How Easter Island Works

By: Contributors
Moai on Easter Island
Easter Island Image Gallery One of nearly 900 moai on Easter Island. See more pictures of Easter Island.
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Much of Easter Island's haunting past remains a mystery, though archaeologists have offered many theories about the people, their culture and their fateful decline. The eerie story of Easter Island is not only a lesson in the history of [b]Oceania, but also a cautionary tale of environmental plunder.

Easter Island got its name from the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen, who landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722 [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]. For centuries, the island -- also called Rapa Nui and Isla de Pascua -- was a barren wasteland: a blank canvas for the hundreds of moai that lined its cliffs and beaches. The moai, enormous man-made stone statues, are Easter Island's most recognizable feature. Crafted from volcanic ash, the moai weigh up to 82 tons (74.39 metric tons) and loom up to 32.63 feet (9.8 meters) high [source: NOVA]. But the restored ones that stand today are a testament to modern archaeological efforts -- the original moai were torn down centuries ago.


To understand how these magnificent statues worked, it's necessary to understand their creators. Easter Islanders hailed from Polynesia, a smattering of nearly a thousand islands in the Pacific Ocean. Polynesians are bold sailors and navigators. The sky is their compass, and the ancient islanders constructed seaworthy vessels from wood [source: NOVA]. Scholars believe that the Easter Islanders set sail from East Polynesia in 400 A.D. and that they landed on the shores of the island after two weeks adrift in a vast ocean. We can't be sure if they headed toward Easter Island with a specific purpose -- if they knew it even existed -- or if strong winds and rough seas from an El Niño-type weather pattern forced them off course [source: NOVA]. No matter the purpose of their voyage or the goal of their ultimate destination, they took refuge in a very strange land.

The Polynesian sailors who settled Easter Island are commonly identified as the Rapanui, after the Polynesian name for the island itself: Rapa Nui. For hundreds of years, the Rapanui's civilization thrived. But things were about to change drastically. The same people that erected the awe-inspiring moai would alter the ecosystem of the island forever. They would be gifted artists and engineers in the height of their civilization but ruthless warriors in their darkest, most desperate hours. Few civilizations in history have risen and fallen so fast -- and so inexplicably. In this article, we'll learn about the Easter Islanders' sophisticated civilization and their rapid descent into ruin.

Next, we'll learn about the island itself and how its settlers adapted to it.­


Settling Easter Island

Easter Island
Forbidding cliffs on Easter Island's jagged coastline.
Michal Wozniak/

Easter Island is a very small parcel of land and one of the most remote places in the world. Chile is the closest neighboring country, but at nearly 2,299 miles (3,700 kilometers) away, it's not exactly a next-door neighbor. Easter Island is only 64 square miles (165.76 square kilometers) and is shaped like a triangle [source: Mysterious Places]. Like many Oceanic islands, Easter Island was created from volcanic eruptions. In fact, its largest volcano, Rano Kau, can be seen from space.

The island's blue waters and white sandy beaches may seem idyllic, but don't bank on honeymooning there just yet -- more prominent landforms range from massive, jagged cliffs to dark caves and volcanic craters.


Rano Kau on Easter Island
The Rano Kau volcano on Easter Island is visible from space.

Based on soil samples and dating methods, scientists suspect that the island was once a green paradise with as many as 16 million palm trees [source: Fischer]. Millions of years before the Polynesians arrived, life on the island was scarce. The surrounding ocean waters are low in nutrients, so no coral reefs or many fish could be sustained there. Inland, there were only insects, mollusks and lizards. Seabirds were the island's liveliest visitors, perhaps even depositing seeds that grew into the dense palm forest.

The Polynesians introduced new flora and fauna. On their voyage, they brought provisions like bananas, sweet potatoes and taro (a leafy vegetable), which they planted on the island. They also brought a few chickens and learned to deep-sea fish for porpoises and dolphins that swam nearby, but their diet was primarily vegetarian.

Like their canoes, the Rapanui built their huts in an elliptical shape. The Rapanui kept busy by adjusting to life on the island and expanding their population. While we can't be sure how many islanders came over on the voyage to the island from Polynesia, we're certain that the population expanded rapidly. By 1150 A.D., there were 7,000 to 9,000 Rapanui living on Easter Island. Some scholars suggest that early Rapanui inbred, which contributed to a sharp population increase as well as some anatomical anomalies among the islanders: It wasn't uncommon for a Rapanui to have six toes on each foot [source: Island Heritage].


