by Liesl Clark
Ever since 1722, when Captain Jacob Roggeveen, a Dutchman and the first
European known to have reached Easter Island arrived, scholars have debated
the origins of the isolated population he found there. Did they sail from
the east, from South American soil, or from Central Polynesia to the north
and west? It is daunting to imagine a voyage to Easter Island from any
direction, which would have taken a minimum of two weeks, covering several
thousand miles of seemingly endless ocean. It is clear, however, that the
original inhabitants must have come from a sea-faring culture, adept at
building long-voyaging vessels and navigating the open seas.
Linguists estimate Easter Island's first inhabitants arrived around AD 400,
and most agree that they came from East Polynesia. The archaeological
record suggests a somewhat later date of settlement, between AD 700 and
800. As early as BC 5500 people in Melanesia were voyaging in boats and
trading in obsidian. The westward movement of people continued until Tahiti
and the Marquesas Islands were reached, at least by AD 300. Voyaging canoes
moved southward, northward and southeast to ultimately inhabit Easter
Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand, all in the short period of about 400 years.
When Europeans first explored the Pacific and sailed from island to island,
they noticed that the people of various islands, no matter how distant, had
similar customs. Inhabitants looked similar in appearance and they were
often able to understand each other, even though they came from islands
thousands of miles apart. These linguistic links point to a genealogical
bond that ties the people of the Pacific to one another. Indeed, in 1994,
DNA from 12 Easter Island skeletons was found to be Polynesian.
According to an Easter Island legend, some 1,500 years ago a Polynesian
chief named Hotu Matu'a ("The Great Parent") sailed here in a double canoe
from an unknown Polynesian island with his wife and extended family. He may
have been a great navigator, looking for new lands for his people to
inhabit, or he may have been fleeing a land rife with warfare. Early
Polynesian settlers had many motivations for seeking new islands across
perilous oceans. It's clear that they were willing to risk their lives to
find undiscovered lands. Hotu Matu'a and his family landed on Easter Island
Anakena Beach. Te-Pito-te-Henua, "end of the land," or "land's
end," is an early name for the island.
On Rapa Nui, the more modern, and local, name for Easter Island, large palm
forests flourished. Upon arrival, early Rapanui settlers would have planted
the plants that they brought with them: banana trees, taro root, and
perhaps even the sweet potato.
Enigma of the Sweet Potato
The existence of the sweet potato in Polynesia appears to leave open the
question of who were the original inhabitants of Rapa Nui. Botanists have
proven that the sweet potato originally came from South America. Does this
mean that people from South America could have colonized the Pacific?
According to Thor Heyerdahl, people from a pre-Inca society took to the
seas from Peru and voyaged east to west, sailing in the prevailing westerly
trade winds. He believes they may have been aided, in an El Niño year, when
the course of the winds and currents may have hit Rapa Nui directly from
South America. In 1947, Heyerdahl himself showed that it was possible, at
least in theory; using a balsa raft named Kon Tiki, he drifted 4,300
nautical miles for three months and finally ran aground on a reef near the
Polynesian island of Puka Puka.
There is little data to support Heyerdahl.
Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg,
who is unconvinced by Heyerdahl's theory, notes that "all archaeological,
linguistic, and biological data" point to Polynesian origins in island
Southeast Asia. Interestingly, though, there are stone walls on Rapa Nui
that resemble Inca workmanship; Heyerdahl contests that the scientific
community has not addressed the fact that these walls are distinct in their
Andean style. Even Captain Cook in 1774 noticed the quality of stonework in
the supporting walls near the moai: "The workmanship is not inferior to the
best plain piece of masonry we have in England. They use no sort of cement;
yet the joints are exceedingly close, and the stones morticed and tenanted
one into another, in a very artful manner."
Stone wall at Ahu Vinapu, Easter Island.
So, how to explain the sweet potato and superb stonework? It may be that
the Polynesians sailed as far as South America in their migratory
explorations, and then, some time later, turned around and returned to the
south Pacific, carrying the sweet potato with them. Or perhaps there were
visits from Peruvians who brought the sweet potato and their skilled
understanding of stone masonry with them. Undisputed is the fact that the
sweet potato was, for the Rapanui people, "the underpinning of Rapanui
culture. Literally, it was, according to Van Tilburg, "fuel for moai
Inca wall, Peru.
Rapa Nui History
From at least AD 1000 to 1680, Rapa Nui's population increased
significantly. Some estimate the population reached a high of 9,000 by
1550. Moai carving and transport were in full swing from 1400 to 1600,
just 122 years before first contact with European visitors to the island.
In those 122 years, Rapa Nui underwent radical change. Core sampling from
the island has revealed a slice of Rapa Nui history that speaks of
deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion. From this devastating
ecological scenario it is not hard to imagine the resulting overpopulation,
food shortages, and ultimate collapse of Rapa Nui society. Evidence of
cannibalism at that time is present on the island, though very scant. Van
Tilburg cautiously asserts, "The archaeological evidence for cannibalism is
present on a few sites.
Analysis of this evidence is only preliminary in most cases, making it
premature to comment on the scope and intensity of the practice as a
cultural phenomenon." Most scholars point to the cultural drive to complete
the colossal stone projects on Rapa Nui as the key cause of depletion of
the island's resources. But it wasn't the only one. Palm forests
disappeared, cleared for agriculture as well as for moving moai. Van
Tilburg comments, "The price they paid for the way they chose to articulate
their spiritual and political ideas was an island world which came to be,
in many ways, but a shadow of its former natural self."
The world that the Europeans first observed
they arrived on Rapa Nui in 1722 has puzzled us for centuries.
the meaning of the massive stone human statues on the island?
How did they transport and erect these multi-ton statues?
And, finally, how did the original
inhabitants arrive on this remote island?
First Inhabitants |
Ancient Navigation |
Stone Giants |
Photo: (1,3) © Michael Barnes, NOVA; (2) © Mark E. Gibson/Visuals
Move a Megalith |
Explore the Island |
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© | Updated November 2000