Hidden Rapa Nui: Easter Island’s Cults, Cannibals, and Cultural Connections
Two-thousand-and-two-hundred miles (3,500 km) west beyond the coast of Chile, in the dark blue belly of the southeastern Pacific Ocean, hides Easter Island. A slightly more appropriate name of this most mysterious island is its current, Polynesian name: Rapa Nui . Even more apt is its original name: Te pito o te Kainga a Hau Maka, which means “The Navel of the World.” This remote island rests atop the Nazca Plate, which makes it a hotspot for volcanic/tectonic activity, demonstrated by the presence of its extinct, coalesced volcanoes, crater lakes, along with a complex maze of volcanic caves and tubes beneath its surface.
Extremely remote islands that were inhabited in ancient times can be wonderful for those seeking to decipher human history because they often serve as time capsules, preserving anthropological and archaeological treasures. Once unlocked, this particular time capsule reveals an ominous picture of conflicting cults and cannibalism, both with curious cross-cultural connections.
Mainstream Myths and Moai Malarkey
While there is absolutely no academic consensus among scholars regarding the settling and origins of human activity on the island, the most widely accepted narrative is that at some point between 300 AD and 1200 AD, Polynesian settlers arrived after voyaging from either the Marquesas Islands or the Gambier Islands. After settling the island, they split into two distinct, rival confederations around 1500 AD. Both confederations were based on lineage and over the centuries they engaged in the construction of platform temples, roads, and the colossal/enigmatic Moai statues.
Moai statues at Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island). ( Pedro /Adobe Stock)
The best guess of the alleged experts is that these intensive construction projects devoured much of the island’s natural resources - specifically the trees, which they believe were driven into extinction by constant harvesting to provide rollers and cordage utilized in the maniacal megalithic projects. Then, according to the tale, shortly after the arrival of European explorers around 1720 AD, all hell broke loose and the two clans engaged in a civil war, toppling the sacred statues and engulfing the island in famine and chaos. This second wave of misfortune is beyond any doubt; however, the more ancient history of the island, although frequently presented as relative fact, is at odds with native oral traditions and many archaeological oddities.
All scholarly speculation aside, the islanders were certainly ravaged from the mid nineteenth century AD to the late nineteenth century AD. European capitalists and colonists abducted or coerced nearly half the population to serve as slave labor, mostly in Peru, to toil in booming industries like sugar cane or rubber plantations. The islanders who managed to escape this horror were victimized by another: smallpox. This disease swept through the population being transmitted by the European capitalists and the few islanders who somehow found their way home after their ordeal.
It is estimated that in this time period the population dropped by ninety-four percent, plummeting from several thousand to only a few hundred. It is primarily this period of death and devastation that has buried the ancient history of the Rapa Nui even deeper under layers of time now topped with confusion. So for the sake of clarity, there seems to have been multiple collapses; the first is related to the competing factions on the island and led to the sudden halting of Moai construction, and the second more recent one was havoc wreaked by the capitalistic navigators.
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The Chronicles of Jacob Roggeveen
On Easter Sunday April 5th, 1722, Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen arrived ashore, marking the first recorded contact between Europeans and the islanders. According to the chronicles of Roggeveen, he and his crew witnessed gigantic, fair-skinned inhabitants, with long, drooping ears, red hair, covered in tattoos and body paint, who were engaged in some form of worship or veneration of the enormous stone statues.
“Thus far my narratives will gain credit, because it contains nothing uncommon, yet I must declare that these savages are of more than gigantic size, for the men being twice as tall and thick as the largest of our people; they measured, one with the other, the height of twelve feet (3.7 meters), so that we could easily—who will not wonder without stooping, have passed between the legs of these sons of GOLIATH. According to their height, so is their thickness, and are all, now with another, very well proportioned, so that each could have passed for a HERCULES; but none of their wives came up to the height of the men, being commonly not above ten or eleven feet (3 or 3.4 meters). The men had their bodies painted with a red or dark brown, and the women with a scarlet color. I doubt not but most people who read this voyage will give no credit to what I now relate, and that this account of the height of these giants will probably pass with them for a mere fable or fiction; but this I declare, that I have put down nothing but real truth, and that this people, upon the nicest inspection, were in fact of such a surpassing height as I have here described.”
