Scientists had wondered for many years how people had arrived on Easter Island, (known as Rapanui in the Polynesian) which is two thousand miles away from any other population centre. By checking the DNA of the Easter Islanders, they discovered that the origins of the islanders were Polynesian.
These people had come to the islands on relatively small canoes, made from dug out tree trunks, across thousands of miles of open sea, and it's easy to imagine a small group of Polynesians stepping off their canoes onto one of the most isolated islands on earth.
Easter island is most famous for its Moai, the stone monoliths that are dotted about the island. These stone carvings are huge, and very very heavy - some are heavier than the stones of Stonehenge. They must also have taken a long time to carve. What was the purpose of these objects? There is a clue. One of the words used by modern Islanders to describe the objects - "aringa ora" means "the living faces of our ancestors". The islanders were ancestor worshippers.
Each monolith took considerable effort to construct. To begin with, the rock must be carved, a process that could take many years. Then they must be moved around the island. It must have taken an incredibly sophisticated society to allow for their construction. At the height of this society there were over 10,000 people living on this island. There are many different methods that have been proposed to move the monoliths, but all have a common theme - they require wood.
Through dating, it can be seen that over time, the monoliths grew larger and larger, and thus would have required more and more wood to move around. However, there is something even more puzzling. There are over 600 of these statues, and yet, just when Easter Island society had reached its peak, it seems to have collapsed. Many of the statues have been pushed over, in a destructive manner.
Most of the moai were carved out of the rock at Rano Raraku. All around this area are nearly 400 moai, in various stages of completion. It seems that this quarry was suddenly abandoned - tools dropped with half carved statues left in the rock. What caused this?
The clue is in the diet of the people. By studying their diet over time, scientists discovered that in the early period of the island's occupation, there were many birds, and many fish. However, gradually, over time, fewer bird bones, and fewer fish bones, were found. What had happened?
There is something odd about Easter Island. We know that trees are required to transport the statues. We also know that the islanders needed canoes to catch their fish. But looking out over the island, there is not a single tree in sight. The island used to be covered in palm trees. As the mania for statue building increased, more and more trees were cut down. Easter Island is only 150 square miles in area. The whole of the island can be seen from some points. When the last tree fell, everybody knew it was the last tree. But it still fell.
The birds had nowhere to nest. There were no trees to make canoes, to catch the fish. The islanders were trapped, on an island 2000 miles away from the nearest population base, in a prison of their own making... and they had very little food.
About this time there are evidence of the erection of stone shelters. Not just to live in, but to protect chickens, one of the last available sources of food, from thieves. There is also evidence of something else. The islanders began to make weapons. Skeletons begin to show evidence of violent deaths. Stone statues are torn down in anger - their gods have betrayed them. Cannibalism became rife. Society had collapsed into chaos and barbarism.
Yet when Europeans arrived, although the community they found was poor, there was no evidence of this barbarism. The islanders devised a way to share the few available resources. The cult of the birdman established a competitive tradition.
Every year, a representitive of each tribe, chosen by the leaders, would swim across the sea to Motu Nui, a nearby Islet to search for the egg of the Sooty Tern. Then, they would return. Whichever tribe won this race would have control of the island's resources for the rest of the year. The Birdman ritual was still in existence when Europeans arrived on Easter Island - therefore historically documented. Of course, the arrival of these Europeans didn't mean the islanders were freed from their prison - they brought new disaster, in the form of syphilis, smallpox, and slavery.
It's an interesting story. It's a story of human achievement, and a story of human folly. It's also a lesson in environmentalism.
Some Photos of the maoi
Easter Island Glossary
More pictures of the island