An Overview of Easter Island Historical Events and Its Population

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The history of Easter Island, and its inhabitants, has been shrouded in mystery since its discovery. How did they come to live on the island? Why did they build hundreds of stone statues? The statues have become an iconic part of the islands history and the main focus for Scientists and Historians alike. They are still trying to answer the question of why and more intriguingly, how they erected the stone statues, (called Moai). There are many popular theories as to how they moved the Moai into position, but I personally subscribe to the theory that they likely used a newly discovered method called, “walking”.

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Before we get to the theories and the mysteries, let’s talk about the island and its inhabitant’s history. The island is located about 2,300 miles off the West Coast of Chile, or about 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. The island measures 14 by 7 miles wide and was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions. It covers roughly sixty four square miles of land and it is said that it could be traversed in foot in a single day. Though the mostly hilly and forested terrain might make that a rather difficult undertaking. The climate is temperate, sunny and dry (Staff, The island was first discovered by a Dutchman by the name of Jacob Roggeveen in 1722 (Krulwich, Robert He called the island Paaseiland or, in English, Easter Island, for the day he arrived (Staff,

But enough about the island, what about its inhabitants? According to the islanders legend, about 1500 years ago, between 400 and 800 AD, a Polynesian chief, named Hotu Matua, or the great parent, sailed thousands of miles to Easter Island. He came with his wife and extended family, possibly from the Marquesas Islands. Or even from Eastern Polynesia, but no one really knows, (though early European explorers did note that their cultures where similar to the surrounding islands, though they were thousands of miles apart). They landed on Anakena, the name given to one of the few sandy beaches on the island’s rocky coast. They called the island “Te pito o te henua” or "the end of the land", (Rapa Nui is the more modern Polynesian name for the island, and the local name) (Clark, Liesl A The settlers where farmers, and there is some evidence of deforestation, which was likely to make room for farmland to sustain their population (Krulwich, Robert Although there is some debate on that, it is the most likely reason, as there were few other sources of food other than farming and they couldn’t have had any serious food shortages and still managed to construct the massive statues. In fact, when Roggeveen came upon the island, he noted that they were not at all interested in food; instead they were interested in their hats. It should also be noted that skeletons from the island show less malnutrition that the average person living in Europe at the time (

Excavations of the island reveal that there were three distinct cultural phases. There was the early period; 700 AD to 850 AD, the middle period; 1050 AD to 1680 AD and the late 1680 AD to the present. Evidence shows that in the time between the early period and middle period the Moai that the island is known for where repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. During the middle period, the bases of the statues, called ahus, where used as burial chambers. During the late period, there is evidence of civil wars, and large amounts of general destruction. Many Moai where toppled and many spear points, called Mataa, where found dating back to the same time period. The island lore states that one of the islands groups, the short ears, rebelled against the long ears, and burned many of them alive in an ancient ditch on the island northeastern coast. Some estimates state that the population reached over 9,000 by 1550 but, in 1770, when the Spanish Viceroy of Peru sent an expedition to Easter Island, they only found about 3,000 people living on the island. 4 years later, when British navigator James Cook and his crew came upon the island, they found the population decimated by yet another civil war. There were only 600 or so men and less than 30 women remaining. Later, when French Navigator Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse visited the island in1786, the population had recovered slightly, bringing it back up to around 2,000. Then, with a major slave raid from Peru in 1862, followed by an outbreak of smallpox reduced the population to just 111 by 1877 (Staff,

Not long after the smallpox epidemic, Christian Missionaries arrived and began converting the population to Christianity. A task that they completed by the late 19th century. Soon after the conversion of the Islands population to Christianity, it was annexed by Chile, and most of the land was leased for sheep grazing. In 1965 the Chilean government appointed a civilian governor. Soon after the Islands residents became full Chilean citizens (Staff,

Now the island is a popular tourist destination, with its main attraction being the hundreds of Moai scattered around the island. Since the island has no natural harbor, supply and tourist ships dock at Hanga Roa. It is the largest village on the island, and has a population of around 3,300 people. And Spanish is the main spoken language (Staff,

