murder. He was also a paedophile and one day, following the kidnapping of several pubescent girls, the islanders reached a breaking point and seized Pito Pito. It is said they chained him to four horses and he was torn limb from limb. They also say that at nights in the Mataveri neighbourhood where it happened, you can still hear the jangling of chains and that the spirits of the horses yet walk the streets, the bloody limbs hanging behind them.
Following the bloody reign of Pito-Pito, the population had been almost exterminated. Numbers reached as low as 111, 97% less than the number that had once lived there. The once-great culture that had flourished was decimated, and the island became mere land to be rented out by corporations for sheep farming, being under the control of the Williamson-Balfour Company until 1953. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the islanders were allowed Chilean citizenship and the right to freedoms on the island. Following the coup that brought the fascist government of Augusto Pinochet to power, the land was broken up, and tourism slowed. In 1995, Easter Island became an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet, the islanders still suffer massive discrimination. In 2011, the United Nations expressed concern over the treatment of the indigenous communities by the Chilean government.
Like most of the Polynesian Triangle that contains the likes of Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti and Samoa, Easter Island is an ancient paradise with a culture that spans back into the mists of history. It is a mysterious land, with customs and languages that even today the West does not fully comprehend. Instead of being willing to learn, colonialism forsook knowledge and understanding for want of slaves and resources, destroying what was left of yet another population. This destruction meant that the meaning behind rongorongo was lost. So perhaps was the truth behind the construction of the moʻai. Even the origin of the people themselves may remain a mystery. Yet, despite their trials, the islanders remain welcoming and opening, happy to finally share their impressive past with a curious world. It is easy to imagine that many may also remain cautious, tribal memories reminding them that their way of life is still not as free as the days before they first laid eyes on a European.
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