The mysterious and remote Easter Island
One of the most remote inhabited in the world is Easter Island, 164 square kilometer volcanic rock that today is a special territory of Chile.
It was discovered by the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen on 5th of April 1722. The expedition came in contact with the Polynesian inhabitants of the island which the natives called “Rapa Nui”. However, the Dutchman decided to call it Paaseiland (Easter Island) because they arrived there during Easter.
Approximately half a century later the Spanish viceroy of Peru, Manuel Amat, sent an expedition to the island and claimed it for the Spanish throne. By then the island’s population had dropped to 2,000–3,000, as estimated by the expedition, from an estimated high of approximately 15,000 just a century earlier.
By that time, 21 species of trees and all species of land birds went extinct through some combination of overharvesting and overhunting, rat predation, and climate change. The island was largely deforested, and it did not have any trees more than 3 meters tall. European diseases and Peruvian slave raiding in the 1860s further reduced the Rapa Nui population, to a low of only 111 inhabitants in 1877. In 1888 Chile annexed it. According to the 2012 Chilean census, the island has about 5,800 residents.
The first settlers
It is still a mystery how the Polynesians were able to traverse the vast watery expanse and inhabit the remote island but it is believed by some historians that they arrived in canoes or catamarans as early as 300-400 A.D., around the same time earliest settlers arrived on the Hawaiian islands. According to some theories, there is a possibility that early Polynesian settlers arrived from South America due to their remarkable sea-navigation abilities. Theorists have supported this through the agricultural evidence of the sweet potato that is native only to the Americas.
Furthermore, Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl, who believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times went on to test the theory in practice. He managed to acquire private loans and he and his team constructed a raft out of balsa logs and other native materials in an indigenous style as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores. In 1947 Heyerdal and five companions sailed for 101 days, covering over 6900 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean and successfully landed on the Polynesian Tuamotu Islands.
Just to have a notion how remote Eastern Island is, note that the nearest inhabited land (around 50 residents in 2013) is Pitcairn Island, 2,075 kilometers (1,289 mi) away and the nearest continental point lies in Chile, 3,512 kilometers (2,182 mi) away. On the other side, to get to the island from Tahiti you need to cross “only” 4,231 km (2,500 mi) of the Pacific Ocean’s expanse.
Easter Island is relatively known and famous due to the discovery of 900 ancient giant stone statues scattered across the island. The statues are an artefact of a prosperous civilization of engineers and craftsmen. The statues or stone busts known as “moai” are on average 4 meters high and weigh 13 tones. The biggest of those are almost 10 meters tall and were carved from a single block weighing 75 tones! It is still unknown precisely why these statues were constructed in such numbers and on such a scale, or how they were moved around the island.
According to National Geographic, “Most scholars suspect that the moai were created to honor ancestors, chiefs, or other important personages, however, no written and little oral history exists on the island, so it’s impossible to be certain.”
A study headed by Douglas Owsley published in 1994 asserted that there is little archaeological evidence of pre-European societal collapse. Bone pathology and osteometric data from islanders of that period clearly suggest few fatalities can be attributed directly to violence.
But clearly ecological collapse triggered change in the island society because the Moai cult was weakening and a new “Birdman cult” was steadily rising. James Cook’s 1774 expedition noted that several moai statues were lying face down, having been toppled in war.
Island tradition claims that around 1680, after peacefully coexisting for many years, one of the island’s two main ethnic groups, known as the Short-Ears, rebelled against the Long-Ears. After mutual suspicions erupted in a violent clash, the Long-Ears were overthrown and nearly exterminated by burning to death on a pyre constructed along an ancient ditch at Poike, an extinct volcano, on the island’s far northeastern coast.
The historical facts, if any, behind this story are disputed. Since the victorious Short-Ears are usually assumed to be the surviving Polynesian population, there has been much speculation about the identity of the vanished Long-Ears. Various theories have been put forward, most notably Thor Heyerdahl’s claim that they were ancient migrants from Peru who were the original occupants of the island and the creators of its famous stone monuments. In 2014 a team from the Natural History Museum of Denmark analyzed the genomes of 27 native Rapa Nui people and found that their DNA was on average 76% Polynesian, 8% Native American and 16% European.
The Birdman cult
It’s possible that the Birdman practices had been going on during the reign of the moai cult. However, Birdman cult eventually took over as the predominate religion on the island and was still in practice up until 1866-67. In the ceremonial village of Orongo, high on the rim of the crater known as Rano Kau, each year a competition was organized in honor of the god of fertility, Makemake.
Each year leadership of the island was determined by the individual who could scale down the vertical slopes, swim out to one of three small islets in shark-infested waters, and bring back the egg of the nesting sooty tern unbroken. The one who did this successfully was considered the Birdman of the year and was bestowed with special honors and privileges.
The cult was practiced until 1860s when it collapsed due to a combination of slave traders taking away a lot of healthy population and Christian missionaries converting most of the population. In times of such turmoil, with Christianity being a powerful ideology and the missionaries being ruthless, it didn’t take long for the once-rich culture and tradition become completely a thing of the forgotten by-gone days.