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Cambridge Dictionary (2020) defines mystery as, “something strange or not known that has not yet been explained or understood.” The world that people live in has a lot of mysteries that are still unsolved. What really happened to Amelia Earhart? How was Stonehenge formed? These are just some of the mysteries that many people have been asking, and naturally, it has piqued the interest of many archaeologists and anthropologists to look for answers. One of the most popular mysteries ever asked is about Easter Island.
The presence of the stone heads have made it a peculiar site for many, and many people have discussed about the probable origins of these statues, as well as the story of the people who made them.
Easter Island is located in the South Pacific Ocean about 2,300 miles from the west coast of Chile, and 2,500 miles from Tahiti’s east. The earliest people of the island knew it as Rapa Nui, but when the Dutch explorers arrived in 1722, they christened it as Paaseiland, which is translated as Easter Island.
In the late 19th century, Chile seized the island. The economy of the island is mainly based on its tourism. The most knowing feature of the island is the presence of giant stone statues that amount to almost 900 in total, and they go back for many centuries. The statues show that those who built them are skilled engineers and craftsmen. The features are unique compared to other Polynesian works. Many stories surround the reason why the statues were built, as well as their roles among the ancient peoples who lived on the island.
Many have also speculated on how the statues were taken and built on the island (History.com Editors 2009).
When the Dutch arrived, the navigator named Jacob Roggeveen reported that there were a few thousand inhabitants on the island during that time. He described that the island had abundant potatoes, sugarcane, and potatoes. However, he did not know that at the peak of the island’s time, an estimated 15,000-20,000 inhabitants were on Rapa Nui according to scholars. Palm trees once gave shade to the hills, but now, only low-lying vegetation can be found. Scholars say one thing about the island: it looks very different now from what it used to (Lem 2017).
Also known as Isla de Pascua in Spanish (Caviedes and Heyerdahl 1998), Easter Island is considered the most isolated among all the other Polynesian islands. People from different tribes with different cultures live there, and along with the geography and history, Easter Island offers a unique environment (Marca Chile 2017). As of 2017, the population on the island was about 5,000. Thousands of tourists flock to the island annually to see the “moai” statues. The population continues to rise, and the people continue to face problems like the lack of a sewer system and a limited supply of freshwater (Lem 2017). It is also near a “trash vortex” that is located at the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, and the debris keeps on floating towards the shores of the island (Brown and Fritz 2018).
This isolated island has always piqued the interest of many experts. The monolithic statues that grace various parts of the island has made the island famous, as well as mysterious. Another thing that makes people curious is how did the big population of the island dwindle and finally collapse (Lem 2017). People are fascinated as to how the monoliths could have been moved, as they are massive in size.
The best evidence that the original settlers had a vibrant culture is the presence of almost 900 stone statues found in different parts of the island. The stone statues, called as “moai”, have an average height of 4 meters and a weight of about 13 tons. They are carved out of a porous rock called tuff and are placed on stone platforms known as ahus, which had ceremonial purposes (History.com Editors 2009). Many scholars say that the moai were made as a way of honoring important people, chiefs, or ancestors. This is still vastly contested as the original settlers of the island did not have any written history and very little oral literature (National Geographic 2018). It is mind-boggling to think that people who were from stone-age era were able to skillfully carve out the statues and transport them from one place to another on the island. In May 2012, archaeological experts found out that the moai actually had bodies (Flying and Travel 2020).
Due to the massive number of moai, experts have debated over the years that the number of inhabitants were more than what the Dutch saw when they arrived. Could it really be that there were more people before the Dutch arrived? A popular theory by the geographer Jared Diamond is believed to be the answer. His “ecocide” hypothesis states that the Rapa Nui were greedy people and depleted all of the natural resources in the island. There was massive deforestation, and they ate all of the food. Those who wanted to leave to look for food could not build boats as they did not have enough trees to build them. Due to the dwindling resources, the people started fighting among themselves for the remaining items. There was war and cannibalism, which resulted to the reduced number of people. This was what many people believed and served as a story to teach people nowadays about what could happen if resources become scarce and the environment is destroyed (Jarman 2017).
