Easter Island: What Happened!

The demise of Easter Island's native civilization involved more than destruction of an isolated environment's fragile ecosystem.

Scholars are familiar with the “where,” “what,” and “how” of Easter Island’s past, and with its communities’ rise and fall in the confines of extreme isolation, but they are still grasping for the “why.” Throughout human history, communities have altered their surroundings to meet their needs. On Easter Island, however, it is theorized that overuse of an uncommon ecosystem in an extremely remote environment destroyed the society’s food chain. On a large landmass, people in this situation usually would move with the seasons or away from their neighbors’ hostility. Inversely, on islands, migrations are dependent on limited land and food collection zones that extend offshore. 

These observations apply to Easter Island, but are insufficient to answer its riddle without looking at the islanders’ belief structure. Not unlike events that shaped other cultures of the Pacific, the island’s past unfolds in the man-made belief in an “other world”. Together with this island’s singular isolation, however, its past ended grievously — an example of the collision of faith and nature in a confined environment. 

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Rapa Nui Ancestors ©georgefery.com

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Scholars and historians are familiar with the settlement of people on this isolated island, its archaeology, and the making of giant stone statues known as the Moai. Let’s examine the undercurrents that led to the society’s demise. Non-literate cultures recorded their histories in myths and folklore. The glyphs on rongorongo tablets discovered on the island unfortunately cannot be translated, for there are too few. The mythologized past, traditionally short on facts, leaves many gray areas in Easter Island’s historical record. The origin of the group that settled on Easter Island point to the Society Islands and the Tuamotu archipelago. People moved to the eastern Polynesian Triangle defined by Hawai’i and Easter Island probably around 850 to 950, and New Zealand (Aotearoa), in about 1200. The closest islands to Easter, such as Pitcairn, are 1300 miles to the northwest, while the South American continent is 2200 miles to the east. 

“Te Pito o Te Henua”: The End of the Land

Easter Island’s Polynesian name is Rapa Nui, as are the language and name of the people, although spelled in one word, Rapanui. The island singularity is that its society’s ecological collapse took place on sixty-seven square miles of a volcanic island in the middle of the South Pacific. Its three major volcanos, Teravaka, Poike, and Rano Kau, with seventy-three minor volcanic cones, are the witnesses to the geologically tumultuous birth of the island (there is no volcanic activity today). From the late thirteenth century, the isolation of the island had its people believe that they were at “te pito o te henua,” or “the end of the land” in Polynesian. The generations that followed the last wave of settlers didn’t see another human from outside the island for hundreds of years. They believed that they were the only living beings on earth, but for the seasonal migration of sea birds in time with the rising of the Pleiades and the Austral Solstice.

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Ahu Tahai ©georgefery.com

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On Rapa Nui, the giant Moai were believed to be the representations of ancestors, the departed heads of clans. In the mythic “other world,” these ancestors were believed to have received mana – the supernatural power over the natural world – from the paramount god Make’make, which they then passed on to their living descendants. Mana was entrusted to the Ariki Henua, or supreme religious leader and symbol of the island, Hotu Motu’a and to clan chiefs. Of note is that Hotu Motu’a was not a political ruler but the main mana holder for he received more to enforce prohibitions or taboos to benefit the community.

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With few exceptions, the Moais were erected on altars or stone platforms facing inland, with their backs to the ocean. This monumental architecture, also referred to as “image Ahu” (ahu meaning altar) developed around 1100-1200. With few exceptions, Moais represent male ancestors; all were named, and so were their altars. With their mana power, which the Moais received once the eyes were set in their sockets, they were believed to protect their descendants and resources. The carving of massive statues and erecting altars strengthened the importance of knowing the ancestry of each family, and the clan’s hierarchies. The increasing need to exhibit power and prestige through the Moai, however, eventually led clans to severely tax their environment through the felling of trees for their quarries, the building of altars, and the transport of statues overland, to the extent that people had to fight for basic resources, essentially wood and food.

But who qualified as an ancestor? As a rule, it was a senior male that traced his line of descent from the Ariki Mau Hotu Motu’a’s six sons. The island folklore tells us about a conflict in the Tuamotu archipelago when Hotu Motu’a, defeated in battle, escaped with his community from the mythic island of Hiva, and fled with his clan to Easter Island (details of the conflict remain uncertain, for the mythic island is unknown). As a rule, senior males who traced their line of descent from the Ariki Henua Hotu Motu’a’s six sons were considered “ancestors” for, when alive, they held significant resources or positions in their community. Ancestors became go-betweens in the “other world” with the paramount god Make’make. This wellspring of ancestral power was common in the mythological pantheon of most cultures of the Pacific. With such perception of life, the Rapanui people could not possibly come to terms with the cumulative cause and effect of their actions. In other words, they did not relate as modern minds do to the consequences of their actions, for they assigned those to a third party, the ancestors in the “other world. 

