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The History of the Easter Island

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history-of-easter-islandEaster Island (or Rapa Nui) is one of the world’s great archaeological sites, and also one of the most remote. The nearest inhabited island is tiny Pitcairn, over 1,200 miles [1,931 kilometers] to the west. Rapa Nui is almost 2,500 miles [4,023 kilometers] from the coast of South America and, in the other direction, it is 2,000 miles [3,219 kilometers] to Tahiti. Its isolation is one of the key factors affecting the culture that evolved here.

From what we know of the material culture, language, and customs, it seems that the original settlers came from either the Marquesas Islands or from Mangareva around 400-600 CE. They may have stopped at other islands along the way. Finding this isolated island seems a miracle.

The hardy Polynesians who found Rapa Nui came prepared to stay. They brought tools and food, and plants and animals to begin a new life. But the island they found is not a typical Polynesian paradise: it is out of the tropics, and has neither rivers nor protective reefs. But, although small (Rapa Nui is a mere 66 square miles [171 square kilometers] in area), it had a forest of large palms and other trees, and craters held drinking water. Obsidian was available for tools and weapons as well as easily worked lapilli tuff—the perfect material for making statues.

The islanders, once settled, gradually spread across the island, occupying nearly all the available areas. In order to plant their crops, they resorted to slash and burn agriculture to remove the forest cover. Eventually this caused topsoil to erode during storms and, overtime, the productivity of the land declined.

They built houses and shrines, and carved enormous statues (called moai), similar to statues Polynesians made on Ra’ivavae and the Marquesas Islands. The function of the statues was to stand on an ahu (shrine) as representatives of sacred chiefs and gods. Ahu are an outgrowth of marae found in the Society Islands and elsewhere in Polynesia. These shrines followed a similar pattern: in the Society Islands, upright stone slabs stood for chiefs. When a chief died, his stone remained. It is a short step from this concept to the use of a statue to represent a sacred chief.

In the beginning, the Rapa Nui society was characteristically Polynesian in that power and mana (spiritual power) were focused in the ariki mau, or great chief. The position of ariki was hereditary. He was considered to be a direct descendant of the gods. Rapa Nui society was divided into mata (clans), associated with particular parts of the island and grouped into two major divisions.

Special craftsmen were formed into guilds, and these specialists carved the famous statues. The Easter Island statues were not carved by slaves or workers under duress, but by master craftsmen, highly honored for their skills.

As statue making increased, the supplies of timber and rope gradually became scarce. The lack of trees meant that canoes could no longer be built, restricting offshore fishing. Without canoes, they could not set off for another island. The Rapanui found themselves trapped in a degrading environment.

The size of the population at its peak is controversial; some put it as high as 7,000; others suggest a higher number. Whatever the population, when combined with environmental deterioration, it was more than this small island could sustain.

A powerful warrior class (matato’a) emerged as the mana of the ariki mau declined; land was seized and enemy villages destroyed. Ceremonial shrines were desecrated and the statues toppled. One result of this power shift was the establishment of a new religion by the matato’a: the Birdman Cult. This cult served to alternate leadership between rival groups from year to year, and the selection of a winner (or “Birdman”) was based upon a contest or “ordeal” to acquire the first bird egg of the season. Thus the Rapanui turned from their old religion to a new creator god, Makemake, and to rituals based on fertility. Hereditary power was replaced by achieved status.

The Island’s Ahu and Moai

Rapa Nui’s ahu (shrines) vary in size and form. There are at least 360 on the island. “Image ahu” are those with statues (moai). The largest ahu are up to 200 feet [60 meters] long and 23 feet [7 meters] high. They have consistent features: a raised platform made of fitted stones and rubble, a ramp that is often paved with beach cobbles, and a leveled court in front. Image ahu had from one to 15 statues standing on each platform. Statues were placed to look over a ceremonial area and village, their backs to the sea.

The appearance of stone statues on Easter Island is neither mysterious nor unexpected. Monolithic stone statues are found in the Marquesas, Austral Islands, and Tahiti. And, although each island group displays some variation in form and style, they are clearly related and spring from common belief systems and religious practices.

The exact number of moai on Rapa Nui is unknown because many lie buried in piles of rubble or beneath the soil at the statue quarry; the estimates vary from 800 to 1,000. Moai are found in nearly all localities around the island, although the greater number are in proximity to the quarry, Rano Raraku, located on the south coast. Practically all the statues were carved from this volcanic cone.

