Quietly, but surely, some 1,200 years ago, a double-hulled canoe of intrepid seafarers landed on the shores of Easter Island—a Chilean island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Here, over the course of several centuries, a whole society was formed, isolated from the rest of the world in spirit, and proximity. Today, Easter Island is renowned for its 887 extant monumental statues, or moai, created by these early Rapa Nui people.
If you’re among those fortunate enough to view the moai in person, paying homage to the ancient Polynesian cultures responsible for them, you’ll feel the mystery and mysticism of the island. The moai—which are carved as head and torsos—are all around 13 feet high and weigh 14 tons. The physical feat of their construction is mind-boggling and while speculation abounds, no written or oral history exists for the island; it is not entirely clear exactly why they were created. The statues, standing in solemn silence, are generally believed to have been built to honor the ancestors and chiefs of these early people.
Those visiting Easter Island today are getting there just in time—many of the volcanic-rock statues are deteriorating back into plain rock due to weathering. However, there are conservation efforts underway to preserve this stone legacy. Most tourists visit the Rano Raraku quarry, where many of the stone used to create the moai is found, and the ceremonial center of Ahu Vinapu—some of the stonework here is reminiscent of Peru’s Inca civilization, speaking to possible contact between the islanders and South America. The Rano Kau volcano caldera is home to the Orongo ceremonial village, dedicated to the fascinating “birdman” cult.
Looking back, one wonders what happened to the people inhabiting the island and responsible for these intriguing creations. We can imagine the hardiness of those brave enough to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean to land on the island’s shores, 1,100 miles to the nearest island. Yet create a culture they did, one with distinct architectural and artistic characteristics. Researchers today believe that the Rapa Nui may actually have been responsible for their own downfall, cutting giant palms to clear the land or use for fire starters. In addition, Polynesian rats, who likely stowed away and landed on the island with the first settlers, may have eaten enough of the seeds to help wipe out the tree population. With the trees dwindling, the island’s volcanic soil eroded massively—and, much later, in 1722, European explorers arrived to a mostly barren island with few inhabitants remaining.
Intriguing, puzzling, incredible—Easter Island remains an archaeological enigma.