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.
While Easter Island is thought to have been first discovered and inhabited by Polynesians (probably coming from the Marquesas Islands, north of Tahiti), around 300 AD, it is generally thought by mainstream archeologists that the time of the excavation and movement of the statues was 1100-1680 AD. This is based on radio-carbon dating of wood, bone and shell that has been found buried in and around the statues and the quarry of Rano Raraku. However, we do not know how deep these objects were buried, and they might have been placed there after the statues had been carved. (Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica)
Currently, 887 statues of various sizes (some gigantically huge) have been inventoried on the island, and most are still around the quarry. Many of these are leaning over or fallen. Often they are buried under dozens of feet of “shifting soil.” But where all this shifting soil is coming from is a big question since these statues are up against sheer cliff walls of the quarry that are virtually devoid of soil. Has this soil been swept here by a tsunami? When one of the large moai statues was completely uncovered by archeologists in 2011 many people were astonished that the moai were not just heads, but have even larger bodies beneath the soil. This naturally got bloggers and others speculating on how old the statues seemed. Were they only 400 years old or were they thousands of years old—buried by the dust of time?
As I looked at my notes and thought about this first question concerning Easter Island, it seemed possible to me that these statues might have been carved by Sumerians who brought the Fuente Magna Bowl to Tiwanaku around 3000 BC—making them an astonishing 5,000 years old. While people may have been around these statues 500 years ago, leaving all sorts of datable material for later analysis, they didn’t necessarily make these statues. The moai may have been standing there then as enigmatically as they stand there today. Perhaps a fragment of a coke bottle from 2013 will be dug up by archeologists in the future who will similarly misinterpret their find.
Meanwhile, when gigantic stone walls and statues stand in the dust of time, many cultures and—in Rapa Nui—beach parties, come and go: we will have lots of datable material to send to the laboratories, but is it the oldest datable material that matters. Was this material from the time that the statues were actually quarried from the living rock of the volcanic cliffs of Rano Raraku? Indeed, the date has not been established yet by archeologists, and no such dating technique currently exists according to researchers.
But first, let us look at the discovery of Easter Island. At the time, early explorers were out looking for a land in the South Pacific called Davis Land. A Dutch buccaneer named John Davis, who captained the English ship The Bachelor’s Delight, was returning from raids in Panama and headed for Cape Horn, when the ship’s crew sighted land in 1687. The lieutenant of the ship, Mr. Wafer, described the sighting in a book published in 1688 in London entitled Description of the Isthmus of Darien:
...we came to latitude 27° 20’ south when about two hours before day we fell in with a low sandy island and heard a great roaring noise like that of sea beating upon the shore ahead of the ship... so we plyed off till day then stood in again with the land, which proved to be a small flat island without the guard of any rocks... To the westward about twelve leagues by judgment we saw a range of high land which we took to be islands; for there were several partitions in the prospect. This land seemed to reach about fourteen or fifteen leagues in a range, and there came thence great flocks of fowls.
The Bachelor’s Delight had actually been “pitchforked” out into the unexplored south Pacific by a gigantic tsunami wave generated by the great earthquake of Callao (Lima’s port on the coast of Peru) in 1687. They kept steering south and headed back east to Chile. John Macmillan Brown in The Riddle of the Pacific (from which Wafer is quoted) also quotes the navigator Dampier from his two volumes of voyages (London, 1699): “Captain Davis told me lately that... about five hundred leagues from Copaype on the coast of Chili in latitude 27° S. he saw a small sandy island just by him; and that they saw to the westward of it a long tract of pretty high land tending away to the north-west out of sight.”
This mysterious land, “stretching to the north-west out of sight,” was to be named “Davis Land” and it added to the popular belief that a great southern continent existed in the South Pacific. It was thirty-five years later that Easter Island was discovered on Easter Day, 1722, by the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. He was searching for Davis Land but all he could find was this tiny speck of an island. Davis Land, if it had ever existed, had disappeared! There is no large landmass near Easter Island, and it could not be the small sandy island described— there is hardly a bit of sandy beach on the entire island.