The crater where they were fashioned is an extraordinary site–filled with incomplete statues in all stages of carving. Great hollows in the cliffs mark places from which statues have been removed. More than 230 others were moved to various locations around the island and erected on platforms. Some lie broken and abandoned where they fell during transport.

Statues have a considerable size range, from 6 feet [2 meters] to over 30 feet [9 meters] tall. One giant moai still attached to the matrix of rock in the quarry is over 65 feet [20 meters] long, and has an estimated weight of 270 tons. Perhaps it remained unfinished when the carvers realized that it would have been impossible to move.

To walk around this remarkable quarry site, littered with statues in all stages of fabrication, is an unforgettable experience. Some moai lie on their backs; others are nearly vertical. As the carvers worked, the front and sides were carved first. When nearly finished, only a keel attached the back of the statue to the rock. Gradually it was pecked away, the figure was moved downhill, and stood up in a hole dug into the hillside. Then the back was completed and at last the moai was ready.

Moving the Statues

Once completed, the statues were ready to be transported to the ahu for which they had been carved. Scholars are still debating how this major effort was accomplished. Island legends claim they walked from the quarry to their ahu. Some researchers claim the moai were laid on wood sledges and moved along by means of log rollers. Others believe they were moved while standing up on a sledge. One method has them rocking along on a wooden bipod/ fulcrum. It is probable that the means of transport varied from time to time, depending upon size and form of the statue involved. Aside from the “walking” theory, everyone proposes that wood was involved, and a lot of rope.

Recent archaeological study of the ‘roads’ along which the statues were moved has cast doubt on previous theories for moving them. Charles Love, an archaeologist from Wyoming, has found that the ancient roadbeds were not flat and leveled, but were V-shaped in profile. What this means, and how statues might have been moved along them, is still unknown. Love’s research is continuing.

Once a statue reached its ahu, it was raised by means of wood poles and stones placed beneath it. Gradually the statue became upright as the pile of small rocks grew.

Only those statues placed upright on ahu were given eyes: eye sockets. This “opening” of the eyes activated the power and mana of the statue. At least some of the statues had inlaid eyes fashioned of coral and with stone pupils.

Great cylindrical topknots (pukao) were carved from red scoria and added to the heads of certain statues; these may have signified hats, hair tied up into a knot or a feathered headdress worn by warriors and had some connection with status and power.

How these huge cylinders were set on top of the statues is still under debate. The pukao at one site, Te Pito Kura, is nearly six feet [2 meters] in diameter and weighs around 11.5 tons. It would have been a significant engineering feat to raise it onto the head of a standing statue. Some archaeologists have suggested the pukao were lashed to the statues and raised together as a unit. So little research has been done on this problem that we cannot provide a definite answer at this time.

The Rock Art of Easter Island

Archaeological studies have been in progress for many years on Easter Island; however, most have focused on the monolithic statues (moai) and ceremonial shrines (ahu). Early visitors and researchers noted and commented on a few petroglyphs but little attention was directed towards the island’s rock art in general. This could be due to its lesser visibility: the statues and ahu stand out clearly and dramatically in the landscape, but petroglyphs are often hidden in the high grass. Many are eroded and indistinct or may be concealed in caves.

On Easter Island, petroglyphs are located in every sector of the island where there are suitable surfaces. Favored locations are lava flow (called papa in Rapanui) or smooth basalt boulders. Most of these surfaces occur along coastal areas and often are associated with major ceremonial centers. Important ahu have, as part of their structure, elegantly carved basalt stones (pa‘enga) with petroglyphs on them. Paintings survive in caves or in some of the stone houses at ‘Orongo where they are protected from weathering.

One of the most frequently asked questions about rock art is “what does it mean?” There is no simple answer. Some referred to status, some to clans; others were offerings or supplications; some marked the location of special rites and ceremonies—esoteric aspects of the society. We have connected some petroglyphs to ancient myths as well as some that appear to be clan-related.

