What the hell happened on Easter Island?

How does an entire society, ecosystem, and religion collapse in the matter of a few years? And what can modern civilizations learn from the plight of the Rapa Nui?

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known locally, is steeped in mystery. Located 1500 miles from the nearest civilization (2,300 miles from coastal Chile and 2,500 miles from Tahiti), it is the remotest inhabited island on earth.

Rapa Nui Coast

Originally settled around 300-400 AD by Polynesians, Rapa Nui went through several phases, known as the early period (700-850 AD), the middle period (1050-1680), and the late period (1680 and on).

The Rapa Nui enjoyed several centuries of peaceful interaction between its 13 different tribes. The island’s large stone statues, called moai, are the icons for which Rapa Nui is known, indicating an evolution in culture, religion, and - ultimately - the total collapse of a robust society.

Toppled Moai statues are evidence of a once-great society - but what happened?

Toppled Moai statues are evidence of a once-great society - but what happened?

So what the hell happened on Easter Island?

While archeologists are still working to uncover the truth, the fact is that nobody really knows. Making your own hypotheses is part of the intrigue of visiting present-day Easter Island (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995).

Allow yourself to imagine what happened here hundreds of years ago...

Allow yourself to imagine what happened here hundreds of years ago...

During the late period, Rapa Nui experienced rapid destruction. In 1770, a team of Peruvian officials estimated nearly 3,000 inhabitants on the island -- just 4 years later, the population had dwindled to fewer than 700 men and just 30 women, the survivors of a civil war and environmental decimation.

A hundred years later, enslaved by Peruvians and ravaged by smallpox, the island’s remaining population plummeted to just 110 inhabitants, bringing this once-mighty Pacific tribe to the brink of cultural extinction.

If only statues could tell their stories...

If only statues could tell their stories...

Understanding exactly what happened, and when, is a mystery that scientists are still trying to unravel. Here are a few questions:

  • Was it rapid climate change? During this 17th Century, the planet went through a “mini ice age” and the cold Antarctic current may have shifted its focus directly on Rapa Nui, killing much of the semi-tropical flora and fauna.

  • Was it man-made environmental destruction? The island is estimated to have once had upward of 16 million trees, but being a slash-and-burn agricultral society, the Rapa Nui may have destroyed the forest and overpopulated the island. This may have led to a rapid destruction of the delicate ecosystem.

  • Was it rats? Along with communicable diseases and other things for which European conquerors were infamous, they may have also introduced rats to the island. With no natural predators and the roots of 16 million trees to feast on, the rat population exploded on the island and may have contributed (or been the main contributor) to the island’s destroyed ecosystem.

  • Why were all the Moai statues toppled over, face-down? Some believe it was a form of attack from warring tribes (who formerly lived harmoniously with one another); others speculate that the Rapa Nui were so ashamed of what had become of their society that they didn’t want their exalted ancestors, represented by the statues, to see the destruction.

Today, Rapa Nui has no native wildlife, hundreds of Moai (many of which have been re-erected in their former glory), and has an economy largely based on tourism to this fascinating and mysterious locale in the middle of the Pacific.

Rapa Nui Skull

So what the hell do you think happened on Rapa Nui? Go there and let your imagination run wild! Get in touch with us to take the first step in planning your adventure to Rapa Nui/Easter Island.

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