Easter Island... What do you think about, when you hear this word combination? Most likely, what immediately comes to your mind is the huge heads of statues dwelling on this plain island. These statues have a very special look that doesn't resemble anything else found in this world. It's the main landmark of the Easter Island, so you're completely right if you associate them with it.
However, Easter Island isn't only about these statues. It has a rich history and a mysterious past that gave birth to a unique culture. The islanders lived in one of the most remote communities in the world and left an important heritage for their descendants. There are a lot of questions about how they lived and how they managed to erect these enormous statues. So to this day, Easter Island exudes mystery that attracts multiple people, from simple tourists to the scientists, who want to get at the roots and resolve all the puzzles. Among all the legends, myths, and theories, they're trying to find the most probable ones and learn what was actually happening on the island before the European explorers arrived there.
In 1995 the entire island became an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the area belongs to Rapa Nui National Park, but you can also meet the local people, who still live there and do their best to preserve their original culture. It's certainly one of the most incredible places on our planet. I'm here to tell you 20 of the most exciting facts about the Easter Island and inspire you to come here and see it with your own eyes! Shall we begin?
20 Why Is It Called Easter Island?
Many of us have asked a question about why this island is called Easter Island. The answer to this question is very simple. The island was discovered by the Europeans when the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen landed on it on Easter Sunday in 1722. For this reason, the newly discovered land was named after the holiday.
However, even though we all know it as Easter Island, locals still call it by the old name, which is Rapa Nui.
Interesting fact: the first name ever given to this island was Te Pito O Te Henua, which can be translated as The World's Navel. Another old name was Mata-Ki-Te-Rani, which means Eyes Looking at the Heaven. So romantic...
19 The Volcanic Past Of The Island
Looking back even further, we can tell that what we currently call the Easter Island appeared a very (very) long time ago as a result of numerous volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Ocean. The oldest eruption is believed to have occurred nearly 3 million years ago, while the most recent one took place more than 100,000 years ago.
Since then, the volcanic activity below the island moved elsewhere and all three volcanoes on the land are now extinct. In one of them, visitors can find a huge crater lake of more than a kilometer in diameter. Besides, the volcanic activity also formed the hilly landscapes of the island.
18 Why Are The Statues Called Moai?
The giant statues that made Easter Island so famous all around the world are called the Moai. There are 887 of them on the island and they all were built around 1250 and 1500 AD.
But why are they called Moai? What does this word mean?
It is believed that the statues were built so that the spirits of the chiefs and other important people of the island could watch over the tribe still living there and bring them good fortune. For this reason, their name is the Moai, which is translated as So That He Can Exist from the tribal language. What a beautiful meaning, isn't it?
17 The Origin Of The Island's Inhabitants
We don't know everything about the people inhabiting Easter Island before it was discovered by the Europeans, but we know that they came there about 1,500 years ago. It's believed that back then, an adventurous chief known by the name of Hotu Matu’a brought his people to this isolated land and started the Rapa Nui culture.
The tribes probably liked to live on this remote island away from Polynesia and the rest of the world. They even believed that they were the only people in the world! I can imagine how surprised they were when European explorers came there for the first time if they really thought so.
16 From Tropical Forests To Treeless Grasslands
Now, when we're looking at the grassy hills and green plains of the Easter Island, it's hard to imagine that one day there were tropical forests there. It's believed that the island used to be overpopulated since over 10,000 people lived there. All these people obviously needed space, so the process of deforestation began and the island gradually turned into the grassy lands we see today.
Due to devastating deforestation and lack of resources, as well as other reasons we're going to discuss further in the article, the population rate on the island dropped dramatically and when the European explorers arrived, there were far fewer people living there. According to some estimates, only 2500 people populated the island in the 18th century.
15 Rats Might've Hurt The Island's Ecosystem
Cutting (or burning) the trees, locals might have thought that they would regrow, but they didn't. According to some theories, the introduction of a Polynesian rat (that was probably brought to the island along with the first settlers) could have contributed to the process. There were lots of food and no predators on the island, so the population of rats could strive. And when the process of deforestation began, they received another food source - the newly growing plants. Feasting on the trees that were trying to regrow, the rats considerably hurt the island's ecosystem.