The famous Birdman (tangatamanu) design can be related to cult events. The emblem of Birdman (a crouching profile human with a bird head and beak) became the symbol for the new rule by the matato‘a. The cult festivities were held at one of the most scenic spots on the island, ‘Orongo, located on a narrow ridge between a 1,000 foot drop into the ocean on one side and a deep crater on the other side. The most sacred area at ‘Orongo was Mata Ngarau, where priests chanted and prayed for success in the annual egg hunt.

The purpose of the Birdman contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from an offshore islet, Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs from ‘Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. The first to procure an egg became the winner. He presented it to his sponsor who then was declared birdman for that year, an important status position.

The petroglyphs and rock paintings were important, sacred images to the ancient Rapanui. Long neglected in favor of the great statues, today we enjoy them as non-renewable works of art—as ancient prayers and offerings made by this remote group of Polynesians, isolated in the vast seas of the great South Pacific Ocean.

A Brief Historical Overview of Rapa Nui
Easter Island’s long isolation was ended on Easter Sunday in 1722 when a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, found the island. He named it for the holy day. One can only imagine the astonishment of the islanders as the first sail in some 1,400 years appeared on the horizon. The Dutch, in turn, were amazed by the large statues, which they thought were made from clay.

A Spanish Captain, Don Felipe Gonzáles, was the next to land at Easter Island. He arrived in 1770 and claimed the island for the King of Spain. But no ship from the Spanish Navy ever came to make it official.

The famed English explorer, Captain James Cook, stopped briefly in 1774, and a French admiral and explorer, le Comte de La Pérouse, spent 11 hours on the island in 1786. A bay on the north coast has been named after him.

These early visitors spent little actual time on the island. They were searching for water, wood, and food. As the island had few of these items and lacked a safe anchorage, they soon sailed on. None of these early visitors saw the famous quarry where the statues were carved. Some noted that the land seemed well-cultivated, with fields neatly laid out. Comments were made of the unusually shaped houses (boat-shaped), and nearly all of the early visited mentioned the lack of serviceable canoes (at this point in time, the island no longer had good wood available for making seaworthy canoes).

At first contact with the Western world, curiosity and the desire for exotic items resulted in the islanders greeting visitors eagerly. But the behavior of the Europeans was unpredictable and sometimes deadly. Over-excited islanders were assumed dangerous and some were shot for little or no reason. Such occurrences caused them to violently reject later-arriving ships, particularly if a previous one had caused trouble. All outsiders were undifferentiated: tangata hiva (”man from elsewhere”).

Western ships fascinated the Rapanui islanders who were dazed by the size of masts and the amount of wood. They inspected everything from cables to anchors. After one such inspection, islanders returned the next day with a long string and re-measured the ship; obviously some thought the original report had been exaggerated and demanded a recount.

The captain of a ship that arrived in 1830 described the islanders: “…the men are Copper colored, Athletic, tall and well made. I saw none [males] under five feet eight, and I measured one who was six feet three…. The women and a few [of] the men are of a much lighter color. Their bodies are longer and the Pelvis narrower than those of England, or indeed in Civilized Europe; but their limbs, feet, hands, Eyes and teeth are handsome and beautiful. The men have all good teeth also. . . . From the waist downwards, both before and behind, the women are most tastefully and beautifully tatooed…”.

Whalers also came in the 1800’s, looking for water and women. Islanders began to be infected with diseases, principally venereal diseases.

An American ship, Nancy, arrived in 1805. Her captain was looking for laborers for a seal-hunting colony on Mas Afuera in the Juan Fernández group and they kidnapped 22 men and women, intending them as laborers to work at on Mas Afuera. After several days of sailing, the islanders were allowed on deck. The men immediately jumped overboard. Unable to recapture them, the crew shot at them. It is said that one man managed to swim back to the island; the others drowned. What happened to the women is unknown. Later on, other whaling ships kidnapped islanders when they needed to replace crew members, or desired women.

