The Mysterious Easter Island
Life on an isolated Pacific island is eternally poised on a knife-edge. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the single most remote island in the Pacific—Easter Island. This tiny 1)speck of land has an extraordinary story to tell, with new twists turning up still to this day.
Just 20 kilometers long and 11 kilometers wide, Easter Island rises like a fortress from the waves, surrounded by thousands of kilometers of ocean in every direction.
People first arrived here less than one thousand years ago; most of what we know about their civilization can only be pieced together from the relics that remain. It is a strange and 2)desolate place. The most striking features in this 3)bleak and windswept landscape are the hundreds of giant stone statues, known as moai, thought to be carved in the likeness of chiefs or ancestors.
It’s difficult to believe that an advanced culture, capable of carving and erecting these 4)monoliths, grew up in such a barren landscape. The truth is, it didn’t. When those first colonizers discovered Easter Island, this was a paradise.
These empty cliffs were once home to the largest seabird colonies in the South Pacific. Rich volcanic soils nourished a forest of giant palms that was home to many unique species, including Easter Island versions of 5)herons, parrots, 6)rails and owls. Today, they are all gone. The people ultimately didn’t do much better: the rise and tragic demise of the Easter Islanders, the Rapa Nui, is now legendary.
This 7)quarry once occupied the majority of the island’s workforce, thousands of people, with each clan trying to carve and raise a bigger, grander figure than those of their neighbors. Vast amounts of 8)timber would have been required to transport and erect the giant moai, and slowly but surely, the forests vanished. As resources 9)dwindled, Easter Island society descended into chaos and warfare. The giant statues were pulled to the ground, possibly acts of sabotage between rival clans.
Houses were abandoned and the foundation stones used to construct 10)fortified 11)dwellings in caves underground. Some evidence even suggests that once everything edible had been consumed, the starving were driven to that most desperate of acts: 12)cannibalism.
Understandably this version of Easter Island’s history remains controversial because it suggests the Rapa Nui were incredibly short-sighted. As the trees dwindled, why did they do nothing about it?
But a new theory suggests the Rapa Nui were powerless to prevent their downfall, for when they arrived on this island, they were not alone. Rats traveled with people to every corner of the Pacific. On Easter Island, their impact may have been 13)catastrophic: 14)multiplying to 15)plague proportions they would have 16)devoured the wild fruits, the seabirds, even the nuts of the giant palms, so that the trees may have stopped reproducing long before the last one was felled. Perhaps the fate of Easter Island was not 17)sealed by the human who felled that last tree, but by the rat that ate the last palm nut.
Other South Pacific islands have also seen civilizations rise and fall, though none have left such dramatic reminders of their passing as the giant statues of the Rapa Nui. Now re-erected, they’ve come to symbolize how precarious life can be on an isolated island. For this island has not been abandoned, a few Rapa Nui survived and now they’re thriving once more, entertaining visitors from the outside world. Trees have been planted, though it’s too late for the unique creatures that once lived here.