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Exploring Easter Island’s Dark History

Easter Island’s iconic moai statues are a stark reminder that things of wonder can also have dark pasts.

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Will McGough

Perched upon a hillside overlooking the north coast in Rapa Nui National Park is the Rano Raraku Quarry, the birthplace of Easter Island’s mythical moai statues. Regardless of where you might find one statue on the island today, this is where it came from, carved from the gray volcanic stone found in abundance. Recently I walked along the path that circles the quarry’s crater, weaving in and out of the remains of the statues that dot the hillside like gnomes in a garden. If this place was a nursery before, it’s a graveyard today. Some moai are partially erected and standing up like tombstones. Others lie flat on their backs, as if reposed in invisible caskets. Walking on, I saw another collapsed face down in the dirt. Given the trouble these things caused the island, it’s a fitting scene.

Since the first flight landed on Easter Island in 1951, visitors have come primarily see the moai statues. Most arrive with a perception that combines fact and fiction. There are a few reasons for that. The most obvious is that the statues are found on the world’s most remote inhabited island, 1,300 miles away from its nearest neighbor, and to this day historians are still learning new things about what happened in the days since the first people arrived in 500 AD. Another is that while pop culture and tourism marketing have done a nice job commercializing the statues, they have failed to offer much in the way of reliable education. There is an Ancient Aliens episode suggesting that extraterrestrials built them (needless to say, they didn’t). In this way, myth has enveloped reality. And all the pretty postcards have covered up the dark, disturbing truth behind their creation.

I was as guilty of this as anyone. I knew nothing about the statues other than the basics. I knew there were 900 or so on the island (there are now 887). I knew they were big (they average 13 feet and 14 tons; the biggest is over 30 feet fall and more than 80 tons). I knew that only one set faced west (Ahu Akivi). I knew they were built by the Rapa Nui as tributes to their ancestors.

I did not know that all the statues were knocked over during a series of civil wars on the island in the 18th century; I did not know that it’s only been in the last 30 years that scientists have begun to stand them back up; I did not know that the moai were responsible for the destruction of the island’s ecosystem. And I certainly did not know the extent to which the statues tore apart life and civilization on Easter Island.

The story (supported by many historians, including Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) is as fascinating as it is tragic. The moai were built by elite families and clans between 1250 and 1500 and erected around the island upon stone platforms, known as an ahu. The statues were carved with their backs to the ground and then slid down the hillside to sea level. Then they were transported around the island using a combination of techniques. Some historians think they were moved lying down; others say they were “walked,” as one might move a refrigerator. Either way, there’s absolutely no question that trees were involved as rollers and/or support of some kind.

As the years went by, the statues got bigger and bigger as a way of demonstrating wealth and power and of one-upping the clan next door. The more statues the native people made, the more trees they needed to move them. So they continued to cut them down, and over the years, this had drastic consequences on the ecosystem. Erosion became a problem, affecting farm land and food production. Bird populations dropped. Resources for practical consumption, such as building canoes, became more competitively sought. Eventually, they became cutthroat. Civil wars broke out during the 18th and 19th centuries over the remaining resources, and those in poorer communities began knocking over the moai statues in protest. By the mid-1800s, there were no statues left standing; and shortly after their literal upheaval, the arrival of the slave trade and foreign disease wiped out about half of the island’s remaining population.

Over the course of my trip, I saw many of the newly erected rows of statues. I stood in awe at the base of the seven rising up from the sandy beach at Anakena, and the 15 gracing the rocky coastline at Tongariki. I took many photos of them, and marveled at their spectacular beauty. I climbed to the highest point on the island, Tere Vaka, to gain perspective. That was really something, to stand up there and gaze out at the grassy, treeless terrain. Historians say that when the first settlers arrived, there were literally millions of trees on the island. Today, the only grove of palms is found at Anakena Beach. But they aren’t from here. They were a gift from the Tahitian government in the 1960s.

When I flew back to mainland Chile, I was leaving a tropical island with a sunburn, yet I was also filled to the brim with historical insight, as if I had just spent a week in old-world Europe, a city like Athens or Rome. What still sticks with me is that day at the quarry: the moai face down in the mud. It tells the whole story — the one that those re-erected statues, the ones in the pretty postcards, only tell half of.

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