Disaster arrived in the 1860’s in the form of Peruvian slavers looking for captives to sell in Peru. Easter Island was not the only island to suffer. But it was the hardest hit because it was the nearest to the South American coast. A “fleet” of eight ships arrived to Easter Island in December 1862. About 80 seamen assembled on the beach while trade goods such as necklaces, mirrors and other items were spread out. At a signal, guns were fired and islanders were caught, tied up, and carried off to the ships. In the confusion, at least ten Rapanui were killed by gunfire. A second and third landing was attempted the following days, but defensive measures forced a retreat back to the ships. The total of Rapanui who were kidnapped was 1,407 (or about one-third of the estimated population). Some were sold in Peru as domestic servants; others for manual labor on the plantations. Food was inadequate and discipline harsh; medical care was virtually non-existent. Islanders sickened and died. As word of the slavers spread, public opinion in Peru and abroad expressed hostility to this trade in human beings. Newspapers wrote angry editorials, and the French Government and missionary societies protested. Convinced that the entire ‘immigration’ scheme was damaging the reputation of Peru in the eyes of the rest of the world, the Peruvian Government announced that they would henceforth “prohibit the introduction of Polynesian settlers…”.

However, more slave ships arrived in Peru after this regulation was announced. It was decided to send the captured islanders back. A leaky and barely seaworthy ship was selected to return them. Although only large enough for 160 passengers, the Peruvians packed 470 islanders on board. The ship became an unsanitary pest-ridden hellhole, filled with smallpox and dysentery victims. By the time the ship was ready to sail, 162 islanders had already died and many others were ill. The ship headed to Easter Island to drop off 100 Rapanui islanders. But when they reached the island, only fifteen of the 100 were still alive. They were put ashore — along with smallpox. The resulting epidemic nearly wiped out the population. The ship sailed on to the west with its miserable cargo.

The religious order, Société de Picpus, was charged with Christianizing the Eastern Pacific. A grim picture had been described of the situation on Easter Island, and Eugene Eyraud, a lay member of the Sacred Heart Congregation, responded. He landed with equipment to set up a proper mission, including a bell. But, in a short time, all his possessions were confiscated and he became a virtual captive. He was rescued nine months later, in 1864.

By 1866, Eyraud was back on Easter with backup: a priest from the Sacred Heart order, Father Hippolyte Roussel. They were later joined by other priests and lay assistants.

For the disheartened islanders, the food and medicines provided by the missionaries were an incentive for conversion. Such exotics as horses and wheelbarrows were introduced. They taught the islanders, and converted them to a western lifestyle. But the Rapanui continued to die from introduced diseases. Eyraud himself died of tuberculosis.

A French sea captain and former officer in the Crimean Army, Jean-Baptiste Onéxime Dutrou-Bornier, was the captain who brought the two French missionaries to the island. He quickly visualized the opportunities on a largely unpopulated island without European jurisdiction, and he returned in 1868 with plans to take over the island. He gradually bought up land in exchange for trivial gifts. Dutrou-Bornier built a fancy wooden house, proclaimed himself lord of the island, and took a Rapanui wife. Two daughters were born. Their descendants still live on the island today. When ships arrived at the island, Dutrou-Bornier would row out and advise them where to safely anchor. But he misled them so that when the winds changed, the ships went aground. And Dutrou-Bornier collected the salvage.

Meanwhile, the missionaries established a church and school at the village, Hangaroa, (then known as Sainte Marie de Rapanui). Dutrou-Bornier cooperated with the missionaries at first, but found himself at war with them when they objected to his claim of authority over the islanders. Dutrou-Bornier wanted to ship islanders to Tahitian plantations, but the missionaries had their own plans to ship the Rapanui to missions in southern Chile or Mangareva. For three years they skirmished. Then Bornier led a group of his supporters against the missionaries. Buildings were burned and crops destroyed. The missionaries were recalled. Later, the island was further depopulated as many Rapanui were induced to leave for other islands: nearly 200 went to Tahiti to work on plantations and another 150 were moved to the Gambier Islands. Only about 175 islanders remained under Dutrou-Bornier’s control, and the island was turned into one vast sheep ranch. In 1877, Dutrou-Bornier’s reign ended when islanders murdered him.

The first Chilean ship to come into Rapa Nui was the Colo-Colo, in 1837. It was some 40 years before another official Chilean visit. On the continent, in 1877, Chile was warring with Peru and Bolivia over borders. Although Chile had (on paper) the most warships in the Pacific, she desired to acquire other symbols of power and her attention was drawn to the only unclaimed inhabited island in the South Pacific. In 1888 a Chilean Captain, Policarpo Toro Hurtado, took formal possession of the island in the name of the Republic of Chile. Twelve Rapanui chiefs ceded sovereignty to Chile “for ever.”

