14th
Apr
2014

Posted in Reference

I'm always one for going off on a tangent, and today's article probably takes the biscuit somewhat. I hope you find it interesting though, as I have found the history of the island to be fascinating. I should also point out that aspects of this may not be completely accurate- the conflicting reports and hypotheses of many historians and archaeologists filtered through the internet and Wikipedia makes giving an accurate recount a little tricky!

As you might have guessed, the name Easter Island isn't the one given to it by its native population. Currently the island is known as Rapa Nui, meaning big island. It is not known for certain what the island was first called by the people that landed there, but some names have been discerned from the oral history of the island: one such name is Te pito o te kainga a Hau Maka, which, depending on translation, means either "The little piece of land of Hau Maka" or more grandly "the Navel of the World". The name Easter Island was given to to it by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722, who came across the island on Easter Sunday.

The large statues known as the Moai are the remnants of an ancestor cult that was initially followed by the people of the island. They represented their almost god-like ancestors, the most important of whom was Hotu Matu'a, the first settler. The islanders were led by a high chief who was the descendant of Hotu Matu'a, and was the leader of the various clans living on the island who each had their own chief. The Moai were placed facing inland to look over and protect the land of the living, their backs to the spirit world of the sea.

The Moai were carved from volcanic rock in the crater of Rano Raraku, and moved down to the shores to stand on their ahu (stone platform). How they were moved there is debated, but my favourite of the methods proposed is that the statues may have been made to "walk" using teams pulling on ropes to rock them side to side. The islanders' own oral history, that says the Moai walked of their own volition, perhaps points towards them being moved in this way and not rolled along using logs. Worn areas on the bases of the Moai that could have been caused by such movement also help to support this method.

Agriculture and domestic chickens became the main food source for the islanders following their deforestation of the island, which had limited their ability to fish. Whether it caused a population crash or not is debatable, but at some point the military leaders known as the Matatoa came to power and established the Tangata Manu, or Birdman Cult. Veneration of the ancestors remained, but now communication with them was limited to a sole, oracle-like figure who was chosen each year in a competition. The leaders of the clans would nominate a representative who had to retrieve an egg from the nearby islet Motu Nui. The first to return would win their clan rights regarding certain resources, and the patron would become the sacred leader for a year, living in seclusion in a ceremonial house.

Successive visits from Europeans note how some sort of internal conflict, possibly a fight for resources, had led to the almost all of the Moai being toppled. Speculation suggests that the islanders may have felt angry at their ancestors for abandoning them, or perhaps clans had toppled the Moai of their opponents. What is certain however is that the final blow to the population of Easter Island occurred in little more than a decade.

In 1862, it is thought there were some 3,000 islanders. About half of them were captured or killed by Peruvian slave raiders that year, including the royal family of the island. International outrage led to the handful of survivors being returned to the island, but many were suffering from smallpox and an outbreak decimated the population. During the 1860s, Christian missionaries were able to convert the islanders, perhaps in part due to their alienation with their previous ancestor worship. Unfortunately, one of the missionaries who was suffering from tuberculosis caused an outbreak on the island, further reducing the population. Finally, the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier came to the island in 1868 and all but took over the island to use as a sheep farm. He sent away many of the islanders, and many more were evacuated by the missionaries who disagreed with him. By around 1877, just 111 people were living on Easter Island. This drastic population loss has been part of the reason that the history of Easter Island is so hard to discover, as only oral tradition and archaeological evidence can help to piece it back together.

Following 1877, the island's population has been gradually increasing again and today stands at around 6,000, with a mix of both natives and immigrants. Several of the toppled Moai have been restored to their ahu and the debate continues on the fascinating and somewhat mysterious history of Easter Island.

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