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Easter Island: separating fact from fiction

Published July 07, 2014 by Nick Dall

Easter Island, Rapa Nui, Isla de Pascua…Whatever name you give this island thousands of miles from anything and littered with almost 900 moai, it is without doubt one of the most enigmatic places on earth.
Rapa Nui poses more questions than it provides answers, but this week we try to separate the wheat from the chaff by shedding some objective light on this truly haunting destination which can easily be added to your Chilean itinerary.

Easter Island Hiking Rano Raraku
Picture: Greg Poulos


Where it all started
Easter was first populated somewhere between 700 and 1100 AD. The settlers came by traditional canoe or catamaran either from Mangareva (1600 miles away) or from the Marquesas (2000 miles away).
Rapa Nui, the language spoken on Easter, shares 80% of its vocabulary with Mangarevan, making Mangareva the most likely source of the settlers. The island’s remoteness meant that islanders could not depend on trade to augment the resources on the island. Interestingly there was considerable intra-island trade between the 1 tribes on Easter, something which did not happen on less remote Polynesian islands.

Easter Island Kari Kari Arian Zwegers
Picture: Arian Zwegers


When Polynesians first arrived at Easter it was covered in trees (among them the largest known palm tree in the world) and was home to many nesting birds (both sea and land). The trees were vital for construction, cooking, boat-building and they provided fruit and rope. The birds also provided a food source, both as eggs and as meat.
The outside world discovers a civilisation in decline
Europeans never saw Easter at its peak (it is believed to have had a population of nearly 20 000 at some time). The first to visit was a Dutch sailor, Roggeveen, who spent a week on the island in 1722. He reported seeing many standing moai but no trees, and estimated the population at several thousand. Perhaps the biggest impact of deforestation was that islanders could no longer build boats, thereby eliminating all deepwater marine species from their diet.

Easter Island Ran Kau David Berkowitz
Picture: David Berkowitz

By 1830 all the moai had been toppled, probably as a result of inter-tribal conflict, and fifty years later a combination of factors– continued internal conflict, coupled with epidemics brought by visiting European ships and crippling Peruvian slave raids in the 1860s – had reduced the population to 111 sorry souls. That was the all-time low; Easter’s current population stands at about 4000, with about 60% of them being descendents of the Rapa Nui.

Easter was annexed by Chile in 1888 and has remained Chilean ever since, even though Chile – over 2000 miles away – played no role in its early history.
Moai and ahu
Moai vary greatly in size, but on average they stand 13ft high and weigh 14 tons. The largest moai ever erected measured 32ft and 82 tons, while the shortest didn’t even make it to 4ft! Enormous moai have been found in the quarry, but there is little chance the Rapa Nui would have been able to erect them. Most moai incorporate head, shoulders and torso, but some go as far as the feet.
Although all the attention is given to the moai, the ahu or stone platforms they stand on actually required greater manpower. The ahu are rectangular in shape and feature intricate retaining walls of basalt which are filled with rubble. The largest ahu is 720ft long.

Easter Island Ahu Tongariki Nicolas de Camaret
Picture: Nicolas de Camaret


The moai and ahu are all located on the coastal strip of the island and all moai face inland, watching over their descendants and with their backs to the spirit world of the sea.
Thor Heyerdahl took the complexity of the structures on the island to mean that they were the work of Incas while Eric von Daniken believed that only aliens could have been responsible for their construction and erection. Nowadays all experts agree, however, that the moai and ahu were made by Polynesians. Not only is the style consistent with sculptures on other Polynesian islands, but the modern day islanders were also able to re-erect the statues using traditional methods.
The huri mo'ai or statue toppling began in the 1770s, when social upheaval caused by food shortages caused rival tribes to knock moai over, breaking them in the process. By 1830 all but the most inaccessible moai had been toppled.

Easter Island Rano Roraku David Berkowitz
Picture: David Berkowitz


Although Easter is most famous for its moai it’s also home to spectacular scenery and unique culture. Chile’s national airline, LAN, flies there six times a week from Santiago making Rapa Nui an easy add-on to any trip.