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Make’make ©wikipedia.org

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Make’make, however, is unknown elsewhere in the Pacific where, in Maori mythology, the gods Tangaroa, Tane, Tiki, and the goddess and first woman Hina, are believed to be in command of nature, fertility, the seas, and their creatures. Make’make can only be Ariki Henua Hotu Motu’a’s creation, with similar attributes to those of the Polynesian gods, and his dominion over its own Miru, the highest-ranking clan on Rapa Nui. Make’make was believed to command the climate, animal migrations from birds to fish, food crops and other life-sustaining needs. Furthermore, as mentioned before, the god was believed to be the sole master and dispenser of mana, which he granted or withheld at will through the ancestors. No success or failure, from nature’s rewards to joy or sadness, well-being, or deprivation, could happen in this world without mana. As with all human societies, spiritual guidance was needed beyond that of secular authority, and Make’make was Hotu Motu’a’s answer to that need. Depictions of Make’make are found on petroglyphs and ceremonial dance paddles that show the simple circular outline of a human face with round eyes, a nose, but no mouth. 

Hare Paenga and Manava

Hare Paenga and Manavai ©georgefery.com

The plain surrounding Rano Raraku’s volcano is where 95% of the Moai were carved and, from earliest times, one of the most densely populated districts on the island. Treister, Vargas Casanova and Cristino underline that “Building large altars or platforms and carving of Moais required extensive manpower mobilization of all clans and socio-economic segments, from farmhands to carvers, support services and housing for workers and their families(2). So, how, and where did people live? Clan leaders and their families settled in the Ceremonial Zone on the periphery. There were long houses, called hare paenga in the Rapanui language for their elliptical shape, fifty to sixty feet long and about ten feet wide, reminiscent of an up-turned boat. In the Coastal and Interior zones there were simpler pole and thatched houses underlining a complex social stratification. Numerous caves inherited from the island volcanic past were also used on the coast as dwellings by fishermen and their families. Larger caves inland were fitted to accommodate several families as refuge during periods of social unrest and wars.

Cooking took place outside, while several yards away from the dwelling were the chicken coop and the manavai or garden, where edible plants were grown in two- to three-foot-deep holes covered with lava rocks. The rocks sheltered a sunken garden where small plants were cultivated; larger plants were grown in three-to five-foot-high rock enclosures above ground. The function of the manavai was to protect the plants from extreme weather and winds in a weakened environment, for trees had already been greatly depleted on the island by the mid-to-late-1600s. Known as lithic mulch agriculture, the manavai was a way to trap humidity in the soil to slow its dissipation to the winds and the sun. The manavai is indicative of the islander’s awareness of their precarious environment. It is believed that a sharp population decline through famine and wars took place during the mid-1600s. 

At its peak, the Easter Island population is estimated to have reached about six thousand souls and fell to about half that number at the beginning of what is known as the Decadent Period (1680-1722). Several factors account for the precipitous decline. As Englert remarks, the Rapanui, like other people in similar exacting circumstances, “tend to see ritual requirements as an integral part of their natural environment. This perception stresses that neglect of ritual duties was believed to cause imbalance in the natural world and that imbalance could only be righted by extending and increasing ritual behavior” (1970). Furthermore, the record shows, according to Edwards, “that the Rapanui used firewood for fuel from 1300 to 1650, but switched to grasses and ferns after that date, an obvious indication that there were less forested areas at that time” (2013).

Van Tilburg notes that “the Decadent/Restructure Phase of the island’s prehistory intensified land use, continued deforestation and probable soil depletion that interacted to produce increasing events of crop failure” (1994). To answer their severe environment, concurrent with constant social strife due to food scarcity, the Rapanui needed to find other ways to deal with reality, but that implied a shift to new values, as Cristino underlines “not as an immediate adoption of new religious concepts, but rather as a rejection of the perceived failed ones(2). Since their environment did not improve despite prayers and pleas to ancestors, ritual behavior was given priority over reality, for the Rapanui were unable to overcome the ancestor factor deeply rooted in their lives. 

