Ever since Dutch explorer Admiral Jacob Roggeveen landed at a small island in the South Pacific on Easter Sunday 1722 and encountered a landscape filled with giant stone statues, the world has wondered about Easter Island: Where did the statues come from? How and why were they made? And, most puzzling, how were these behemoths—some weighing as much as 75 tons—moved.
In 2004, I flew to Easter Island and spent ten days there with University of Hawaii Professor Terry Hunt and his archaeology students, who were digging at Anakena Beach—site of the first Polynesian settlement on the island. Since then and as a result of his findings, Hunt has taken academic dynamite to the old myths and blown them apart.
The original theories went like this: The first settlement was in 700 AD, after which the population mushroomed to 10,000 or more, and the islanders destroyed their environment, cutting down all the trees to roll the massive statues—called moai—into place. Famine, warfare and even cannibalism followed. It was a classic example of wasted resources leading to societal collapse, one that the world should take note of.
According to Hunt’s research, that’s all wrong.
Carbon dating of bones and other items from his dig now puts the first settlement closer to 1200 AD, and new evidence shows the population reached a maximum of 3,000, which was all the 64-square-mile island could handle because its ecosystem was depleted even before the first settlers arrived.
So did the islanders—now known as Rapanui—cut down their trees? The island was originally covered with thick forests of Jubea palm trees, and the Rapanui did cut down some of them to build shelter, says Hunt, but not to move moai. The real culprits were Polynesian rats that had arrived with the settlers, possibly as stowaways on the canoes. They multiplied rapidly, and their favorite food? The seeds of the Jubea palms. Without seeds, no new trees could grow.
Also, says Hunt, there is no evidence of warfare: no remains of fortress-like buildings or weapons of war. And all anecdotal evidence points to a peaceful people who understood that in order to co-exist in an inhospitable environment—with no lakes or streams, poor soil conditions and inconsistent rainfall—they would have to get along or perish.
Next time: the moai—why they were carved. And did they, as the local folklore says, really walk from the quarry to their current locations?