The Mysteries of Easter Island
On Easter Sunday, 1722, the Dutch Admiral Jacob Roggeveen led his tiny fleet of three sailing ships into the shelter of a small and unknown island deep in the southern Pacific Ocean. The Dutch christened this new land Easter Island, though it soon became obvious that they were not the first people to arrive there. Fires had been lit along the shore seemingly to welcome the visitors and many reed rafts came out to meet them. The Dutch decided to go ashore with the natives and described them as being mixed in appearance with brown, white and red skin colors. They met men who they believed were the priests of the island and decided that the large-headed statues where made of clay. Because of some mishaps — a native was accidently shot and more were killed when a few natives apparently tried to steal something — the Dutch left very quickly.
Fifty years later the Spanish arrived in order to plant some crosses and stake a claim to the island. They stayed for six days and also reported that there were different races on the island but did not agree with the Dutch that the statues were made of clay.
Next, the famous British Captain Cook arrived. He was the first to bring along a Polynesian man from Tahiti who was just barely able to communicate with the islanders. Cook recorded a list of only 17 words they could find meanings for. He did not encounter any white-skinned natives. He reported very few natives (700) carrying wooden spears and looking malnourished. Astonishingly many of the statues were toppled from their platforms and broken. Cook speculated that some hard times had befallen the natives and that perhaps the volcano had erupted.
After 1805 Americans and Peruvians raided Easter Island to collect slaves and meanwhile introduced smallpox. By 1877 there were only 111 islanders left. Unfortunately, that is a common, hard-luck-story-ending that befell many a far-off locale when the Europeans arrived. But the people of the island left us with some whopper mysteries.
There are many mysteries of the island, besides the ones about the grand statues. But let’s start first with the statues. There are about 1000 statues; the largest is 33 ft (10 m). There are about 300 platforms all along the coast but only some of them with statues. All the statues face inland, as if they were watching the inhabitants. Questions about how the statues were made and how they were positioned have been given some fairly satisfactory answers. There is a quarry site with unfinished heads in the volcanic rock and there are also trails to some of the platform sites. Although the island had no trees later on, it has been discovered that the island was once forested and therefore the islanders probably used some wood carts or rollers and various methods to transport statues with the wood constructions.
Why the statues were made and what happened to them has been harder to resolve. Some of the early visitors were told that the statues represented former kings but this answer seems a little lacking to explain such unique and impressive works. Also, what really happened that made the islanders destroy some of the statues? Scientists have theorized a few answers to explain the civil strife. One contributing issue may have been the stress of the deforestation of the island possibly brought on by a rat introduced to the island that ate up all the tree seeds. Also noticed by researchers is the growing prominence of the “birdman” cult about the time of the likely warfare. The religious carvings of a being with human and bird-like qualities may signal that a switch took place in religious activities, ending the statue building cult’s reign and causing tension.
Besides the statues the big questions are:
- Given that the island is very far from other lands, where did the islanders immigrate from and were there different races present?
- Where did they get their unique building style?
- Where did they get their script – rongorongo?
One interesting theory is that there were waves of immigrants coming from Ancient Peru (or the East) as well as from Polynesia (the West). Support for this idea is as follows:
- The language of Easter Island was so different from that of other Polynesians.
- Some of the agricultural crops are from South America.
- Early visitors reported multiple races.
- The building style appears similar to some Ancient Peruvian sites and is unique to Polynesia.
It has been proven by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl that the ancient balsa wood rafts of Peru could probably have made the journey. No other Polynesian group has a script for writing but there likely were some in the Americas, although they have been lost. Also, some of the impressive large-scale stone platforms and stepped structures on the island resemble some constructions in Peru.
A limited amount of DNA samples and the analysis of skeletons so far have only found evidence of Polynesian descent. In the least, the Polynesians that arrived there must be credited with some impressive sea voyaging skills if they weren’t also responsible for all the developments on the island.