At Orongo, on the rim of the extinct Rano Kau volcano, a cult known as tangata manu, or “Birdman,” rose to the challenge of the perceived ancestors’ failure. The Birdman cult coexisted with the Moai cult on their respective sanctuaries, Rano Raraku and Rano Kau, from the early-fifteenth or sixteenth century. Although, as Edwards notes “while the Ancestor Cult deified ancestors represented by statues, the Birdman Cult had a man become the living, breathing medium to communicate with the gods” (2013). At that time, the two cults were reciprocal rather than antagonistic, for even though the Rapanui stopped building statues toward the end of the 1600s, they continued worshipping their ancestors. The rise of the Birdman cult is associated with matato’a leaders, also called tangata rima toto or “men with bloody hands,” who had superseded the socio-political and spiritual dominance of the long-standing Ariki led clans. The cult’s aggressive effort aimed to eliminate the intercession of the ancestors with Make’make in the belief structure and replace it with a direct appeal to the paramount god. 

Relentless Winds and Sun

The sixty-three square mile Easter Island is the only landmark in over a million square miles of the South Pacific, with no other landmass to slow the winds. The thirty-seven low and small Sala y Gomez Islands group, 243 miles to the northeast and home to frigates and sooty terns, among other seabirds, are not windbreakers. *Easter Island’s subtropical latitude lies twenty-seven degrees south of the Equator. It is a dry and cool climate that did not allow for the type of tropical crops important elsewhere in Polynesia, such as bread fruit and coconuts; the latter, introduced in modern times, grows poorly on Easter Island. In a depleted environment, the forces of the sun and the wind were intensely destructive. 

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Easter Island ©ESA-European Space Agency

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Archaeobotany supports a historical record that, upon arrival of the Ariki Henua Hotu Motu’a and his people, the island was a sub-tropical forest covered by the massive coccoid sixty-foot-tall Chilean Wine Palm (Jubea chilensis). This is made evident by underground channels cut by its roots and baby coconut remains found in lava tubes, pocked by Polynesian rat teeth marks. The rodent (Rattus exulans), a stowaway from the first settlers, found an ideal habitat for travel in the underground network of lava tubes; there were no predators at that time that could have checked the rodents’ proliferation.

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Rano Kau Crater ©georgefery.com

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Other large trees, together with smaller species, among which was the endemic eight-to-ten-foot high Toromiro (Sophora toromiro), bushes, and undergrowth plants, provided an environment that allowed large flocks of migrating sea birds, insects, and other life forms to thrive. Annual rainfall averaged forty-five inches, but “water from the rains quickly filtered below a porous volcanic soil to the extensive network of lava tubes that crisscross the island underground, draining rainwater in the ocean at low tide (2). It was impossible to retain topsoil humidity without shade and wind protection. 

There were few water sources on the island. Water was accumulated in crater lakes from which small springs, such as on the slopes of volcanos, irregularly sprouted. Islanders carved stone catch basins, called taheta, to collect rainwater. Small wells were hand dug on the coast to collect rainwater before it emptied into the ocean; it often mixed with sea water. It was impossible to retain topsoil humidity without shade and wind protection. As their environment deteriorated, the islanders did work at finding ways to protect their shrinking ecosystem to grow their food; the manavai, or volcanic rock-covered garden, was one of their solutions. 

Recent studies show that from the seventeenth century increasing scarcity multiplied internal conflicts for the control of important and rapidly vanishing resources, such as wood, worsening an already severe fracture in their society. Their belief in an inexhaustible bounty had dramatic consequences. Large birds avoided the island, for their nesting habitat had shrunk dramatically, and their eggs were depleted by scavenging people, so they flew to the Marquesas and beyond. Fish and shellfish made a smaller contribution to the islander’s diet, as found in their kitchen middens. People realized that the ancestors had failed them and that Make’make had turned its back on their ancestors in the “other world” by withholding its mana. The ecological disaster, however, could not be assigned to clan leaders alone. The Rapanui could not understand that they were the ones responsible for an ecological disaster that even the unblinking eyes of the Moais were unable to foresee. 

