A supreme accomplishment, flourishing civilization, followed by environmental devastation and decline
Although it is not agreed when people first arrived on Easter Island (with estimates ranging from several hundred to more than one thousand years ago), consensus seems to be that the first peoples arrived from Polynesia. Rather than being inhabited by mistake or chance, evidence has suggested that Easter Island was colonized deliberately by large boats with many settlers — a remarkable feat given the distance of Easter Island from any other land in the Pacific Ocean.
A volcanic high island, consisting mainly of three extinct coalesced volcanoes: Terevaka (altitude 507 metres) forms the bulk of the island, while two other volcanoes, Poike and Rano Kau, form the eastern and southern headlands and give the island its roughly triangular shape. Lesser cones and other volcanic features include the crater Rano Raraku, the cinder cone Puna Pau and many volcanic caves including lava tubes. Poike used to be a separate island until volcanic material from Terevaka united it to the larger whole. The island is dominated by hawaiite and basalt flows which are rich in iron and show affinity with igneous rocks found in the Galapagos Islands.
In recent times the island has served as a warning of the cultural and environmental dangers of overexploitation. Ethnographers and archaeologists also blame diseases carried by European sailors and Peruvian slave raiding of the 1860s for devastating the local peoples.
The history of Easter Island is rich and controversial
Its inhabitants have endured famines, epidemics, civil war, slave raids, colonialism, and near deforestation; its population declined precipitously more than once.
The first islanders found a land of undoubted paradise — archaeological evidence shows that the island was covered in trees of various sorts, including the largest palm tree species in the world, whose bark and wood furnished the natives with cloth, rope, and canoes. Birds were abundant as well, and provided food for them. A mild climate favored an easy life, and abundant waters yielded fish and oysters.
The islanders prospered due to these advantages, and a reflection of this is the religion which sprouted in their leisure, which had at its centrepiece the giant moai, or heads, that are the island’s most distinctive feature today. These moai, which the island is littered with, are supposed to have been depictions of ancestors, whose presence likely was considered a blessing or watchful safekeeping eye over each small village. The ruins of Rano Raraku crater, the stone quarry where scores if not hundreds of moai sit today, is a testament to how central these figures were to the islanders, and how their life revolved around these creations. It has been suggested that their isolation from all other peoples fuelled this outlet of trade and creativity — lacking any other significant way to direct their skills and resources. The bird-man culture (seen in petroglyphs), is an obvious testament to the islanders’ fascination with the ability to leave their island for distant lands.
However, as the population grew, so did pressures on the island’s environment. Deforestation of the island’s trees gradually increased, and as this main resource was depleted, the islanders would find it hard to continue making rope, canoes, and all the necessities to hunt and fish, and ultimately, support the culture that produced the giant stone figureheads. Apparently, disagreements began to break out (with some violence) as confidence in the old religion was lost, and is reflected partly in the ruins of moai which were deliberately toppled by human hands. By the end of the glory of the Easter Island culture, the population had crashed in numbers, and the residents — with little food or other ways to obtain sustenance — resorted sometimes to cannibalism and a bare subsistence. Subsequent raids by powers such as Peru and Bolivia devastated the population even more, until only a few hundred native Rapa Nui were left by the last century.
Today, Rapa Nui National Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Adventure To Easter Island • Locations & Activities