Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is a Chilean island in the Pacific Ocean, at the southeastern point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania. It was discovered by one of the greatest seafaring societies of all time. They were a race of prehistoric Polynesian explorers who expertly sailed the Pacific long before the Europeans. Actually, when the Vikings sailed to North America the Polynesians sailed to South America where they discovered the sweet potato. It was all part of the largest cultural territory in the world that stretched from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the west all the way to Easter Island.
Centuries ago those ancient seafarers used long-distance inter-island trade and travel to build a vast empire. As an example, there was a stone adze manufacturing site on Eiao that would export to places like Mangareva and Tahiti. This was the main woodworking tool of the Polynesian carpenters of old and was indispensable to their entire way of life. The point is that over time regular trade routes built up across hundreds of thousands of miles of open waters.
According to their ancient oral tradition, Hotu Matu’a was a Polynesian warlord who originally brought the first settlers to the new island as refugees of civil conflict. Having run for their lives, they braved the open ocean in a double-hulled canoe, traveling from the fabled land of Hiva all the way to Rapa Nui. In all likelihood, the founding population probably came from somewhere in the Marquesas Islands to Easter Island about thirteen hundred years ago.
Either way, Hiva was said to be a lush island covered with jagged cliffs and ruled by tattooed warriors in rival clans. As part of this Hotu and his men evidently prepared for battle and hoped to claim ownership of the island. However, they were soon defeated in a decisive battle and forced to flee for their lives. He had to find a new home for his people, so the chieftain consulted the shaman who told him of a vision he had of a faraway island retreat to the east. Then, Hotu set out to find the land from the priest’s dream. Little did he know it would turn out to be one of the most remote islands on Earth.
In the maritime past that defeated tribe set out on an epic journey for survival guided by faith. They endured the blazing hot sun for weeks on end as they ventured deep into the unknown ocean with a limited supply of resources. The group had only brought with them a sacred stone from Hiva as well as a few tools, and some coconuts, which went along with whatever fish they caught along the way. So basically with nothing more than the hope of a homeland on the horizon they were able to steer the ship by the stars and sail the South Seas with the Westerly winds.
As the story goes, Hotu’s ship traveled thousands of miles before landing at Anakena, one of the few sandy beaches on the rocky coast. Master navigators like him had to memorize the locations of 440 different stars and build up complex mental maps to better explore and colonize the world around them. These techniques for celestial navigation have been handed down for at least 3,000 years forming a kind of complex compass based on an oral tradition. Hotu also carried with him an actual map known as a stick chart made from thin pieces of coconut fronds that were tied together to represent ocean currents while small shells attached to the frame revealed the locations of land. In this way, the first human inhabitants of Rapa Nui arrived in a band of emigrants near the onset of the 8th century.
When they first arrived on the island it was covered in palm trees from one end to the other and home to countless different species of birds. It was a veritable tropical paradise but it wouldn’t last long with myopic inhabitants. You see, to honor their leader they built a huge stone statue of him. This led to a tradition for each subsequent leader to have their own even larger more intricately carved statue. Nearly a thousand of these were carved out over five centuries time.
The enormous endeavor took dozens of people carving for years on end to chisel out just a single Moai out of the stone quarry. Then each multi-ton piece had to be lowered down to the finishing site to be readied for transport. Following that they were literally walked by a small team of people who pulled on ropes that rocked the monoliths along as they went. After they arrived at the platform, they were formed into a standing position and erected. Finally, their eyes were set in place and the totems were imbued with spiritual power, they were often crowned in lava rock as well.
The thing is that the moving and raising of those monolithic Tiki gods was unsustainable. A millennia after first colonizing the island the resources were too badly depleted to sustain people any longer so they turned to war. They moved from manufacturing tools to weapons when there finally wasn’t enough to go around anymore, with thousands of people living in hundreds of homes. An age of turmoil began and endemic chronic warfare ensued, so obsidian spears became the new concern. At first, they turned on the gods, and then each other. Everyone and everything would soon die, or so it seemed.
By the 17th century, nearly every bird had gone extinct. The entire palm forest was completely cut down in full view of everyone, but they still did it anyhow. It was a case of total deforestation. Without trees, the rain just swept away the soil taking the crops with it. There was no more wood for houses or canoes or anything else they so desperately needed either. The natives also severely overfished tuna and mackerel as well as hunted far too many porpoises. Mass starvation left people emaciated and the former statue cult was forced to develop a new tradition to better cope with scarcity. Monolithic ancestral worship ended and the veneration of the Birdman began.
Soon after the ecological catastrophe of the 17th century, the people of Rapa Nui began to venerate a new deity. They even began to carve an image of him into sacred rocks. The frigate bird was a totem animal that inspired them to diplomacy. The cult of the Birdman then saved the islanders. It was all based on an annual competition that involved every tribe on the island. One man was to be crowned the new Birdman with each passing year. The chief would send the most athletic warrior to swim out and bring back an egg from the cluster of rocks opposite the cliffs. The first to return was honored as a champion because his tribe would get the first pick of food for the entire year to come. This led to an orderly means of parceling out what little there was to go around.
Unfortunately, all of this came to an end beginning on Easter Sunday of 1722 when the Dutch arrived bringing deadly guns and germs with them. So, by 1862 when Peruvian slavers abducted a third of the population diseases were already ravaging the bodies and minds of the natives, but this was finally truly it for the inhabitants of Easter Island. They were all already slowly dying but after syphilis came smallpox and it was all just too much to handle. In 1877 there were reportedly only 111 people alive on the island, so the great death was nearly complete. Today the island is almost exclusively populated by Chileans, although efforts are being made to try and conserve the land as well as the culture of Rapa Nui wherever possible. Too bad rongorongo hasn’t been deciphered yet.