But in the meantime, they gave islanders a new food source, as well: it's been discovered that the Rapa Nui ate the nasty rodents.
14 Collapse Of The Easter Island Civilization
In addition to deforestation, overpopulation, and lack of resources, the Napa Rui people are also believed to have been involved in civil warfare and even cannibalism.
Anthropologists agree that at some point in the 18th century a rebellion began on the island as a result of the tension linked with starvation and inability to leave the islands (since all trees were cut down or burnt, it was impossible to even build a canoe and sail away). The Islanders were divided into two groups and the civil war began. They even topped down each other's Moais in a fit of rage.
It must have been scary to live on the island at that time...
13 None Of The Statues Were Standing When The Island Was Discovered
As a result of the Civil Was among the Rapa Nui, then the European scientists came to the island for the first time to explore the island better, all the statues were knocked down and lying on the ground as a result of the frequent fighting between the groups of islanders.
Since then, many of the Moai were re-erected, because some wise person realized that these impressive statues were going to attract quite a few tourists to the island. What can we tell? This person was 100% right! People from all over the world become fascinated by the Moais and strive to come to the island to see them with their own eyes.
12 Huge Bodies Under The Ground
At first sight, it seemed that the Moai only had huge heads. But the archaeological excavations held back in 1914 found out that they have even huger bodies under the ground. Even though it's been a little over a century since this discovery, few tourists learned about it and still referred to the statues as to the "Easter Island heads". Only in 2012, photographs of an excavation led by the Easter Island Statue Project along with a picture taken in the 1950s got to the internet to show people that the Moais are actually more than just "heads".
Looking at the photo above, you can understand the scale and the size of these statues. Words are unnecessary here.
11 How Did The Statues Get There?
The Easter Island statues are incredibly huge. The tallest one is 33 feet (10 meters) high and it weighs 82 tons. But the Rapa Nui evidently wanted to make an even bigger one. Archaeologists found an incomplete statue that would be 69 feet (21 meters) high and would weigh 270 tons upon completion.
So the question is, how were these enormous statues moved? Just think about it: they had to transport 11 miles (18 kilometers) across the island without using wheels, cranes or large animals. Some scientists suggest that the Islanders made use of log rollers, ropes, and wooden sleds to move the Moai, but it's still unclear what exact transportation method was.
10 Distinguished Facial Features
All Moais have distinguished facial features, due to which the statues can be recognized by almost any person in the world. They have broad and elongated noses, rectangular ears, as well as strong chins, distinguished heavy brows, and deep eye slits. The Moais' truncated necks make the jaw lines stand out and their nostrils have curls that resemble fish hooks. Under the ground, the statues have arms with long slender fingers but don't have visible legs.
It's interesting that the Easter Island statues have unusually large heads, compared to their bodies. The heads measure about 3/8th of the total size of the statue. If humans had a similar correlation of body and head, we'd look completely differently!
9 The Ugly Duckling Of The Island
There is a statue on Easter Island that looks completely different from all others. Some people even call it "an ugly duckling" of the island. Known as Tukuturi, this statue seems to resemble a human much more than all other statues. First of all, it's far smaller than the Moais and, unlike all of them, it's carved in a kneeling position with its hands on its knees. The Tukuturi's head is more proportionate to its body and has a human-like appearance. It even seems to have a small beard.
Besides, the Tukuturi was also made from a different material than all other statues on the island. Why is it there and why is it so different from the Moais? Perhaps it was just the result of experimentation with new carving techniques?
8 How The Statues Were Made
The Moais were made of different rocks. Most of the statues (834 out of 887) were carved out of solidified volcanic ash, aka tuff. This material could be easily found in the quarry site and then the Rapa Nui would carve the statues with the help of basalt-stone hand chisels. According to experts, around 5-6 men had to work on one statue for about a year to complete it. So you can imagine how much time and manpower was required to carve all 887 Moais.
Out of the remaining 53 statues, 13 were carved out of basalt, 17 - from a fragile red rock called scoria, and 22 - from trachyte. The remaining one, aka the Tukuturi, was made out of red Puna Pua stone.