Rapa Nui ancestor figure (moai kavakava). ( Public Domain )
Additional Anomalous Accounts
Another collection of very strange accounts comes from 1864 AD and was documented by the missionary Eugene Eyraud, who recorded that the inhabitants were not remotely dependent on the ocean, but rather expert farmers, and he also made note that the ruling class of this rigid caste system was genetically distinct. “These savages are tall, strong and well built. Their features resemble far more European type than those of the other islanders of Oceania.”
Eugene Eyraud was also responsible for the discovery of the already then lost Rongorongo tablets which contain this mysterious, and still undeciphered language. Eyraud also acquired some of the extremely rare wooden statues that can now be found in various European museums, which depict men with elongated heads, long drooping ears, angular faces with high cheek bones, disproportionately large eyes, and curious protuberances along their spinal column. Returning to Roggeveen, additional details about the traits of the “long-ears,” (as they were known by the other, certainly Polynesian inhabitants):
“Their ears were so long that they hung down as far as to the shoulders. What the form of worship of these people comprises we were not able to gather any full knowledge of, owing to the shortness of our stay among them; we noticed only that they kindle fire in front of certain remarkably tall stone figures they had set up; and, thereafter squatting on their heels with heads bowed down, they bring the palms of their hands together and alternately raise and lower them.”
The Dutch explorers also made specific note that the other inhabitants of the island did not practice this ceremonial veneration of the Moai, only these genetically odd islanders.
Rongorongo tablet. ( Public Domain )
Cannibalism and Cognitive Dissonance
Upon entering the realm of the great taboo, it’s worth disclaiming that cognitive dissonance runs amok within the archaeological/anthropological communities. Apparently, the ancient practice of cannibalism is so abhorrent to many of them, they lose all objectivity and descend into delusion, preferring to deny that practices like ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism actually occurred. But they most certainly did.
The native oral traditions are awash with tales of cannibalism and Norwegian explorer and ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl (who was the first to conduct excavations on the island) swiftly determined that human remains excavated from the Ahu Nauna site (a Moai platform temple) yielded charred human bones with joint cut marks indicating clear evidence of human sacrifice/ritualistic cannibalism. An account from the 1800s AD reinforces this as well, recorded by Father Gaspard Zumbohm - the native recollection that this now lost, genetically unique high priesthood used to eat children as part of their worship of their deity Makemake.
Cannibalism, Confusion, and Contradiction
Many modern academics are attempting to downplay or outright deny the evidence of civil turmoil and ritual cannibalism of island’s ancient history, but these class conflicts and cannibalistic activities are not only testified to by the oral traditions, but also the textual and archaeological evidence. In 2005, Rapa Nui expert, scholar, and author Shawn McLaughlin compiled an exquisite essay on the issue entitled ‘ Cannibalism and Easter Island: Evaluation, Discussion of Probabilities, and Survey of the Literature on the Subject.’
McLaughlin takes an extremely objective and prudent position as a surveyor, but within this essay is a trove of both hard and circumstantial evidence combined with justifiable accusations towards denier scholars of emotionally motivated biases that desperately seek to deny what all the evidence is screaming. In other words, despite McLaughlin’s neutrality, his essay definitively proves ritual cannibalism occurred on Rapa Nui:
“Lee (American archaeologist Dr. Georgia Lee) goes on to cite Patrick Kirch’s ‘Evolution of Polynesian Chiefdoms’ in which evidence for cannibalism is supported by the proliferation of obsidian spear points (“mata’a” on Easter Island) – a phenomenon also noted by Peter Baker (1993), dating from times of conflict – as well as cut marks found on human bones characteristic of how people remove flesh from animal bones.”
The Case for Cannibalism Continued
Although there is an ever growing narrative that attempts to portray Rapa Nui’s prehistory as devoid of conflict and cannibalism, many objective archaeological studies indicate otherwise and can all be found in McLaughlin’s brilliant survey.
“Amongst the most distinctive scientific analyses supporting cannibalism on the island comes from Arne Skjolsvold’s ‘Archaeological Investigations at Anakena, Easter Island’ (1994). In it he relates how, in a trench dug during excavations at Ahu Nau Nau, [another Moai platform temple] fire-damaged bones ‘found together with bones of edible prey indicates cannibalistic activity. Sljolsvold also concludes that ‘cannibalism had connections with the activities of the ahu [Moai platform temples.]’”
