Home / South America / Chile / History of Easter Island: many questions, few certainties
Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena, Easter Island, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
Ahu Nau Nau, Anakena, Easter Island, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

History of Easter Island: many questions, few certainties

Every place on Easter Island has something to discover if you look carefully. Because here the story speaks of an ancient civilization of which we know very little. This island gives the feeling of a place with infinite spaces, but the island is very small. Easter Island is small, dry and desolate, but has infinite landscapes and skies, the sea that surrounds it has no end. Exploring the island, however, you remain fascinated: observe a pile of volcanic stones and slowly you realize that it is a fallen moai, there are hundreds of them along the coast of the island. On the island there are wild horses, spectacular waves, idyllic inlets, about fifteen volcanic cones of all shapes and sizes, and within some volcanoes there are freshwater lakes.

After decades of study, the history of Easter Island is still very controversial today. Probably the island was colonized between 600 and 800 AD. The oral tradition of the Rapa Nui people speaks that the first inhabitants of the island came from the islands of Polynesia, in all probability from the Gambier Islands or the Marquesas Islands. The head of the expedition was Hotu Matu’a who according to the stories landed on the beach of Anakena. This oral tradition has now been confirmed by scientific research. The current descendants of the first inhabitants are in fact Polynesian as is the language they speak. Genetic research has also confirmed the Polynesian origin of the island’s inhabitants.

From the latest scientific research seems to be resolved the dispute concerning which were the populations that colonized the island. Past theories also suggested the arrival of populations from South America to explain the majesty of the island’s stone monuments, but this is not confirmed by the studies of recent years. But in the history of Easter Island there are still many unanswered questions: Why were the moais built? Why were so many built? How were the moais transported? Why are most moais along the slopes of the Rano Raraku volcano? Why at some point in history have the moais been shot down? There are many theories that try to answer these questions.

Ahu Tahai, Easter Island, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

Ahu Tahai, Easter Island, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

According to the most accredited theory the moais were built to honor the ancestors and they were placed on platforms (Ahu) in front of the village and were for protection for the village and its inhabitants. It is not clear why so many were built. Not even how they were transported over distances of some tens of kilometers is not at all clear. The fact that many moais are still found on the slopes of the volcano where they were carved can be explained by the difficulty of transporting so many statues so large in an island where the dense original forests had been destroyed probably for the transport of moais and for agricultural purposes. But this does not explain why so many were built.

Even on the demolition of the moais the theories are multiple. The most accredited is the one that speaks of internal struggles between the various villages and the demolition of the moais following these wars with the birth of a new religion, that of the bird-man or Tangata manu. But among the many theories this is what fascinated me the most: It could have been the diseases brought from the first contacts with Europeans to have decimated the population and the survivors, ashamed of the miserable existence to which they were reduced, not to be seen by their ancestors (the moais) reduced in this state had preferred to close their eyes to their ancestors by breaking down the statues. In fact, the statues do not give the impression of having been torn down with violence, after a war or a revolt, but it seems that they have simply been gently rested with their eyes turned downwards. In fact if they were torn down with violence they would be reduced to a thousand pieces. But most of them are broken only at the neck (the weakest point) due to the weight and have the rest of the structure intact.

What is certain is that in 1722 at the arrival of the first Europeans, the Dutch ships of Jacob Roggeveen, the moais were still all standing. Also in the second contact with Europeans in 1770 with the Spanish led by Don Felipe Gonzalez de Ahedo the descriptions tell of the moais still standing. While only four years later, in 1774, the third European expedition to reach Easter Island, that of James Cook describes some demolished statues. In the following years the moais will all be shot down. The combination of internal wars, diseases brought by the first explorers and the raids that took place in the nineteenth century by the slave hunters brought the original population of Easter Island near extinction. In 1877 only 111 of the original inhabitants remained on the island, with the disappearance of a large part of the population also the history and culture of the island was largely lost.

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