7 What Was Their Purpose?
The reasons for carving the Moais are mysterious. But, most likely, they were carved pursuing religious or political purposes. There're lots of theories about it, but we'll take a look at the most probable ones. One of the likeliest explanations is that the Moais were a symbol of power and authority. It's also suggested that the statues signified repositories of sacred spirits and the Rapa Nui believed that ritually prepared Moais were bestowed with magical spiritual essence.
What we know for sure is that the Moais were astronomically aligned. For example, the seven 18-ton statues are pointed directly to the sunset during the equinox. It couldn't have been an accident to place the statues that way, right?
6 The Leprosy Theory
According to Dr. Anneliese Pontius, an associate clinical professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, the Moai statues could have been created to counter the effects of leprosy (a disease that was spread in the ancient times and caused extensive damage to the skin and other organs). Dr. Pontius says that the deformity of facial features that seem to be extremely important in social interaction (such as nose and lips) might have led the Islanders to ritually 'undo' this damage and try to reverse the disease by carving their statues and giving them over-corrected features.
If Dr. Pontius is right, the purpose of the Easter Island statues could be different from what people commonly think about it.
5 Most Of The Statues Are Facing Inward
Another theory about the purpose of carving the statues is linked to an interesting fact: almost all of the statues are facing inward (meaning, away from the ocean and toward the villages of people living on the island). There's only one exception: only one of the Moais faces the ocean. It is located at Ahu Akivi, which supposedly was a special place for the Rapa Nui people.
There's a logical explanation why the Islanders placed the statues this way. Evidently, for the Rapa Nui people, the Moais were some kind of protectors, overlooking the inhabitants and looking after them. There's logic in this theory because the statues actually resemble protectors.
4 Mystery Of The Rongorongo Scripture
Another mystery about the Easter Island is Rongorongo Scripture, called kohau rongo rongo by the locals. In translation, rongo rongo means The Great Study or The Great Message. What is this great message? Unfortunately, we still don't know and even the Rapa Nui people living today can't tell us.
The text of the scripture that consists of glyphs carved on wood or tablets remains undeciphered. According to some of the theories, it was created by Hotu Matu’a, the great leader of the Rapa Nui people, who had 67 tablets corresponding with the 67 Maori pearls of wisdom about sailing and astronomy. Hopefully, the scripture will be deciphered one day and we'll know this ancient wisdom.
3 Fun Fact - A Tourist Once Attempted To Steal An Ear Of A Statue!
In 2008, a tourist from Finland decided to take home a special souvenir from his trip to Easter Island. A 26-year-old Marko Kulju decided to hack an ear from one of the statues, but he was seen by an islander fleeing from the "crime scene" with a piece of the statue in his hand. The tourist had some distinctive tattoos on his body, so when the islander reported the act to the police, they quickly found him. Kulju was fined for $17,000 and placed under house arrest. The thief also issued a public apology through a Chilean newspaper.
Because of Kulju's act, the control for tourists became much stricter on the island and one of the quarries was even excluded from the list of access for visitors.
2 Easter Island Is Under Threat
We all know that Easter Island and its gargantuan statues are considered part of the world heritage. But few people know that this special place is under threat today. Both the island and its monuments are endangered as a result of the consequences of climate change. The biggest threats are caused by the rising sea level and increased waves that can inflict a serious danger to the world-renown Moais. Besides, due to the lack of trees, the island is also vulnerable to soil erosion.
Due to all these reasons, Easter Island is currently included into Smithsonian’s list of famous landmarks threatened by climate change.
1 Yearly Tapati Rapa Nui Festival Is Held On The Island
Since it's not a good idea to end this list with a sad fact about the risk of climate change, let's finish it by talking about the grand festival held on Easter Island. It's called Tapati Rapa Nui and it's an annual celebration held for two weeks at the beginning of February. The Islanders are divided into two teams and each one of the teams is led by a queen. The teams participate in a number of cultural competitions, including music, sculpture, sports, body painting, fishing, and many others. The queen of a winning team is called "Queen of the Island" during the next year.
The festival began as a small local event in 1975 and gradually turned into a large festival that doesn't only involve locals, but also tourists, who would like to learn as more as possible about the unique culture of the Rapa Nui people.