Easter Island: a paradise for anthropologists

Easter Island appears regularly on the scientific papers because of its particular interest for anthropologists as an extremely isolated small world, and hence its huge potential to study its colonization, the rise and demise of the native population and the ecology. For me it is a special satisfaction to write about it as a visitor to this impressive place.

A bit of history, in chronological order

  • 3 million years ago (MYA) the Poike volcano erupted and created a conic island. The highest point is 370 m.
  • 2.5 MYA the Rano Kau volcano erupted and created another corner of the island. The highest point is 300 m.
  • 0.3 MYA the Terevaka erupted and created the highest point of Easter Island, with 511 m.

Map

  • Those 3 primary volcanos plus other 70 secondary volcanos and the natural erosion created the triangular form the island has today, with 173 km2.
  • It is one of the most remote inhabited places around the world. The closest inhabited island is Pitcairn (nearly 2,000 km away) and it is 4,100 km away from Tahiti and 3,700 km away from the Chilean mainland.
  • Between 65,000 and 30,000 years ago: modern humans colonize Australia, New Guinea and the adjacent islands until Solomon Islands.
  • Between years 2000 BC-1000 AD: modern humans reach Micronesia, East Melanesia, Polynesia. Between 2000-500 BC the Lapita culture emerged, which geometric shapes expanded throughout Polynesia.
  • 500 BC: the Polynesians from Tonga and Samoa went East to reach Cook Islands, Tahiti, Marquesas and Australes.
  • 700 years later, 200-400 aD, Hawaii was colonized, and then Easter Island around 400 AD. According to some petroglyphs found, the colonizers likely used at least two double canoes.

Canoe

  • 400-800 AD: occupation of the island. This is one of the most recently populated islands. The natives called it “Te pito o te henua” (the navel of the world) and also “Mata ki te rangi” (eyes that look at the heaven). The name “Easter Island” was given by the island’s first recorded European visitor, the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen who encountered it on Easter Sunday, 1722. He called it in Dutch “Paasch-Eyland”. The name Rapa Nui (“big island”) was coined later in time after the slave raids of the 1860s.
  • 800-1680 AD: Ahu Moai phase, development of the typical Rapa Nui culture with 300 ritual platforms called Ahu and 900 giant statues called Moai, which weigh as much as 80 metric tons.
  • 1680-1850 AD: Huri Moai phase, development of the Tangata Manu (bird-man) culture.
  • 1722: Roggeveen arrived to the island and estimated a population of 2,000 to 3,000.
  • 1877: the slave trade and the over-exploitation of natural resources reduced the native population to only 111 (from a possible peak of 20-30,000).

Some recent hypothesis

1) When did the contact between Rapa Nui islanders and Native Americans actually happen?

In 2014, the genome of 27 living Rapa Nui islanders showed the presence of early Native American, suggesting the hyphotesis of a contact around 1280-1425. This could be explained by either two options: 1) Americans arrived Rapa Nui shortly after the Polynesians, or 2) Polynesians from Rapa Nui used the Pacific currents to sail to South America, they obtained sweet potatoes, bottle gourd plants and chickens, and then returned home with some South Americans also on the canoes.

In 2017 Fehren-Schmitz analysed the genetic material preserved in the skeleton of 5 ancient Rapa Nui individuals. They were excavated in 1980 and preserved in the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo, Norway. 3 of them lived before the Europeans arrived, and the other 2 after the arrival. Their genomes actually showed no presence of Native American traces, which indicates no gene flow with Americans before the arrival of the Europeans in 1722.

Modern islanders have American genetic trace, but ancient islanders don’t. How & when & where the gene flow happened still needs further research.
2) The collapse of Easter Islanders happened BEFORE the Europeans arrived.

A classic version of what happened in the centuries after Polynesian seafarers colonized Easter Island is described by Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse” (2005):

  • The rivalry between clans drove the islanders to build the increasingly big moai.
  • The fierce competition and population growth caused an over-exploitation of resources, driving the people to desperation, and even cannibalism.
  • Europeans arriving in the 18th century encountered a society well on its way to decline.

3) The collapse of Easter Islanders was a complex process and did not happen before the Europeans arrived.

The analysis of hydrated obsidian tools and flake artifacts sampled from various separate areas has reflected that pre-European contact population and productivity declines in some near-coastal and upland areas, and post-contact increases and declines in other areas.

This explains a pre-contact overall decline in land use and food production, but argues against an island-wide pre-contact overall collapse.
4) Collaboration between clans, rather than competition?

The Moai were built without the help of wheels or large animals. On other side, all the stones to build the Moai were coming from one quarry complex, even though there are other sites to get basalt on the island. This leads to a new hypothesis proposing that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities interacted and shared resources without any prehistoric warfare. The clans may have had a system of exchange that allowed them to trespass on each other’s territory to share resources.
5) How were the Moais moved??

The following documentary by National Geographic explains how the Easter Islanders were able to transport the Moais from the quarry to the costal line [watch it here].

And finally, this is Easter Island!

Some pics of my visit to that great place, explaining the two Rapa Nui cultures: the Ahu Moai and the Tangata Manu.


References

  • Geochemical and radiometric analyses of archaeological remains from Easter Island’s moai (statue) quarry reveal prehistoric timing, provenance, and use of fine–grain basaltic resources [link].
  • The myth OF A.D. 1680: new evidence from Hanga Ho’Onu, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) [link].

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