The Secrets of Easter Island

The more we learn about the remote island from archaeologists and researchers, the more intriguing it becomes

The legendary Moai statues have fascinated modern civilization since their discovery. (Arian Zwegers)
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Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in Fall 2009.

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“There exists in the midst of the great ocean, in a region where nobody goes, a mysterious and isolated island,” wrote the 19th-century French seafarer and artist Pierre Loti. “The island is planted with monstrous great statues, the work of I don’t know what race, today degenerate or vanished; its great remains an enigma.” Named Easter Island by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who first spied it on Easter Day 1722, this tiny spit of volcanic rock in the vast South Seas is, even today, the most remote inhabited place on earth. Its nearly 1,000 statues, some almost 30 feet tall and weighing as much as 80 tons, are still an enigma, but the statue builders are far from vanished. In fact, their descendants are making art and renewing their cultural traditions in an island renaissance.

To early travelers, the spectacle of immense stone figures, at once serenely godlike and savagely human, was almost beyond imagining. The island’s population was too small, too primitive and too isolated to be credited with such feats of artistry, engineering and labor. “We could hardly conceive how these islanders, wholly unacquainted with any mechanical power, could raise such stupendous figures,” the British mariner Capt. James Cook wrote in 1774. He freely speculated on how the statues might have been raised, a little at a time, using piles of stones and scaffolding; and there has been no end of speculation, and no lack of scientific investigation, in the centuries that followed. By Cook’s time, the islanders had toppled many of their statues and were neglecting those left standing. But the art of Easter Island still looms on the horizon of the human imagination.

Just 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, the island is more than 2,000 miles off the coast of South America and 1,100 miles from its nearest Polynesian neighbor, Pitcairn Island, where mutineers from the HMS Bounty hid in the 19th century. Too far south for a tropical climate, lacking coral reefs and perfect beaches, and whipped by perennial winds and seasonal downpours, Easter Island nonetheless possesses a rugged beauty—a mixture of geology and art, of volcanic cones and lava flows, steep cliffs and rocky coves. Its megalithic statues are even more imposing than the landscape, but there is a rich tradition of island arts in forms less solid than stone—in wood and bark cloth, strings and feathers, songs and dances, and in a lost form of pictorial writing called rongorongo, which has eluded every attempt to decipher it. A society of hereditary chiefs, priests, clans and guilds of specialized craftsmen lived in isolation for 1,000 years.

History, as much as art, made this island unique. But attempts to unravel that history have produced many interpretations and arguments. The missionary’s anecdotes, the archaeologist’s shovel, the anthropologist’s oral histories and boxes of bones have all revealed something of the island’s story. But by no means everything. When did the first people arrive? Where did they come from? Why did they carve such enormous statues? How did they move them and raise them up onto platforms? Why, after centuries, did they topple these idols? Such questions have been answered again and again, but the answers keep changing.

Over the past few decades, archaeologists have assembled evidence that the first settlers came from another Polynesian island, but they can’t agree on which one. Estimates of when people first reached the island are as varied, ranging from the first to the sixth century A.D. And how they ever found the place, whether by design or accident, is yet another unresolved question.

Some argue that the navigators of the first millennium could never have plotted a course over such immense distances without modern precision instruments. Others contend that the early Polynesians were among the world’s most skilled seafarers—masters of the night sky and the ocean’s currents. One archaeoastronomer suggests that a new supernova in the ancient skies may have pointed the way. But did the voyagers know the island was even there? For that, science has no answer. The islanders, however, do.

Benedicto Tuki was a tall 65-year-old master wood-carver and keeper of ancient knowledge when I met him. (Tuki has since died.) His piercing eyes were set in a deeply creased, mahogany face. He introduced himself as a descendant of the island’s first king, Hotu Matu’a, who, he said, brought the original settlers from an island named Hiva in the Marquesas. He claimed his grandmother was the island’s last queen. He would tell me about Hotu Matu’a, he said that day, but only from the center of the island, at a platform called Ahu Akivi with its seven giant statues. There, he could recount the story in the right way.

In Tuki’s native tongue, the island—like the people and the language—is called Rapa Nui. Platforms are called ahu, and the statues that sit on them, moai (pronounced mo-eye). As our jeep negotiated a rutted dirt road, the seven moai loomed into view. Their faces were paternal, all-knowing and human—forbiddingly human. These seven, Tuki said, were not watching over the land like those statues with their backs to the sea. These stared out beyond the island, across the ocean to the west, remembering where they came from. When Hotu Matu’a arrived on the island, Tuki added, he brought seven different races with him, which became the seven tribes of Rapa Nui. These moai represent the original ancestor from the Marquesas and the kings of other Polynesian islands. Tuki himself gazed into the distance as he chanted their names. “This is not written down,” he said. “My grandmother told me before she died.” His was the 68th generation, he added, since Hotu Matu’a.

Because of fighting at home, Tuki continued, chief Hotu Matu’a gathered his followers for a voyage to a new land. His tattooist and priest, Hau Maka, had flown across the ocean in a dream and seen Rapa Nui and its location, which he described in detail. Hotu Matu’a and his brother-in-law set sail in long double canoes, loaded with people, food, water, plant cuttings and animals. After a voyage of two months, they sailed into Anakena Bay, which was just as the tattooist had described it.


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