The Cataclysm of Easter Island - Part 1
It was on a windy spring morning in February of 2013 that I stepped off the Lan Peru jet onto the runway on Easter Island/Rapa Nui. A group of WEX members and I had boarded the plane in Lima, Peru the night before and would now spend the next four days on the small but mysterious island.
We hired a minibus to take us around the island and marveled at the giant statues and megalithic walls of basalt and granite. I was amazed at the fine carving and construction and wondered what the mainstream had to say about the history. As I suspected, they maintained that the making of the statues was fairly recent and that most of the mysteries associated with the island had been solved. Had they?
I wondered about a few things that seemed to need explaining:
- Why did the islanders excavate and move such gigantic statues when smaller ones would have presumably served the same purpose? How were they moved?
- Why are the statues buried with up to 30 feet of soil? Was this done on purpose or has thousands of years of soil buildup been created around the statues?
- Why did the islanders think that putting statues facing inward around the island would keep it from sinking into the ocean like their lost land of Hiva?
- How did they make fine drill holes and saw cuts on some of the stone walls?
- Why would a small remote island population invent their own written language? Could such a script be related to other ancient forms of writing?
- Could a remote island like Rapa Nui be related to thousands of years of trans-Pacific contact that spanned Asia, Oceania and the Americas?
First, let us look at a brief, official history of our very mysterious island. According to the UNESCO website the official history of the remote island is as follows:
Rapa Nui contains one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena in the world. An artistic and architectural tradition of great power and imagination was developed by a society completely isolated from external cultural influences of any kind for over a millennium. The substantial remains of this culture blend with their natural surroundings to create an unparalleled cultural landscape.
The island was settled around AD 300 by Polynesians, probably from the Marquesas, who brought with them a wholly Stone Age society. All the cultural elements in Rapa Nui before the arrival of Europeans indicate that there were no other incoming groups. Between the 10th and 16th centuries the island community expanded steadily, settlements being set up along practically the entire coastline. The high cultural level of this society is best known from its monumental stone figures ( moai) and ceremonial shrines ( ahu); it is also noteworthy for a form of pictographic writing ( rongo rongo ), so far undeciphered.
However, there was an economic and social crisis in the community in the 16th century, attributable to overpopulation and environmental deterioration. This resulted in the population being divided into two separate groups of clans who were constantly involved in warfare. The warrior class that evolved from this situation gave rise to the so-called Birdman cult, based on the small islands offshore of Orongo, which superseded the statue-building religion and threw down most of the moai and ahu.
On Easter Sunday 1722 Jacob Roggeveen of the Dutch East India Company chanced upon the island and gave it its European name. It was annexed to Chile in 1888.
The most famous archaeological features of Rapa Nui are the moai, which are believed to represent sacred ancestors who watch over the villages and ceremonial areas. They range in height from 2 m to 20 m and are for the most part carved from the scoria, using simple picks ( toli) made from hard basalt and then lowered down the slopes into previously dug holes.
A number of moai are still in an uncompleted condition in the quarries, providing valuable information about the method of manufacture. Some have large cylindrical pieces of red stone known as pukao, extracted from the small volcano Punapao, as headdresses: these are believed to denote special ritual status. There is a clear stylistic evolution in the form and size of the moai, from the earlier small, round-headed and round-eyed figures to the best-known large, elongated figures with carefully carved fingers, nostrils, long ears, and other features.
The shrines (ahu) vary considerably in size and form. There are certain constant features, notably a raised rectangular platform of large worked stones filled with rubble, a ramp often paved with rounded beach pebbles, and leveled area in front of the platform. Some have moai on them, and there are tombs in a number of them in which skeletal remains have been discovered. The ahu are generally located on the coast and oriented parallel to it.