They may have put thousands of miles between themselves and Polynesia, but the Ra­panui fostered Polynesian culture in their new land. In a traditional political system, tribal chiefs led the Rapanui, and they worked to foster a sense of mana, political and spiritual authority. One important way that mana was instilled was through arts and worship that honored the gods and ancestors. Among these art forms were tattooing, petroglyphs (rock carvings), music, dance and string figures, which were used in storytelling. But their most significant artistic endeavor is indisputably the moai.

In the next section, we'll learn about the creation process behind these Goliaths.


The Moai

Moai on Easter Island
The moai are Easter Island's most recognizable feature. The moai on the right has been restored after having been torn down and its eyes gouged out.
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Moai aren't exclusive to Easter Island. You can see structures like them in Tahiti and Hawaii -- but nowhere else are they so staggering in size, number and craftsmanship [source: Discovery Channel].

Creating the moai was an expression of piety: No other work of art embodied mana quite like these giants. The Rapanui started building them around 1200 A.D. These statues were built on a fairly modest scale -- the towering, massive moai would come around 1600. Like a craftsmen guild, moai artisans learned special processes for turning out these gods. The pits of the volcano Rano Raraku were the artists' workshop. Here were immeasurable amounts of compacted volcanic ash, a porous, lightweight rock. The rock was hard, malleable and naturally tinted in hues of ochre and orange.


While each moai is believed to have represented a distinct ancestor, they all bear a similar appearance due to their creation process. Artists began by tracing the outline of the moai in the rock. Once this blueprint was complete, they would chisel the rock away so that only the rough moai and a flat base -- the keel -- remained.

The careful precision that went into crafting the moai was equaled by the deliberate care with which they were moved from the volcano to their ahu, platforms on the island's perimeter. Perhaps they were intended to guard the coastline. Their faces looked inward toward the island with watchful stone eyes -- some ornamented with obsidian and coral.

Moai on Easter Island
Moai line Easter Island's coast to protect the Rapanui.
Marc Pelissier/

How the moai were moved is a mystery, but prevailing theories explain the Rapanui's methodology. Once the statue was finished, it was severed from its keel and guided down the volcano with ropes. Then, the moai was loaded onto logs to be rolled to its ahu. Whether the statue was loaded horizontally or vertically is a topic of debate. Archaeologist Jo Anne von Tilburg theorizes that the moai were rolled along a double layer of logs: one layer was a horizontal platform that held the statue stable, and the second layer (perpendicular to the first) would have done the actual rolling [source: Mysterious Places]. The Rapanui likely lubricated the logs with palm oil to aid the rolling process.

Trees were cleared to make roads for moai transport. It may have taken up to a few weeks and the efforts of nearly ­70 men to roll the statues to their ahu. Lastly, moai were lifted using ropes as pulleys and logs as levers and hoisted into place. Their ahu were works of art as well as feats of engineering. No matter how elaborately carved and decorated the ahu, its primary purpose was to support the weight of its giant.­

The Rapanui tirelessly created and transported their beloved moai to the coast. But then production suddenly ceased. In the next section, we'll learn why.



Easter Island's Collapse

Toppled moai on Easter Island
Moai were toppled, decapitated & tortured by angry Rapanui.

In the 1600s, Easter Island was at the height of its civilization. Moai production was at an all-time high. From 1400 to 1600 A.D., 887 moai were produced. Of those, only 288 made it to their ahu, while the rest remained in the volcano or were left in limbo between Rano Raraku and their ahu [source: NOVA]. Some of these moai were too unwieldy to handle -- "El Gigante," the largest moai at 71.93 feet (21.6 meters) and 145-165 tons (160-182 metric tons) -- never made it out of the pit. Archaeological evidence suggests that fiercely competitive artists would abandon their work on a moai if it became flawed.

This careless use of resources was the primary contributor to Easter Island's collapse. The Rapanui were so intent on their projects that they underestimated the extent of their resources. Trees were cleared to make pathways for moai transport, which required a number of logs for rolling. Furthermore, the Rapanui cultivated wide expanses of land for harvesting crops and felled even more trees to build deep-sea fishing canoes. What was once an untouched, verdant paradise became a treeless wasteland.


Without the protection of sturdy trees and their roots, rain washed away topsoil. The land began to erode. Crops couldn't grow in these conditions. And now, there were even more Rapanui to sustain: Population peaked at 10,000. There was no hope for the Rapanui -- they didn't even have wood to build canoes to escape the island.

They turned against the moai. Whether they blamed their ancestral deities for cursing their civilization or realized that over-development had been their demise, the Rapanui forsook the statues. They gouged out their eyes and toppled them. Some moai were decapitated: Rapanui arranged rocks where the neck of the moai landed to sever the huge heads from their bodies.

