One of the world's most famous yet least visited archaeological sites, Easter Island is a small, hilly, now treeless island of volcanic origin. Located in the Pacific Ocean at 27 degrees south of the equator and some 2200 miles (3600 kilometers) off the coast of Chile, it is considered to be the world’s most remote inhabited island. Sixty-three square miles in size and with three extinct volcanoes (the tallest rising to 1674 feet), the island is, technically speaking, a single massive volcano rising over ten thousand feet from the Pacific Ocean floor. The oldest known traditional name of the island is Te Pito o Te Henua, meaning ‘The Center (or Navel) of the World.’ In the 1860’s Tahitian sailors gave the island the name Rapa Nui, meaning ‘Great Rapa,’ due to its resemblance to another island in Polynesia called Rapa Iti, meaning ‘Little Rapa’. The island received its most well known current name, Easter Island, from the Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen who became the first European to visit on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1722.
In the early 1950s, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (famous for his Kon-Tiki and Ra raft voyages across the oceans) popularized the idea that the island had been originally settled by advanced societies of Indians from the coast of South America. Extensive archaeological, ethnographic and linguistic research has conclusively shown this hypothesis to be inaccurate. It is now recognized that the original inhabitants of Easter Island are of Polynesian stock (DNA extracts from skeletons have confirmed this), that they most probably came from the Marquesas or Society islands, and that they arrived as early as 318 AD (carbon dating of reeds from a grave confirms this). It is estimated that the original colonists, who may have been lost at sea, arrived in only a few canoes and numbered fewer than 100. At the time of their arrival, much of the island was forested, was teeming with land birds, and was perhaps the most productive breeding site for seabirds in the Polynesia region. Because of the plentiful bird, fish and plant food sources, the human population grew and gave rise to a rich religious and artistic culture.
That culture's most famous features are its enormous stone statues called moai, at least 288 of which once stood upon massive stone platforms called ahu. There are some 250 of these ahu platforms spaced approximately one half mile apart and creating an almost unbroken line around the perimeter of the island. Another 600 moai statues, in various stages of completion, are scattered around the island, either in quarries or along ancient roads between the quarries and the coastal areas where the statues were most often erected. Nearly all the moai are carved from the tough stone of the Rano Raraku volcano. The average statue is 14 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 14 tons. Some moai were as large as 33 feet and weighed more than 80 tons (one statue only partially quarried from the bedrock was 65 feet long and would have weighed an estimated 270 tons). Depending upon the size of the statues, it has been estimated that between 50 and 150 people were needed to drag them across the countryside on sleds and rollers made from the island's trees.
The Paschalococos disperta and the Saphora toromiro were once the island’s most bountiful trees and sediment samples dating from 200 AD indicate an abundance of pollen from both trees in the island biota at that time. The Paschalococos disperta bear a striking resemblance to the still-surviving Jubaea chilensis, the Chilean wine palm, which grows up eighty feet tall and six feet in diameter. Thus the Paschalococos disperta palm tree trunks are the most probable candidates for the solution to the transportation of the enormous moai from their carving location at the Rano Raraku volcano to the many locations where they were erected around the island. These trees were also important to the islanders for fuel and for the construction of houses and ocean-fishing canoes.
The moai and ahu were in use as early as AD 500, the majority were carved and erected between AD 1000 and 1650, and they were still standing when Jacob Roggeveen visited the island in 1722. Recent research has shown that certain statue sites, particularly the most important ones with great ahu platforms, were periodically ritually dismantled and reassembled with ever-larger statues. A small number of the moai were once capped with ‘crowns’ or ‘hats’ of red volcanic stone. The meaning and purpose of these capstones is not known, but archaeologists have suggested that the moai thus marked were of pan-island ritual significance or perhaps sacred to a particular clan.
Scholars are unable to definitively explain the function and use of the moai statues. It is assumed that their carving and erection derived from an idea rooted in similar practices found elsewhere in Polynesia, but which evolved in a unique way on Easter Island. Archaeological and iconographic analysis indicates that the statue cult was based on an ideology of male, lineage-based authority incorporating anthropomorphic symbolism. The statues were thus symbols of authority and power, both religious and political. But they were not only symbols. To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called mana. The ahu platforms of Easter Island were the sanctuaries of the people of Rapa Nui, and the moai statues were the ritually charged sacred objects of those sanctuaries. While the statues have been toppled and re-erected over the centuries, the mana or spiritual presence of Rapa Nui is still strongly present at the ahu sites and atop the sacred volcanoes.
Mystery surrounds the purpose of the ahu platforms and moai statues but even more perplexing mysteries have begun to surface from the research of scholars outside the boundaries of conventional archaeology. As previously mentioned, orthodox archaeologists believe that Easter Island was initially settled sometime around 318 AD by a small group of Polynesians lost on the open sea. Other scholars, however, have suggested that the tiny island may have once been part of far larger island and that the original discovery and use of the site may be many thousands of years earlier in time (it is known, for example, that Melanesians were journeying around the Pacific in boats as early as 5500 BC).