To meet their worsening environment and concurrent community challenges, as Englert notes, “the Rapanui needed to find other ways to grasp with reality that implied a shift to new values, not as an immediate adoption of new religious concepts, but rather as a rejection of the perceived failed ones” (1970). The Birdman cult stood for such a shift, initiated by matato’a leaders, the “men with bloody hands,” that superseded the socio-political and spiritual dominance of the long-standing Ariki-led clans. The Birdman cult brought down the Moais to cut off the ancestors’ mana to their living inheritors and assert the warrior groups’ political power. Studies place the shift away from the Moai cult and the toppling of the giant statues toward the end of the eighteenth century for, by then, the cult had lost most of its political and religious credibility, even though the Rapanui continued worshipping their ancestors.

On Rano Kau’s crater there are petroglyphs of the Birdman represented as part man from the neck down, with the head and beak of a frigate bird (Fregata magnificent), a representation that prevailed before the shift to the sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus). Both birds were referred to as manutara. The reason for the shift from the frigate to the sooty tern in the late part of the eighteenth century points to the fact that the frigates eggs and chicks in the traditional nesting habitats on the slopes of the Poike volcano were depleted by islanders. Edwards explains that “birds were very important to Polynesians, especially those of black and white plumage. Migratory birds, however, were most revered for their ability to transit between the worlds of the living and the dead. In seventeenth to eighteenth century Rapa Nui, these beliefs converged to form a religious cult specifically honoring Make’make, known as the Birdman Cult. While the Ancestor Cult deified ancestors represented by statues, the Birdman Cult had a man become the living, breathing medium to communicate with the gods” (1974)

The Rise of the Birdman Cult

The “Birdman” cult was at Orongo, on the crest of Rano Kau. Three islets offshore—Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kau Kau. The largest, Motu Nui at nine square miles, was the focus of the cult’s rituals. For their habitat, the sooty terns were content with a more rugged environment than frigates. The birds nested on the rocky islet of Motu Nui to protect their eggs and chicks from the islanders. At Orongo, a contest was held for which contestants and clan leaders were housed in semi-buried oval stone slab structures, dedicated to the clans, and used only once a year for the race. 

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The Islets ©georgefery.com

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The contestants were tasked with returning the “first” egg of the manutara to their clan chief. In the southern corner, at Mata N’garau near the crater’s south rim facing the ocean, were hare nui, stone houses built for the prophets and priests, known as Tumu Ivi Atua, and for the healers and spell casters, the Tangata Taku. Each priest was associated with one of the clans; they would monitor the race while pleading with Make’make and their respective beneficent and malevolent deities for the safety of their team or the demise of opponents. 

There could be no general scramble for so solemn an event, we are told. Only those who belonged to select Ao clans which were in ascendancy at the time of the race, could compete. This selection gave rise, as expected, to anger and the conflict was often settled by war. Ana Kai Tangata or the “cave where men are eaten,” near Mataveri on the lower slopes of the volcano, was the place where contestants from the dominant clans were selected for the race. The privilege of obtaining the first egg was a matter of competition between the members of the Ao, but the right to compete was only secured by supernatural means among which were supplications to the ancestors and, foremost, to Make’make. Clan chiefs selected men among their servants, known as “hopu manu” or “servants of the birds” to represent them in the race. 

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The race is on. ©georgefery.com

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Those hopu manu were tasked to go down the 986-foot nearly vertical wall of the crater, wet with sea spray, to the rocky pounding surf below. They then swam about a mile, through swift currents on a pora or totora reed float to the furthest islet, Motu Nui. On each float were carried provisions for a week’s (or more) stay on the nine-square-mile islet, waiting for the arrival of the birds toward the end of September. The “servants of the birds” lived together in a cave whose entrance was concealed by grass. The cries of the approaching of tens of thousands of birds were heard while the flocks were still miles away from the islet. Given their large number, many birds hatched within a close period. The task of the hopu manu was to bring back the “first” egg of the manutara or sooty tern, unbroken, to his clan chief, who would be waiting on the volcano’s rim. Once an egg was secured, the “servant of the birds” placed it in a small reed basket tied to his forehead and, on his totora reed float in a pounding surf, made his way back to the main island. He then climbed the rocky south wall to the rim of the volcano and handed over the egg to his clan chief. The first to receive an intact egg became tangata manu (tangata-man, manu-bird) or Birdman for that year. 

Together with the title, the chief was granted sacred status, the pride of his clan. Trester, Vargas Casanova and Cristino point out that “At that time, the clan chief whose champion had won, shaved his head, brows, and lashes in preparation for the festivities. Then he went down to Mataveri and from there was led in procession to a boat house (hare paenga), located on the southwest exterior slope of the Rano Raraku volcano, where he remained in seclusion for one year.” Furthermore, “through the Birdman cult, the warriors managed to surpass the traditional authority of the ariki. Not only did they obtain political power, but they acquired an eminent religious position, generating a new sociopolitical organization that was maintained into the historic period.(2013).

