AN ISLAND OF MYSTERIES
by Stan Griffin
They stand starkly, over 600 of them, with their backs to the ocean, on one of the world's loneliest islands. Wherever you stand on that island, it's possible to see at least one of them. Spectacular in appearance, they reach heights of seven feet to 70 feet with the average 12 feet to 25 feet. Estimates place their weights at around 40 to 60 tons.
These colossal, humanlike structures were built by prehistoric people. They have been photographed and studied by scientists many times. They are the statues of Easter Island, and they are famous throughout the world.
Natives call the island "Rapa-Nui" and "Te-Pito-o-te Henua" (which translates to "Navel of the World"). The word "navel" is symbolic of birth; it's also significant when you consider the island's central location between South America and the more recently settled Pacific islands of Polynesia.
The first Europeans to arrive there were Dutch; they came in 1722. Admiral Jakob Roggeveen's ship made port on Easter Sunday, his inspiration for its name.
Easter Island lies in the southern Pacific Ocean, 2,200 miles west of the South American continent. Its nearest inhabited neighbor, Pitcairn Island, is about 1,000 miles west. The island's beginnings were volcanic. Unlike many Pacific islands, there are no coral reefs. In fact, Easter Island has very little in common with other Pacific islands.
It is a small island, variously described as anywhere from 50 - 60 square miles in area. Elsewhere it has been said that it is 14 miles by seven miles with a roughly triangular shape.
There are several extinct volcanoes on Easter Island (one in each corner) as well as three fresh-water crater lakes; the largest one is a mile in diameter.
The current population of Easter Island, numbering about 2,000, is mostly Polynesian with some claiming Chilean descent. It is a fact that many of the natives have multi-racial backgrounds, tracing their origins hundreds of years in the past to original settlers. Residents are mainly farmers who raise cattle and sheep; wool is now the most important export. Food crops provide a living for many of the inhabitants; this is called "subsistence farming."
A recent addition to the economic life of Easter Island are the large numbers of tourists who come to see the statues. An airport was opened there in 1967.
The official language on Easter Island is Spanish, but many of the people speak a native language called Pascuense.
It wasn't long after Admiral Roggeveen's appearance that others visited the Island. Spanish ships arrived from Peru in 1770, followed in four years by the famous English explorer, Capt. James Cook. Eighteen years later a ship commanded by a Russian named Lisjansky stopped there.
America's first delegation came in 1805 on a slave ship whose crew captured 22 men and women and took them away into bondage. Over the next 57 years Easter Island was a stop for a number of ships from various nations. Many of them encountered hostile natives, and some were even afraid to send men ashore.
In 1859 some Peruvian slave traders came to Easter Island and were able to seize a few natives. Three years later (1862) they made a return visit; and this time they captured a third of the entire population--over 1,000 people (including the last king and all of the learned men). They were taken to Peru and forced to work on plantations there.
Within a year, all but 100 of them were dead. In 1863 the survivors boarded ships to take them home. During this voyage, 85 of them died. When the survivors came back to Easter Island, they carried smallpox and other diseases contracted in Peru. Their illnesses spread throughout the island, and it wasn't long until the entire population had shrunk to 100.
A French missionary was sent to Easter Island in 1843, but nothing was ever heard from him. Another came in 1864; his name was Brother Eugene Eyraud from Belgium. He stayed for about nine months and reportedly made some headway in gaining converts to Catholicism. Brother Eyraud was forced to leave after a period of mistreatment by the natives. However, he returned 1 1/2 years later with another missionary; this time he stayed. He died in 1870 and was buried on the Island.
The South American nation of Chile officially annexed Easter Island (Isla de Pascua) in 1888 and have governed it ever since. One of their first actions was to lease 4/5's of the land to a British wool-growing company. The Island is considered part of Chile's Valparaiso province.
In 1914 a British expedition began a survey of the island's statues. Since then several groups have come to learn more about them as well as to study the people who built them. Countries who sent investigating teams included France, Belgium, and Norway.
A number of theories have been advanced by anthropologists and archaeologists to explain the Island's history and the backgrounds of the native population. One such idea says that the first people on Easter Island came from the east (South America) about 400 A.D. They reportedly came in two separate "waves." Generations later, after the arrival of Polynesians from the west (possibly Marquesas Island), building began on the MOAI (statues). For a while, the two groups worked together on the monuments, some of which represented "long-ear" chiefs (referring to enlarged ear lobes, much like the Incas of Peru). Many of the groups were skilled workers in stone.
Trouble between the two groups eventually culminated in open warfare. The newcomers were successful. As a result, many of the statues built before this civil war were destroyed, broken up, and used as filling for new monuments. The Polynesian groups began building their own statues ("short-ear") with AHUS (ceremonial, raised bases or platforms) constructed to hold them. Usually each AHU held several statues.
The MOAI were carved from yellowish tuff (soft rock made of compacted volcanic ash) taken from "Rano Raraku," one of Easter Island's volcanoes. Most of the statues were carved from a single block of tuff. The most essential tool used by native workers was a stone hand pick.
The heads were tall and elongated (lengthened) with protruding eyebrows and chins. They had full-length torsos. Bases were flat, so the MOAI had no legs or feet. The arms were long and slender. Hands were carved with fingers closed together. Most were male figures with only a few females.
After the MOAI were raised to upright positions and moved to the AHU, eyes were put in. A PUKAO was added to the top of the head. These were cylindrical topknots (or hats) made of red tuff; some weighed as much as 10 tons.
Building the statues was done in quarries near the volcano. When one was ready to be moved, a quantity of small stones were wedged under it; and it was pried into a standing position with poles. In 1955 and 1956 the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl led a group which was able to prove the "stones and poles" theory by actually raising a statue to an upright poistion. Afterwards, with ropes and rollers, they were able to move one a considerable distance.
Most of the MAOI were located in coastal areas. As the years passed, the size of statues kept increasing.
Another civil war ensued from approximately 1680-1840. During this time, practically all the statues were thrown off the platforms. It was in this timespan that all statue building ceased. Some unfinished MAOIs remained in the quarries while others were abandoned along roads, having been in the process of being moved to permanent locations.
There are conflicting notions about the reason for building the MAOI. One explanation states that they were intended to be funeral monuments to some chiefs of the original settlers.
Another idea is that the statues were religious idols meant to honor their forefathers as part of ancestor worship.
By the time Europeans began arriving on Easter Island, the inhabitants greatly venerated (respected, honored) the MAOI but no longer worshipped them.
Thanks to the efforts of some hard-working scientists, much light has been directed on what once was a mystery.