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The Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture

Easter Island - The Statues and Rock Art of Rapa Nui

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The population was exceeding the capacity of its environment. Its blind devotion to religion had depleted Easter Island's resources of wood and rope. It was simply no longer possible to move the Moai statues from the quarry, so the carving gradually ceased. Pollen counts of the giant Palm trees in the crater lake silt beds show that the trees disappeared by about AD 1500. There is also no sign of Mulberry pollen from which rope was made. The extravagant use of resources may have been exacerbated by the El Niño drought documented at this time. Deforestation had become a very real problem. Did these changes render the ruling class impotent, leaving way for a new warring culture, a new regime? The society was in turmoil, and a record of the subsequent European encounters not only chronicles the rapid decline of the Rapa Nui culture, but perhaps also explains it.

easter island
1774 James Cook
In 1722, when the Dutch navigator Roggeveen visited Easter Island on Easter day, he observed that the coastal moai were standing, but his drawings show no coral eyes. The population was an estimated 8000. Fifty-two years later, the population had dropped to an estimated 3000 by the time that Captain James Cook visited Rapa Nui in 1774. He reported that most of the Moai statues were standing, but that there were no trees over 10 feet in height. In 1821, Captain Thomas Raine, sailing out of Australia in the Surrey, noted the complete absence of canoes although many inhabitants swam out to meet the ship, confirming earlier reports of the lack of seaworthy canoes.

But 1862 saw a visit of a different nature. In December of that year, eight Peruvian ships landed and captured some 1000 Easter Islanders, including the king, his son, and the ritual priests. The fact that the priests were taken may indicate that there was no longer any one left to teach the religious customs and conduct their ceremonies. The captured islanders - some 2000 of them - were sold into slavery in Peru. Ninety percent of the Rapanui died within one or two years of capture.
easter island
1722 coastal Moai were standing
easter island
1774 no trees over 10 feet in height
In 1865, the Bishop of Tahiti caused a public outcry and an embarrassed Peru rounded up the few survivors to return them. A shipload headed to Easter Island, but smallpox broke out en route and only 15 reached the island alive. The resulting smallpox epidemic nearly wiped out the remaining population.

1868 saw the entire social order of Easter Island collapse, there were no more standing Moai statues on the ahu. In 1877, only 110 impoverished and disheartened inhabitants remained. In 1890, islanders were given the option of moving to Tahiti to work in the plantations. Some 300 Rapanui went willingly, as life on the island had become miserable.

Conclusion by Dr Georgia Lee


Dr Georgia Lee
Stories concerning the collapse of past civilizations due to the overuse of natural resources and overpopulation are well-known. From the early civilizations in the 'fertile crescent' of the Near East to small island nations, history tells us how man has trashed his land and, in most cases, left for greener pastures when desert replaced cropland and orchards.

But on Easter Island, once the trees were cut down, the islanders no longer could build a canoe and sail onward, looking for another island in the sea. They were trapped in a degraded environment, and then further impacted by European explorers who brought disease and, in many cases, outright death.

Easter island is so small that it can be seen in its entirety from its highest mountain; whomever cut down the last tree on the island had to know that it WAS the last tree. But he cut it down anyway.

The history of Rapa Nui was played out on a small island and it serves well as a metaphor for our earth today. It is hard to comprehend a mentality that ignores such things as bulldozing  rainforests in the Amazon - for short-term gain, and seas that are being over-harvested. Mankind has learned very little from the past. The island called Easter has become a metaphor for our time. Only by understanding the past and altering present behavior can "earth island" avoid the dreadful fate of Rapa Nui.


Easter Island Introduction
Sentinels in Stone - Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture | Page | 1 | 2 | 3 |
The Rock Art of Easter Island
The Birdman Cult / Motif of Easter Island
Sea & Marine Creatures in Easter Island Rock Art
Designs & Motifs of Easter Island's Rock Petroglyph Carvings
Dr Georgia Lee - Publications on Easter Island
Moai Location Map & Islanders
Contemporary Easter Island Art
Easter Island Glossary
Easter Island Conclusion

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