By Dr Paul G Bahn 

The most remote permanently inhabited place in the world, the whole of this small island is an archaeological site. A source of constant mystery and wonder, it lies in the middle of the South Pacific, to the west of Chile (to which it belongs).

Easter Island received its name from the Dutch commander, Jakob Roggeveen, who encountered the island on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722. It is now often called Rapa Nui (big Rapa), because 19th-century Tahitian sailors thought it looked like a large version of the island of Rapa. It was first colonised by people from East Polynesia (perhaps Mangareva), probably in the early centuries AD. They proceeded to produce the most amazing Stone Age culture the world has ever known, with hundreds of massive platforms, up to a thousand huge statues, a wealth of rock art, and its own writing system.

The platforms (ahu) are mostly located around the coast of this small triangular volcanic island (about 171km2), and constitute an archaeological wonder in themselves. They comprise a core of rubble held in place by a facing of slabs, some of them very finely cut. The statues (moai) were almost all carved from the soft volcanic tuff at the quarry of Rano Raraku. Those erected on platforms, always with their back to the sea, varied from 2m to 10m in height, and weighed up to 82 tons. The biggest ever carved (‘El Gigante’), which is over 20m long and probably weighs 270 tons, still lies unfinished in the quarry among scores of other statues in every stage of completion.

The moai are all variations on a theme: a human figure with a prominent angular nose and chin, and often elongated perforated ears containing disks. The bodies, which end at the abdomen, have arms held tightly to the sides, and hands held in front, with long fingertips meeting a stylised loincloth. They represented ancestor figures.

Easter Island also has the richest rock art in the Pacific, with beautiful paintings in caves and drystone houses, and hundreds of fine petroglyphs in caves and the open air. The finest collection of images is found at Orongo, the ceremonial village built on a cliff-top between the ocean and the huge crater of Rano Kau. Here the dominant motif is the ‘birdman’, a half-human frigate bird in a crouching position, often holding an egg.

The ‘rongorongo’ writing system survives only on 25 wooden tablets scattered around the world’s museums. Debate still rages as to whether the islanders developed it themselves, or whether it was inspired by their encounter with European writing in the 18th century. 

When the Polynesian colonists reached the island it was covered with a dense forest, primarily of huge palm trees, and was also immensely rich in birdlife. Over the centuries, like Polynesian settlers elsewhere, they totally modified their environment, by wiping out the birds (apart from a few migratory maritime species), and especially through gradually cutting down all of the forest cover to plant their crops and to obtain timber. Their earlier way of life eventually declined, statues ceased to be carved, and perhaps 1,000 years of peaceful co-existence were shattered – huge quantities of mataa, spearheads and daggers of obsidian, were produced. Conflict led to the toppling of all the statues, and a new social system arose whereby, instead of having hereditary chiefs from the royal clan, an annual leader or ‘birdman’ was chosen by competition.

When Europeans arrived in 1722 (or possibly earlier), there were almost no trees left, which led the visitors to wonder how the huge statues could possibly have been moved and raised. The islanders had managed to counter the environmental damage to some extent by the technique of ‘lithic mulching’, spreading millions of stones over their fields to retain moisture and protect their sweet potatoes and other crops. Eventually, this new contact with the outside world (the islanders having almost certainly been totally cut off from the rest of Polynesia from the start) brought diseases, oppression and many other negative consequences which almost wiped them out. Fortunately, they survived and today take great pride in the spectacular remains of their ancestors’ culture. But had the Europeans not arrived, what would have happened? With no timber, the islanders could never have escaped from their home, and one severe drought could easily have finished them off. We shall never know.