‘A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui’ (1795) by William Hodges. ( Public Domain )
As recently as 2001 AD, human child remains were discovered which display evidence of cannibalism. “In evaluating human remains found at Ahu O Rongo [another Moai platform temple] in 2001, Polet [Dr. Caroline Polet Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences 2003] reports cut marks on the ulna of a 10-year-old. ‘These cut marks,’ Polet says, ‘suggest that the corpse was defleshed with a sharp object prior to cremation and interment.’”
Cults and Comparative Mythology
The religion on the island revolved around this deity Makemake, who can be found depicted in glyphs exclusively in the subterranean cavities of the island (like the cave Ana Kai Tangata – The Place Where Men are Eaten). His is an otherworldly appearance with a round head, large eyes, and he often has anthropomorphic/aviary features. Some experts suggest this deity is unknown to Polynesian belief systems while others equate him with the Polynesian deity Tane. This is an understandable comparison because both deities were believed to be creators and closely associated with fertility, plant life, and agriculture.
Makemake with two birdmen, carved from red scoria. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Tane’s mythology is interesting in that his most famous mythological deeds were the separation of his united Earth Mother and Sky Father, and his descent into the underworld. What’s so interesting about this, within the context of chthonic (relating to the underworld) mythology and human/child sacrifice, is that these beliefs and practices ring familiar across a wide range of prehistoric cultures. Saturn for example, was of course, the Greco Roman deity heavily associated with the nether realm and infanticide who was notorious for the castration of his Sky Father – Uranus, and subjugation of his Earth Mother – Gaia. Saturn/Cronus has been soundly equated with the Egyptian deity of the Earth and fertility Geb, who was also depicted with aviary features.
There are many more mythological/prehistoric parallels, like the Tengu beings of Japan, the megaliths, human sacrifices, and giants of Malta, the Redhorn figure of Native American beliefs who had long-drooping ears and wore red body paint. But the most striking of all are the strong connections to the Pre-Columbian traditions of Peru regarding the possibly fair-skinned bearded creator, bestower of agriculture, megalithic builder, and patriarch of a race of giant warrior shaman kings – Viracocha. This connection runs far too deep to even address, but suffice it to say that there are archaeological links to ancient Peru and Mesoamerica that have been noted by a variety of experts.
A kneeling moai said to bear resemblance to statues around Lake Titicaca in South America. (Brocken Inaglory/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It can be concluded with objective reason and relative certainty that there were two distinct ethnic groups on the island in prehistoric times, one that was Polynesian and one that remains a mystery, but who seems to have cultural connections and genetic traits linking them with the Old World. It can be stated that there is substantial evidence of ritualistic cannibalism and human sacrifice occurring. It can also be concluded that many of the modern archaeological and anthropological studies on the island’s history are tainted by confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, so beware that there is a popular faction publishing narratives that masquerade as objective science, or even worse, as factual, but are, in reality, ironically mythological.
It is fair to question why the Rongorongo lexicon has yet to be deciphered when there is ample academic interest and scholarly expertise to do so. Genetic testing and thorough laboratory analyses of the human remains discovered would solve many mysteries and would cascade blinding light onto this chapter of human history, but suspiciously, UNESCO policies and private, non-native landowners are preventing any possibility of such analyses.
Top Image: Moai on Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. Source: thakala /Adobe Stock
By Mark A. Carpenter
Flenley, John. Bahn, Paul G. The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp.76; 154.
Heyerdahl, Thor. Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island. Rand McNally. (1958).
Heyerdahl, Thor. Easter Island: The Mystery Solved . (1989). Pp. 208, 114, 68. Random House New York, New York.
Lee, G. (1992). Rock Art of Easter Island: Symbols of Power, Prayers to the Gods. Monumenta Archaeologica; 17 Mathematics; 143. Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-917956-74-4. Retrieved 2019-07-23.
McLaughlin, Shawn. (2005). "Cannibalism and Easter Island: Evaluation, Discussion of Probabilities, and Survey of the Literature on the Subject," Rapa Nui Journal: Journal of the Easter Island Foundation: Vol. 19 : Iss. 1 , Article 6. Available at: https://kahualike.manoa.hawaii.edu/rnj/vol19/iss1/6