The stakes of the competition were high indeed, for the rules granted the winning chief absolute power over all clans and their resources for that year. But not all clans accepted the outcome of the race, and those that did not were “convinced” by force. For some, clashes lasted the whole year of the Tangata Manu’s tenure. Was the Birdman cult a substitute for the Moai? The answer is no; for it never pretended to be. Even though the Birdman cult was believed to be sanctioned by Make’make, the ancestor factor was missing. The Moai was personal, while the Birdman was collective, even though associated with an “other world” deeply rooted in traditions and beliefs of all islanders. 

As in the past, however, the Birdman rituals were a call to the “other world” to understand their environmental collapse perceived to be the consequences of neglect in ritual and binding duties. The Birdman cult had severed the Moai link with the ancestors in the intercession with the natural world, essentially with food. By shifting those duties away from the ancestors identified with the Moai, it was believed that Make’make would release its mana directly to Birdman chiefs. Again, as with the Moai, the belief that imbalance in the natural world could be righted by increasing ritual behavior persisted and could only result in the same outcome. Predictably, the Birdman cult could not address the dreadful island-wide environment, which had reached a point of no return. At the time of the arrival of men from an unknown world, who came in huge ships and belonged to an entirely different plane of existence, the cult’s political influence was in decline.

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The End of a World ©georgefery.com

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The islander’s first contact with the outside world was with the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Sunday 1722. Roggeveen was followed within a few years by inquisitive discoverers and adventurers. In December 1862 Peruvian slave raiders visited the island. The raiders captured over 1,500 men and women, or half the estimated population at the time, while others hid in their caves. Persistent public outcry by the bishop of Tahiti, together with the French government, compelled the Peruvian authorities to return about 300 Rapanui to their island. Most of the kidnapped islanders had died of diseases on the continent, and there were only about thirty who landed on the island, for most died in transit. In the late nineteenth century, the first European science-driven visitors, as well as other travelers, estimated the island’s population to be a few hundred people. Their observations were supported by field investigations of gardens (manavai), and the extent of cultures of sweet potatoes, yams, sugar cane and bananas. At the close of the nineteenth century, however, based on William Thompson’s 1889 census, Easter islanders numbered only 114 souls. 

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Cover Image, Top Left: Ask-mediendesign, Pixabay  

References in Text from:

  1. Van Tilburg, Jo Anne, 1994 – Easter Island Archaeology, Ecology, and Culture
  2. Treister K., Vargas Casanova P., & Cristino C., 2013 – Easter Island’s Silent Sentinels
  3. Father Englert, S., 1970 – Island at the Center of the World
  4. Thompson, William, J., 1891 – Te Pito Te Henua or Easter Island
  5. Edwards Edmundo & Alexandra, 2013When the Universe was an Island

Further Reading:

Heyerdahl, T., 1957 – Aku-Aku

Heyerdahl T., 1975 – The Art of Easter Island

Jennings, J. D. – 1979 – The Prehistory of Polynesia

J. Macmillan Brown, 1924 – The Riddle of the Pacific

Noury A. & Galipaud, J-Ch., 2011 – Les Lapita, Nomades du Pacifique

Routledge, K., 1919 – The Mystery of Easter Island

Sand C., & Connaughton S. P., 2007 – Oceanic Explorations, Lapita, and Western Pacific Settlement

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Freelance writer, researcher and photographer, Georges Fery (georgefery.com) addresses topics from history, culture, and beliefs to daily living of ancient and today’s indigenous societies of the Americas. His articles are published online at travelthruhistory.com, ancient-origins.net and popular-archaeology.com, and in the quarterly magazine Ancient American (ancientamerican.com). In the U.K. his articles are found in mexicolore.co.uk. The author is a fellow of the Institute of Maya Studies instituteofmayastudies.org, Miami, FL and The Royal Geographical Society, London, U.K. (rgs.org). He is a member in good standing with the Maya Exploration Center, Austin, TX (mayaexploration.org) the Archaeological Institute of America, Boston, MA (archaeological.org), NFAA-Non Fiction Authors Association (nonfictionauthrosassociation.com) and the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. (americanindian.si.edu).

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