“Nobody knows…” is one of our favorite ways tour guides start a sentence. Mike and I make fun of it every time we hear it. From the audio tour of Stonehenge in England to the Pyramids in Giza to the Treasury building in Petra, Jordan. It seems that nobody knowers are all over the planet. Now we can knowledgeably add Easter Island to the list.
Here’s what is known. The English-speaking world calls it Easter Island. The natives call themselves Rapanui and their island Rapa Nui. Because they are a territory of Chile, it also goes by the name Isla de Pascua. Whatever you call it, it is a magical island.
Located 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile and 2,600 mile east of Tahiti, it’s the most remote, inhabited island in the world. There are 887 catalogued Moai, or giant stone heads; stone petroglyphs; and caves for a total of over 20,000 archeological artifacts packed onto this tiny island that’s just 14 miles long and 6 miles wide.
There are many theories as to why the Moai were erected and how they got from the quarry to where they are now strewn around the island. Nobody knows for sure. But, experts think they were carved sometime between 1000 – 1600 AD.
Common theory is that the Rapanui decimated their island by cutting down trees and using them to roll the Moai to their locations. It’s possible, because there’s evidence that specific tree pollens disappeared around the same time as the Moai stopped being carved.
But the locals believe that is only partially true. There is a pretty constant 25 mph wind that makes it so the trees don’t grow straight. Crooked trees are pretty hard to roll. So just like other mysterious places, nobody knows.
Some Islanders think that because the Moai are carved in the shape of a trapezoid with the bottom heavier than the top, they were “walked” upright to their ahu or platform.
Archeologists have found human remains in the ahu, so the theory is that important clan members are buried in the ahus and the Moai represent the clan chiefs and other high-ranking clan members. The Moai were positioned to watch over their village because natives believed their chiefs had spiritual power or “mana” even after death.
Sometime along the way, probably between 1770 and 1838, there was a clan war and rivals toppled all of the Moai on the island. The few that are now standing have been restored, but most are on the ground.
Discussion of an Inca influence on a stone wall on the Ahu Tahira at Vinapu don’t hold true for everyone. There are similarities in the way the stones are precisely cut and fit together. But the rocks in the Inca walls had giant stones. Here the stones are just a façade. Again, nobody knows.
It’s said that the island was over-populated and caused the depletion of resources including the trees. The trees were used to make boats for fishing and to build houses.
Islanders mostly subsisted on dolphins and birds until they ran out of trees used to make boats and hold birds’ nests. Their diet changed and many died from starvation. The population dropped from a few thousand to just over a hundred. Slave traders, disease and foreigners claimed the people and their land over the years but the Rapanui endure.
These are just some of the many theories. Talk to different people and often times there is a different answer but really, nobody knows.
Somebody who knows a whole lot is James Grant Peterkin. He wrote a book called “A Companion To Easter Island” available on Amazon for $29.95. There’s a lot of information packed into this little book. It’s a great resource for anyone who wants to delve deeper than my skimpy explanations.
Next blog post, we take off for Easter Island.