Suddenly we have the elements of a lost continent in the Pacific that is not thousands of years old, but was submerged only recently! Says Brown in Riddle of the Pacific:
And yet no one who has visited Easter Island but must deny its identity with either of the lands that Davis saw, either the low, flat, sandy island or the long, partitioned range of land stretching away to the north-west over the horizon. If we have any respect for a sailor’s evidence on a sailor’s question, we must accept the existence of both lands in 1687 and their non-existence in 1722 when Roggewein [sic, usually spelled Roggeveen] sailed along the latitude in search of them. In other words, land of considerable extent, probably archipelagic, has gone down in the southeast Pacific away to the east of Easter Island. …we cannot entirely reject his evidence that considerable tracts of land in the southeast Pacific have gone down.
Clearly, the islanders had felt that they were alone in the world for quite some time by the time the first European explorers landed on the island. Yes, the islanders were very, very glad to see them! While large ships had come to the island in the past—from Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands or even South America—these ships had long ago stopped coming and the islanders felt abandoned. Had these voyages stopped only a few hundred years before the year 1722? It would seem that the abandonment of the island by big ships coming from Polynesia or South America must have happened many thousands of years ago—perhaps as early as 900 BC, about the time of King Solomon’s ships to Ophir, the land of gold. Polynesians may have continued to visit Rapa Nui on smaller expeditions until around 1500 AD. At the time of Captain Cook (c.1770) only Tonga had large ocean-going ships big enough to make the long journeys necessary to Hawaii or Easter Island. Other Polynesians such as those in Tahiti or the Marquesas had only smaller ships for inter-island navigation.
Roggeveen landed on an island inhabited by Polynesians, some of whom had light skins, red hair and looked like Europeans. He assessed the total population at about 5,000; they wore the simplest of clothes and lived in reed huts. Were some of the Easter Islanders natural red-heads? Many of the statues had a red topknot on them to symbolize the tying of very long hair and the top of the head in a knot. This hairstyle is still used today by women around the world and by male wandering holy men in China and India where they are called sadhus). Vikings were also said to wear their long hair in this many as well.
The first contact with the newcomers was unfortunately marked by a bloody incident. Roggeveen, at the head of 150 of his men, was alarmed at the excessive curiosity and outright thievery of the islanders. As they closed in on his men— apparently out of curiosity, rather than meaning harm—Roggeveen ordered his men to fire on the crowd, killing some of the natives. They dispersed, chiefly frightened by the noise, and later came back with gifts from the bounty of the island. They also offered their wives and daughters for sex. Easter Islanders certainly knew the value of fresh blood, and it became common in early contacts for women to swim out to arriving ships and board them, and then dance and have sex with the sailors. The men would wait on shore to steal what they could when the strangers arrived on the island to visit.
After this first meeting, the Dutch were allowed to roam freely throughout the island and saw for the first time the gigantic statues, which were apparently already toppled and lying on the ground. Some of the statues at the quarry of Rano Raraku were still standing, however. Roggeveen was unable to believe that the great figures could have been carved from rock, and thought they were made of clay and filled with stones. The islanders he found inhabited thatched huts and eked out a meager living from the windy island. They had bananas, fish and South American plants like yucca and sweet potato. Roggeveen described them as being heavily tattooed, with their earlobes pierced and hanging down to their shoulders.
Easter Island had no further contact until almost fifty years later; in 1770 it was visited by two Spanish ships and then three years later by Captain Cook who wrote compassionately about the island—which he saw as arid and windswept—and the people—as poor as the earth on which they lived. Yet, he was amazed at the enormous statues, and awed by the implications for the civilization that had made them.
In 1786, a French expedition under the Comte de La Perouse stopped for a short time on the island and was quick to note the thieving propensities of the islanders. However, the Comte generously informed his crew that any clothing stolen would be replaced, and he even distributed presents among the eager population. After a short stay, the expedition sailed away, leaving the people of this strange, solitary region with pleasant memories.
More incidents followed, including the abduction of nearly a quarter of the population to work as slaves on the Peruvian guano islands of Chincho in 1862. The Chilean Navy arrived in 1870 for a geographical survey and then officially claimed the island for Chile in 1888.
Part 2: The Strange Rongorongo Script
Part 3: And the Statues Walked
Part 4: Stones Walking
Part 5: The Megalithic Wall of Vinapu
Part 6: The Museum in Hanga Roa