Much of the history of Easter Island is still in the dark. It is believed that Polynesians settled on the Pacific Island for the first time around the year 500 AD. In the 14th century, there may have been a second colonization. Legend has it that the legendary King Hotu Matua used to lead his followers from the West to Rapa Nui.
The oldest painting of the Easter Island, by William Hodges around the year 1775
Photo: CC0, Wikimedia Commons
At that time, millions of palm trees still covered the island's surface and the fertile land could supply numerous inhabitants. Over the centuries, a unique but isolated high culture developed here, in the center of which were the "moai". These colossal statues with oversized heads were scattered all over the island on intricately crafted ceremonial platforms, the "ahu". Here the Rapanui worshiped their ancestors and important chiefs. Besides, the ahu probably also served as burial places. The moai always stood with their backs to the sea and looked over the village to which the respective structure belonged.
How the up to 32ft-high figures were created, is now quite well researched: About 400 moai in various stages of completion can be found at the Rano Raraku crater in the east of the island. Using simple tools, they were knocked out of the soft tuff on the crater wall and carefully lowered on ropes.
But how they got to their final destination is not as clear. Maybe the Polynesians rolled the giant stone statues over the island on tree trunks. That would explain why there are no palm forests on Easter Island anymore. Another theory is that the moai were literally “walked” into place via rocking motions.
The downfall of Easter Island's culture
On Easter Sunday in 1722, the Dutch navigator Jakob Roggeveen was the first European to arrive on the island. After the day of the discovery, he named it "Easter Island". By that time, however, the indigenous people's rich culture had already almost disappeared: instead of palm groves, he found a barren volcanic island; many of the moai had been knocked down and destroyed.
Maybe it was an ecological catastrophe, triggered by the loss of trees, which caused the downfall of the Easter Island culture. Possible reasons are also violent conflicts between different tribes or a newly emerging religion that supplanted the old traditions. We might never be able to figure out why the high culture of the Rapanui came to an end – but maybe that's just what makes Easter Island such a fascinating travel destination.