“The stone images at first caused us to be struck with astonishment,” explorer Jacob Roggeveen wrote in 1722, shortly after he and his fellow Dutch mariners discovered Easter Island, “because we could not comprehend how it was possible that these people, who are devoid of heavy thick timber for making any machines, as well as strong ropes, nevertheless had been able to erect such images, which were fully 3o ft. high and thick in proportion.” Roggeveen was only the first visitor to marvel at the massive, mystifying totems of this island civilization. This 63-sq.-mi. scrap of land—which the Dutch christened for the feast day when they made landfall—seems stranded in the vast Pacific: it lies 2,237 miles west of Chile and 1,290 miles east of the nearest Polynesian isle, Pitcairn Island. Spooked by the island’s remoteness (it is the most isolated human outpost on earth) and the harsh desolation of its surface, visitors have long proposed supernatural or extraterrestrial origins for the haunting moai, the natives’ name for the hundreds of eerie, monolithic statues that dot its hillsides. The island poses a quartet of questions. Who settled it? Who built the moai? What technology did they employ? And what happened to the builders? In the loth century, Norwegian marine biologist Thor Heyerdahl insisted, against all evidence, that Easter’s inhabitants must have come from South America, rather than Polynesia. And without much evidence whatsoever, Swiss writer Erich von Daniken of Chariot of the Gods fame was sure the moai had been carved by stranded space travelers who were later rescued. Other scientists’ answers are less exotic—and more disturbing. The landmass its natives call Rapa Nui (“Great Island,” in the Polynesian language) emerged from the waves in a series of volcanic eruptions that began some 3 million years ago. Through the ages that followed, the nine-mile-wide island was inhabited only by seabirds and insects. Then, around A.D. 900, Polynesian mariners found it. Located more than two-thirds of the way between the Polynesian islands and South America, Easter Island would mark the eastward limit of Polynesian expansion. The first settlers, a party perhaps a few dozen strong, came upon a verdant paradise that included a now extinct
variety of palm tree that was the tallest in the world, growing to more than 6o ft., with a trunk that could reach 7 ft. in diameter. These trees provided wood from which to make canoes (fishing supported the population), as well as timber that could be used to slide large pieces of stone. The islanders fashioned rope from palm bark, using it to hoist the statues, the heaviest of which weigh more than So tons. Generations of the island’s growing population began carving the moaiout of volcanic rock around A.D. moo. The figures appear to have been dedicated to revered ancestors and chiefs, who were worshiped as gods, and were positioned to stand watch over the territories of the squabbling tribes into which the descendants of the island’s colonizers were dividing. But this small, sea-girded land offered no frontier. And its life-supporting palm trees may have numbered no more than loo,000. As the population swelled to an estimated peak of about 15,000 around the year 15oo, the need for more fishing boats, more fuel for cooking fires and more timber and rope for transporting and erecting the moai led to rapid deforestation. Once the trees were gone, it was no longer possible to fish or build fires. Farming became untenable because topsoil, no longer sheltered by trees or anchored by roots, blew away in the wind. The inhabitants appear to have continued building their monoliths for as long as they could. Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, interprets the work as a series of increasingly desperate pleas for help from powerful ancestors. Indeed, mute testimony to the suddenness of the disaster is provided by the moai themselves: hundreds of the statues, in various stages of completion, lie inside the volcanic cinder cone where the rock was quarried. The work site gives the appearance of having been abandoned on short notice. Faced with desperate scarcity, the island’s tribes went to war with one another. The conquerors appear to have resorted to cannibalism. By the time Roggeveen arrived, little more than two centuries after the island’s glory days, its population had dropped to some 2,000 people, most of whom were living in caves. The survivors could no longer remember who had erected the moo, much less how or why.