The Rapanui also turned against each other. The ariki mau, head chief, had long governed the island, but now the Rapanui split into factions that fought for proprietary rights to still-fertile land. These factions were led by matato'a -- warrior leaders. Archaeological evidence shows that the spears and daggers, or mata'a, o­n the island were crafted during this dark hour. Others, defeated, crept into caves, where they spent the rest of their days.


Sooty tern
A race to capture the sooty tern's egg determined the Birdman for the next 12 moons.
Anastasia Ryapolova/

Still others turned to a new god for help: Makemake. They formed the Birdman Cult, which elected a Birdman as their leader for 12 moons [source: reincarnated, was chosen through a competition to find the first egg of the sooty tern. Competitors would race to the highest cliffs to procure the treasure. The title of Birdman ensured food for the cult leader's tribesmen. This was a contest no one wanted to lose: defeated competitors were expected to stab themselves repeatedly with spears.

When it seemed that things couldn't get any worse on Easter Island, new voyagers landed on its shores. Next, we'll learn what changes they made.



Western Exploration of Easter Island

European explorers on Easter Island
In this circa 1790 sketch, European explorers measure and record details of the moai.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Birdman Cult was beginning to rebuild the culture and population of Easter Island. Petroglyphs of birds became far more numerous than the haunting carvings of ghosts, which a doomed civilization had made in prediction of their fate. Crops like the sweet potato were starting to flourish once again, and it seemed as though life on Easter Island might be resuscitated.

But when Westerners arrived, they brought a host of new diseases and customs. The Dutch came first on April 5, 1722; the Spanish in 1772 and James Cook's British crew followed on March 13, 1774 [source: Fischer]. When the Spanish landed on Easter Island, it was with the intent to secure it for Spain.


The Rapanui observed the Spaniards' strange practice of writing, and the chief w­as even given pen and paper with which to write. This first attempt at writing was actually manipulation -- the Rapanui chief's uncertain characters qualified as the official signature that turned the island over to Spain.

­Westerners introd­uced a number of innovations to the island, most of them less pleasant than the art of writing. In addition to nasty stowaways like cockroaches and rats that infiltrated the island, voyagers also brought disease. By the turn of the century, the Rapanui population dwindled to 110 people.

When missionaries came, the Rapanui embraced their Christian God. For the salvation and prosperity these missionaries promised, the Rapanui relinquished their culture -- the tattoos, the Rongorongo and any tenuous threads to the moai. By the 1830s, the last moai fell. The Rapanui turned to ranching and learned new ways to use their land. In 1888, Chile annexed Easter Island [source: McCall].



Easter Island Today

Rapanui warriors
Two men dressed as Rapanui warriors entertain Easter Island tourists in February 2005.
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Today, Easter Island is home to 2,000 islanders. They have Chilean citizenship, and many Rapanui have moved there for educational and professional purposes. Polynesian culture thrives, enmeshed with a modern lifestyle. The standing moai, re-erected by archaeologists, demonstrate the Rapanui's reconciliation with their past.

Tourism is an important part of the island's culture, and sociologists and travelers report that the Rapanui are some of the friendliest people in the world. If you travel to Easter Island (you don't have to go in a canoe -- the island has its own airport that you can fly into via special flights from Chile), you can even stay with a Rapanui host family for an authentic experience [source: McCall].


For more information about traveling to Easter Island, modern experiments to move the moai and plenty more history, follow the links on the next page.



Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • BBC. "The Mystery of Easter Island - programme summary." 2003 (14 December 2007).
  • Brookman, David Y. Easter Island Homepage. 2007 (5 December 2007).
  • Clark, Liesl. "Ancient Navigation." NOVA. Novmber 2000 (14 December 2007).
  • Clark, Liesl. "First Inhabitants." NOVA. November 2000 (14 December 2007).
  • Fischer, Steven Roger. "Island at the End of the World." Reaktion Books. 2005.
  • Hunt, Steven. "Rapa Nui and its moai." Discovery Channel. 12 October 1999 (14 December 2007).
  • Kjellgren, Eric and Jennifer Wagelie. "Easter Island." Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2002 (14 December 2007).
  • Lee, Vincent R. "Vince Lee's Uphill Battle: Moving a Moai (Parts 1 and 2)." NOVA. November 2000 (14 December 2007).
  • McCall, Grant, Ph.D. "Rapanui (Easter Island)." Centre for Pacific Studies: Sydney, Australia.
  • McLaughlin, Shawn and Easter Island Foundation. Island Heritage Frequently Asked Questions. 26 January 2007 (5 December 2007).
  • Mysterious Places. "The Story of Easter Island." Chapters 1-6. (5 December 2007).
  • NOVA. "Stone Giants." November 2000 (14 December 2007).
  • Rjabchikov, Sergei V. "Rongorongo Records of Skulls." 1997-2001 (14 December 2007).