Easter Island, also called Rapa Nui, is said to be the most isolated habitable spot on earth. Similar to the size of Galveston Island, Easter Island is 1,400 miles from the next closest habitable island, and is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, South America. Anthropologists estimate that the island was first inhabited by Polynesian settlers between the years 400 – 800 A.D.
Rapa Nui originally had an abundance of vegetation and native animal species, and islanders were once able to grow bananas, taro, and sweet potatoes in the fertile soil, while a variety of palms provided them with substantial timber to construct canoes and homes. Settlers also feasted on porpoise, fish, and seabirds from the surrounding waters.
Reflective of the island’s plentiful resources, inhabitants had ample leisure time and began to carve stone statues, called moai, from volcanic rock which was mostly found in a single quarry known as Rano Raraku. As time passed these statues became more grandiose in size to symbolize individual clans’ wealth and power. One of the biggest riddles of today is how the islanders were able to transport such large statues across the island when the largest known statue weighed up to 270 tons. The most plausible answer is that large timbers were used to roll each monolithic across the island terrain.
Easter Island was seen by Europeans for the first time when a Dutch ship arrived on its shores on Easter Sunday, 1722. What it came upon was a depleted landscape of rolling grasslands with few trees, hardly any animal species other than insects, and mysterious dilapidated stone statues. What had happened?
The overall picture is among the most extreme examples of deforestation in the world. The rise in population on the island was confronted with depleting resources. By the year 1400, islanders had driven its tree species to near extinction. Without the necessary lumber, inhabitants were no longer able to build homes and canoes, nor were they able to continue to transport their large statues.
The disappearance of the large trees then led to the erosion of their staple crops. Without canoes they could no longer travel out to sea for access to porpoise and other fish, so these vanished from their diet. Being landlocked, they then overexploited shellfish and native bird populations. To supplement the loss of meat in their diet, settlers had to rely heavily on chicken, and they were eventually forced to turn to cannibalism to avoid starvation.
Another spiraling effect of the depletion of available resources was the collapse of their governmental structure. Without wood, many islanders were forced to live in caves. They quit using the moai statues as icons and began to worship another spiritual figure – the birdman. By the next time another explorer came to Rapa Nui in 1864, all of the statues had been pulled down and desecrated by the few remaining inhabitants.
Many see the mystery of Easter Island as a foreshadow for our current situation: a society with an abundance of resources which led to a technologically advanced population, which then depleted those resources causing intertribal conflicts, and finally leading to a near collapse of their civilization.
The Easter Island Traveling Exhibit was a joint project between the Museum and Children’s departments.