Rising out of the Pacific Ocean, 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile, is a volcanic island home to the most curious sculptures the ancient world produced. The history of Easter Island is long, but not much is known about the mysterious and ancient culture that made almost 900 massive stone heads, or moai, that dot across the 64 square mile island.
The original inhabitants of the island called it Rapa Nui. It was when Dutch explorers landed there in 1722 from the Netherlands that they named it “Easter Island,” because that was the day they arrived.
It is believed that Polynesian explorers were the first to discover the island around 300 A.D. Studies over the years revealed there were three distinct cultures that existed there; first from 700-850 A.D., then 1050-1680, and finally 1680 to present. Evidence suggests that from the early to middle periods, many early statues were destroyed and rebuilt into the much larger ones that make the island famous. The late period is marred by destruction and civil war.
After coexisting peacefully on the island for many years, two ethnic groups went to war with each other around 1680. When the Dutch arrived, they found the groups starving and warring with each other over the island’s resources. The once lush landscape had been deforested and the Dutch saw a barren landscape that could barely support life. The inhabitants had cut down all the trees and were burning grass for agricultural activities. It is believed that rats were partly to blame for the destruction as well. The rat population swelled to millions and they ate all the seeds, which meant the trees were unable to regenerate.
Spanish explorers arrived in 1770 and estimated the population at 3,000 people. Four years later, a British group arrived and found war had lowered the native population to 700 men and 30 women.
They recovered to around 2,000 people by 1786. In 1862, many of the inhabitants were captured and taken by Peruvians in a slave raid. Then an outbreak of smallpox brought them to the brink of extinction in 1877—only 111 people survived the outbreak. In 1888, Chile annexed the island. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Chilean government appointed a civilian governor and declared all the inhabitants Chilean citizens.
In regard to the moai, a recent study argues that the statues were more than symbolic structures of deities or important figures and may have actually been a survival tool. The researchers found that the moai were placed near areas with fresh water. There are no ponds or lakes on the small island, so it raised the question: what did the ancient peoples drink? A natural phenomenon called groundwater discharge is how fresh water comes out in streams between the coast and the ocean. Scientists believe that the moai were placed near these areas of fresh water so the locations could not be forgotten.
That was just a brief insight into the mysterious and brutal history of Easter Island. Have any questions or comments? Feel free to chat below in the comments, and thanks for reading! Oh, and if you’re interested in the holiday of Easter, check out our articles about Easter eggs and the Easter bunny!