People believed the theory that the islanders met their unfortunate demise because of infighting and the dwindling amount of natural resources (Strickland 2018). According to a newer study, the Europeans merely assumed that there must have been more people before they arrived because of the number of moai. There is no concrete evidence that there were more people on the island at one time, but they just assumed that the only way to explain why there are so many statues is to say that the feat required a big population (Newitz 2016). The ecocide hypothesis has two main points: 1) the population diminished from tens of thousands of people to a measly 1,500 to 3,000 people when the Dutch arrived, and 2) in order to move the statues, the Rapa Nui haphazardly resorted to deforestation, which led to many ecological problems, such as soil erosion. As resources started becoming scarce, the people started fighting and cannibalism. Many archaeologists say that the number of people may be estimated to be somewhere between four to nine thousand people (Jarman 2017). However, a study conducted in 2017 on agricultural yields in Easter Island may suggest that the island could have possibly supported a population amassing up to fifteen thousand people (Puleston et al 2017).
Experts in the past that found remnants of “weapons” that were used during the wars of the people, called mata’a, which were stemmed obsidian points. This is the traditional explanation of how the ancient people Rapa Nui diminished in number. Morphometric analysis of a group of experts (Lipo et al 2016), however, discovered that they were not exactly used as warfare equipment. Instead, they were used for general work, such as fulfillment of rituals and the like. The chemical analysis of the stone tools also showed that the Rapa Nui people were good team members and they were sophisticated in their ways. The skillful craftsmanship of the statues spoke volumes about the cooperation between crafting groups and families (Strickland 2018).
Lipo and his colleagues (2016) closely studied hundreds of the obsidian fragments. If those were used for war, then the shape should be pointed so as to pierce flesh. Lipo and his colleagues did not see that quality in the mata’a that they had. War weapons would most likely have the same shape, but the ones they had showed a range of different shapes. Most of them would be very terrible if used for war purposes. They were shaped mostly like spades, which meant that they were too wide to pierce through skin. The signs of wear and tear on the blades coincided with patterns that were usual for domestic tasks such as farming or scraping animal hide. The mata’a that they found scattered around were not from war- they were remnants of rakes and hoes (Newitz 2016). Only 2.5% of the human remains showed that they were injured, and most showed signs that they were healing. This meant that the injury inflicted on them were not death blows. There is also no known evidence that the people then were cannibals, except for oral literature (Jarman 2017). Because the population was small, it is possible that they were able to thrive with fishing and agriculture. Roggeveen even reported that when they arrived, the island had an abundance of food (Newitz 2016). This could explain why most of the mata’a studied by archeologists were mainly farming tools.
So, how did the number of people further diminish after the Dutch arrived? It is believed that when slavery was institutionalized, the population was decimated (Strickland 2018). The Europeans also brought along with them diseases such as the plague and smallpox, which halved the number of people in just a short period of time (Newitz 2016).
As for the massive statues, how were they transported from one place to another? Prior assumptions say that there used to be a lot of people on the island who built all of those. According to Lipo and other experts (Hunt and Lipo 2012), the number that greeted the Europeans was actually a normal number of people for an island that size. They were able to show how the statues could have been made by just mere hundreds of people. They used techniques that were actually common among people during their time. Lipo and his colleagues tested their hypothesis and constructed a replica of a moai to show how the ancient people moved it. They made the statue rock from one side to the other, to make it seem like it is “walking”. The experiment proved that the object being transported was built in such a way for ease and with just a handful of people (Lipo et al 2013). As for the location where the ahu are placed, a study was conducted that explained that they may have been used to mark that there are freshwater sources nearby. When compared to any other place in Polynesia, the soil on Rapa Nui is leached and poor in nutrients. Though there are some sources of freshwater (lakes found within the craters of the volcanoes), the island does not have other pertinent sources of surface freshwater, like permanent streams which are commonly found on other islands (DiNapoli et al 2019).
Easter Island holds a lot of mysteries and that adds to the allure of the place. However, it is important to differentiate fact from fiction. For many years, the original Rapa Nui settlers were blamed for their own demise, but recent studies have shown that these were just mere assumptions. The islanders were very collaborative people, and the arrival of the Europeans have impacted their lives in a big way. The moais still stand tall up to this day to show the Rapa Nui’s ingenuity as a people.
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