But enough of the basic history, and what we actually know for sure. What about that ‘main tourist attraction’, the very thing the island its early people are famous for. Let’s talk about the statues themselves, and the mysteries that surround them. The Moai are giant stone statues created by the people of Easter Island. They are male human heads, on torsos, carved from hardened volcanic ash. There are 887 of them scattered around the island. 288 are in their, ‘final’ locations, 397 are still in the quarry where they were carved, and 92 are ‘in transit’ to their final locations. The finished statues were placed on large stone pedestals, around 4 feet tall. These are called ‘ahus’, which means “ceremonial site”. Most are positioned on their ‘ceremonial’ sites along the coast, with a concentration of Moai on the southeast coast of the island. They stand with their backs to the sea. Those Moai are more standardized in design and are believed to have been created in the islands middle period, between 1400 and 1600 AD. On average the Moai stand 13 feet tall and weigh 14 tons. The largest Moai ever found, called “El Gigante”, is 71.93 feet tall and weighs about 165 tons, while the smallest is only 3.76 feet tall, and weighs around 82 tons (Clark, Liesl B

No one really knows why they built these statues. But there are many theories as to why and some speculation as to how they managed to not only build them, and move them into position, but how they had enough food to survive on such a small island, much less build so many of the huge statues. Archaeologists have been puzzled by the statues since 1722, when the first Europeans landed on the island. Unfortunately the islander’s language, called Rongorongo, has not been deciphered, and their oral history is scant (Jarus, Owen The more popular theory among archaeologists for why they built the Moai is that they represent the spirits of their ancestors; chiefs or other important male figures from the islands history. Jo Anne Van Tilburg is one of the Archaeologists that believe that theory. She believes that they are not individual ‘portraits’, but a more standardized representations of powerful individuals (Clark, Liesl B There is also a possibility that they used the statues to fertilize their soil. It is generally accepted that they were farmers, and that they obviously had more than enough food to not only survive but build the Moai. But it is also known that the soil on the island is not that fertile, and there is already evidence of the locals using ‘lithic gardens’, which are created by breaking up small rocks into the soil to release their minerals to help in their food production. As much as 1/10th of the island has evidence scattered rock gardens. The Moai may have been placed around the coast, so that when the wind blew in from the sea, the turbulent airflow would cause minerals to be released from the rock and would give the soil an extra boost (Jarus, Owen

Let’s move on to the construction of the Moai. The Moai where carved from a quarry of hardened volcanic rock. It is not known how they accomplished the carving of statues weighing up to 165 tons. But there is evidence that carving of the Moai was in full swing from 1400-1600 AD, which was about 122 years before the first explorers came upon the island. Notably though, there is also evidence, through core samples, of soil depletion and erosion in those 122 years. As well as some, though scant, evidence of cannibalism (Clark, Liesl A Many scholars point to the construction of the statues as the reason for the depletion of the islands resources and the possible conflict. But the construction could have been but only one cause of the destruction. The clearing of the forests could have also been for agriculture, to feed the growing population and keep the work on the statues going. And possibly, as an older theory suggests, for transporting the statues, using logs as rollers, though that theory is likely wrong (Jarus, Owen

So with the scant amount of knowledge we have on how they carved out these massive statues, let’s turn our attention to how they moved them, up to 11 miles in some cases, to their final destinations. We have already been over what most archaeologists agree is not a very likely method, the log rollers. Some others think they may have built wooden sledges to transport the Moai. But I think that they would simply be too difficult to move the statues in that way, taking their weight into account. There is a new, more plausible method that was recently discovered. It is based on ancient stories, which stated that the statues literally “walked” from the quarry to their ahus. In a recent experiment by Terry Hunt from the University of Hawaii and Carl Lipo from California State University proved that the statues could be moved vertically by two small teams with ropes (A.Staff National All it takes is three strong ropes, and eighteen or so people to successfully move a Moai (Jarus, Owen They not only found that it’s possible, but that the Moai seem like they are designed for this method, with their large flat bottoms (Staff, National There are also pathways throughout the island that seem to support the theory. They explain their theory and go deeper into their results in their book, “The Statues that Walked” (Krulwich, Robert

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In conclusion, the walking method, I think, is the most plausible of all the known theories, and in my opinion the most likely. The locals would have had the ability to create rope, and with the statues already seeming to be designed to move in that way, it seems even more likely. Especially when you take into account the stories of the statues walking, and the results of Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo’s experiment. It is possible, with nothing but some rope and manpower. Regardless of what method you believe they used to accomplish what they did, it is still an incredible achievement, even by today’s standards, more so when you think about how limited they were by their technology, resources, and the fact that they were a small island community in the middle of nowhere, that not only managed to survive, but built some of the most mysterious and thought provoking marvels in human history.

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An Overview of Easter Island Historical Events and Its Population. (2019, April 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 26, 2023, from
“An Overview of Easter Island Historical Events and Its Population.” GradesFixer, 26 Apr. 2019,
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