Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Maoi statues on Easter Island

Demise of ancient Rapa Nui civilization linked to European contact

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A 2015 study suggests that European “exploration” of the world resulted in the collapse of yet another indigenous people previously thought to have died out pre-contact: the Rapa Nui of Easter Island. Researchers of the island are finding evidence that the population of these people did not decline so precipitously as to endanger their survival until after Europeans arrived in 1722.

Previously, scientists theorized that the Rapa Nui population collapsed before Europeans arrived, from felling of trees and other vegetation, attendant topsoil loss and subsequent starvation of many of the people.

Researchers from Chile, New Zealand, and the United States are doing hydration testing of obsidian artifacts to gauge human activity and population movement on the island, says

“For many years,” the article says, “Earth scientists and others have used Easter Island and its inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, as a lesson in what can happen when a parcel of land is overpopulated and thus overused—resources diminish and the people starve to death (or resort to cannibalism as some have suggested). But now, the researchers with this new effort suggest that thinking may be wrong.”

Scientists think Polynesians settled the island around 1200 AD. They became the Rapa Nui people, who erected 887 fabulous and famous giant stone statues called moai that mystify people. Over the next several hundred years, says, they cut down most of the trees and other plants on the northern part of Easter Island.

The maoi statues of Easter Island

The maoi statues of Easter Island. Source: BigStockPhoto

The moai statues of huge male figures on average are 13 feet high (3.9624 m) and weigh 14 tons (12,700 kg). They are made of compressed volcanic ash. It’s believed they were made and transported around 1400 to 1600 A.D. says the statues hold a sacred role in the Rapa Nui people’s lives and may be ceremonial conduits for contact with the gods.

In 2017, a team of researchers, including Carl Lipo, an anthropology professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Binghamton University, studied the monumental statues (moai) built by the Rapa Nui and the previously unacknowledged giant stone hats (pukao) that were placed atop them. Lipo’s team believes the creation of the moai and their pukao are evidence that the Rapa Nui people were more cooperative and community-minded than warrior-like.

Analysis of obsidian artifacts from the northern part of the island gave insights about land use over the years. Obsidian is a type of natural glass that many prehistoric human groups around the world have worked into sharp tools.

From the land-use theories, the researchers were able to tell where Rapa Nui people lived over the years. They concluded there were population shifts reflecting changing weather, as opposed to outright die-offs of large segments of the population. Some areas did lose people before Europeans came, researchers said. And, contrary to what one might believe would happen, there was an initial gain in population after Europeans came, until diseases such as syphilis and smallpox, and kidnapping of Rapa Nui for slavery decimated them.

The abstract of the researchers’ paper at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America says: “This analysis confirms that the intensity of land use decreased substantially in some areas of the island before European contact.” A decrease in land use, they assume, correlates to a population decline.

Rapa Nui people now number about 5,700. It is nearly impossible to say what the numbers of people were before modern census-taking. The island, 2,300 miles (3,701 km) west of South America, is 63 square miles (163 square km).

An article on gives a brief synopsis of the sad things that happened to Easter Islanders after contact with Europeans, which began in 1722 when a Dutch party landed there:

A French navigator, Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse, found 2,000 people on the island when he arrived in 1786. A major slave raid from Peru in 1862, followed by epidemics of smallpox, reduced the population to only 111 people by 1877. By that time, Catholic missionaries had settled on Easter Island and begun to convert the population to Christianity, a process that was completed by the late 19th century. In 1888, Chile annexed Easter Island, leasing much of the land for sheep raising. The Chilean government appointed a civilian governor for Easter Island in 1965, and the island’s residents became full Chilean citizens.

The islanders now obtain their livelihood mostly through the tourism industry.

Top Image: Maoi statues on Easter Island. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Mark Miller



Glad you like us - and congratulations to Ancient Mysteries on a continuous cavalcade of informative articles!
Aye - the walls are more or less identical to those ancient tightly fitted megalithic structures all over the world. If, as seems likely, they date from extreme antiquity then it's also likely that the island was once merely the highlands of a larger landmass. The destruction meted out by tidal waves and cosmic events has been underestimated by most, and many thousands of years of normal erosion have also taken their toll. We're fortunate that anything at all is left standing, as more than 90% of the structures of the global antediluvian civilisation seem to have been utterly obliterated.

Ahh, how pleasent! Someone from one of my favorite sites, New Illuminati, commenting on another of my favorite sites, Ancient Origins. I have both sites bookmarked! My many thanks to both parties for your continuous supply of mentally stimulating and thought provocative articles.

On to the story at hand. Although this is the first time I have heard this account to what might have happend to the Rapa Nui people, I find it a very plausible explination the populations decline, as well as, the ecosystem. ...Man and his greed :/ 

I have studied the island a fair amount and agree with you in terms of remnants of a much older cullture having once lived there. I find the walls/platforms to be the most intriguing aspect of the Island. Concerning the moas and their dating, construction, transportation, etc; I think most of the current theories and dates are reasonable, and who knows, they could possible be correct. They are crafted from a material that is easy to quary, and the "walking maoi" theory does provide a simple and convenient transportation method. As to why they were built, and transported great distances, one should never underestimate the ingenuity and perseverance of humans. One motivated person has the ability to accomplish great things, a united people motivated possess the power to move mountians. 

Like i previously stated, I am more interested in the walls. (For anyone who doesnt know what i am talking about, just google, "Easter Island wall" in images) The statues are for the most part(iconographicly, artisticly, and structurly) local to Rapa Nui Island. The wall structures on the other hand are a worldwide phenomenon. To me they are relics of technology, rather than ingenuity. The tight interlocking angles produce anti seismic(earthquake resistant) feats of construction. ( just for fun google anti seismic and go to images, all of the images are of 21st cnt. construction) 

So here is my working theory, a possible scenerio of events. \ I think the wall structures are the remenants of a much older/lost culture. Some time later the polinesian Rapa Nui settled the island and constructed the moai. They went at great lengths to relocate the statues to place them on these preexisting walls. Ancient sites have an energy to them. The Rapa Nui moved their most prescious symbol to sit in an ancient place of power. So that is my speculation for now, but i am willing to admit I might have missed the mark by a mile! 

One last thought, I have no idea how earthquakes effect Easter Island, their frequency or magnitude. The walls also seem to low to offer much protection from tsunamis and ocean storms. So could they be the reminants of a foundation for a much larger structure? 


There is always another secret

There is always another secret

Back in the 1980s - pre-web - we read a report describing the attack by slavers. It claimed they not only killed most of the population and subjugated the rest, but also trashed the previously more salubrious ecosystem by levelling the remaining trees with cannon and fire to ensure they caught as many islanders as possible. The report thus suggested that the native inhabitants had not been as profligate and self destructive as later confabulists supposed, but had been victims of colonialism and slavery.
Unfortunately this information doesnt appear to have made it onto the web and the original hard copy has likewise proven elusive.
The supposed dating for the construction of the moas and their platforms is just that - mere supposition, based on nothing in particular. Many have suggested they are remnants of a much older culture, as you are doubtless aware.
Thanks for all the great work!
See also - - and see 'older posts' at the end of each section

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

Next article