The Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture

Easter Island - The Statues and Rock Art of Rapa Nui

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The giant stone statues of Easter Island, called moai, have brought the island reknown and have fascinated scores of scholars, travellers and artists. Their distinctive stone faces appear locked in silence; Sentinels in Stone that convey both power and tragedy. When and how were they carved? Why were these monumental statues erected? What did they represent? Numbering almost 1000, they are distributed over an island that measures only 15 miles by 7 miles, an island lying some 2400 miles off the western shores of South America.

easter island statues
But who were the people of Easter Island? Where did they come from? Just as the statues remain silent, so too does their Rongo Rongo script which no one can now read. All accounts of their origins can only be revealed by spoken legends. Because these remain scant, other theories have emerged, in particular those of Thor Heyerdahl who proposed that the people who built the statues were Peruvian Incas, due to a similarity between Rapa Nui and Incan stonework, as is found at the dressed stone sea wall of an ahu at Vinapu.

Heyerdahl's epic voyage in 1947, on the balsa-wood raft Kon Tiki, to the island of Angatau in the Tuamotu archipelago, northeast of Tahiti, many miles west of Rapa Nui, confirms the possibility of this, although a major flaw in the theory is the complete absence of weaving skills on Easter Island, as well as the fine pressure-flaking of stone tools, metal work, and pottery, things the Incas excelled in.

easter islander
Easter Islanders
The first settlers of Rapa Nui found the land covered with a thick forest of giant palms, similar to the famous palms of Chile, the seeds of which must have floated to the island. Archaeology evidence as well as DNA studies show that the original migrants were Polynesian, and they navigated the western Pacific to colonize the island.

Arriving by sea-faring canoe as early as 450 years AD, these intrepid voyagers, in all probability, arrived from the Marquesas Islands, via Mangareva, a navigational and physical feat described within living memory. The seas between Polynesia and the south-eastern end of Asia are filled with islands, beginning with the rich island worlds of the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea where the seagoing canoes and deep-sea navigational skills were developed, and extending across Melanesia and Micronesia to that vast island realm so aptly named Polynesia. As populations grew, a continuous distribution of islands extending eastward encouraged, or perhaps forced, generations of canoe voyagers to sail farther and farther into the ocean by rewarding them with island after island to colonize. Conversely, the empty seas off South America offered little inducement for Inca colonisation, despite their fine sailing rafts, to cross thousands of miles of open ocean. The latest analysis of skeletal material shows a strong link not only between the mtDNA of the Marquesas, Mangareva, and Easter Island, but also to all other Polynesians.

easter island statue
Moai Statue Heads
Polynesian anthropology links are also provided - the first settlers arrived with the distinctive Blue Legged Asian chickens, found in the Pacific, as well as the knowledge of how to make tapa from the bark of the mulberry tree, a plant indigenous to Burma. Indeed, all Polynesians made barkcloth, their only fabric. They made rope from the hau tree.

There followed one thousand four hundred years of isolation, during which the culture developed and the population divided into a number of clans that populated the various parts of Rapa Nui.

Thus began the culture identified with the great Moai stone statues. The rival clans or tribes quarried the volcanic cliffs of Rano Raraku's crater on the southeast side of the island, carving moai to adorn their shrines, called ahu.

The cult of the moai occupied increasingly large labor forces to carve stone, move statues and build the ahu around Easter island. Rivalry among tribes intensified. According to widely accepted theories, a major motivation was the concept of mana - a mystical combination of power, prestige and prosperity. In a belief system that included ancestor worship, the moai represented a clan's most revered forebearers who were believed to bestow ‘mana’ on living leaders.

Because mana was transmitted from ancestors through moai, the tribes competed to build bigger and bigger statues and altars. Making larger and more Moai became a compulsion - the whole society was dedicated to this. This stands to reason - because the gods were worshipped through these statues (which depicted ancestral power and descent) if one wanted BIG results, one made BIG statues. Crop failure? Solution: a bigger statue. Local uprising? Solution: a bigger statue.


Easter Island Introduction
Sentinels in Stone - Rise & Fall of Easter Island's Culture | Page | 1 | 2 | 3 |
The Rock Art of Easter Island
The Birdman Cult / Motif of Easter Island
Sea & Marine Creatures in Easter Island Rock Art
Designs & Motifs of Easter Island's Rock Petroglyph Carvings
Dr Georgia Lee - Publications on Easter Island
Moai Location Map & Islanders
Contemporary Easter Island Art
Easter Island Glossary
Easter Island Conclusion

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