It was believed that the island had agricultural as well as strategic potential as a naval station but, until World War II, the Chilean government had little interest in it. The whole island was a sheep ranch, and all the Rapanui islanders were confined to Hangaroa village. A businessman from Chile, Enrique Merlet, took control of island by purchase, lease, and occupation. A wall was constructed around the village and islanders were forbidden to venture into the rest of the island without permission. To secure the wall, it was supplemented by guards, gates, and fencing. If islanders protested against forced labor, Merlet burned their crops. The Williamson-Balfour Company succeeded Merlet. Known as CEDIP (Compania Explotadora de la Isla de Pascua), it became the effective sovereign of Easter Island.

In 1868, J. Linton Palmer came on the HMS Topaze (see the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society Volume 40, for 1870); Admiral Lapelin came on the La Flore in 1872, Lieutenant-Capt. Geiseler arrived on the Hyane in 1882 (see Geiseler’s Easter Island Report, W.S. Ayres and G. S. Ayres, Asian and Pacific Archaeology Series, 12, 1995), and the USS Mohican came to the island in 1886, bringing Paymaster Thomson. (See Te Pito te Henua, or Easter Island. Reports of the US National Museum for the Year Ending June 30, 1889.) All of these visitors collected artifacts for various museums, including statues that were laboriously removed from the island.

Like so many Polynesian islands, Easter was notorious for shipwrecks that ultimately impacted island life. Usually the effects (an increase in births) were felt in the months after the shipwrecked crews had been rescued. The Huntwell was wrecked in February 1871, leaving twelve men stranded on the island. The Indiaman sank off Easter on March 19, 1872, stranding some 30 persons on the island. It was two months before they were picked up by another ship. In 1892, when the Clorinda foundered off the island, survivors were stranded for three months.

A particularly interesting shipwreck occurred in June 1913, another of those highly unlikely sagas of the Pacific. A five-masted schooner, El Dorado, broke apart during a fierce storm some 2,700 miles [4,345 kilometers] off the coast of Chile. The captain and crew took to a lifeboat and headed for Easter Island, 700 miles [1,126 kilometers] to the northeast. After nine days, they caught sight of the island from 30 miles [48 kilometers] out. It took them another two days to reach the island through heavy seas. At that time there were fewer than 100 inhabitants left on the island. The ship’s captain, a Mr. Benson, noted that “…[they] lived in terror of the thought that some day they may be removed from the island”. Benson commented on the handsome women, and observed that all the crewmen, including the Japanese cook, managed to have a “wife”. Crewmen were “…treated well with the women making love”, but they complained of the daily fare: ram, lamb, sheep and mutton. After three months on the island, Benson was unwilling to remain longer. He and two of his crewmen sailed off in the lifeboat, and made it to Tahiti. Some months later, a British steamer rescued the rest of the crew.

Neither the general public on the continent nor the government of Chile paid much attention to Easter Island over the years. It was, simply, a Chilean colony. But life for the islanders was so grim that they revolted in 1914.

By 1914, living conditions on the island were appalling; islanders were deprived of their land and access to nearly all drinking water. People were without clothing and often food. If a despairing islander stole a sheep to feed his hungry children, he was deported to the mainland. Leprosy was endemic. In desperation the Rapanui petitioned the Chilean government to allow them to emigrate en masse to Tahiti.

A British anthropologist, Katherine Routledge, was on the island in 1914-15 and she observed the uprising. (See The Mystery of Easter Island by Routledge, published in 1919, available in a more recent re-print). The event that triggered the revolt was a dream by an old prophetess named Angata who dreamed that the island once again belonged to the islanders, and a symbolic feast was to be celebrated. At this news, islanders ranged over the previously out-of-bounds parts of the island, slaughtered animals, and broke into warehouses. A small party of foreigners on the island were under siege at Mataveri, just south of Hangaroa village. Rescue came in the form of the ship Banquedano whose captain restored order. However, he was highly critical of CEDIP and thought the Rapanui had behaved very well not to murder the ranch manager. Despite this, several young islanders were exiled to Chile. When Angata died, the revolt ended.

World War I brought the German fleet to Easter Island, although the island’s inhabitants were unaware of the conflict. The Germans purchased meat from the sheep ranch manager and offered to pay with either a check or gold. Unaware of the war, the check was accepted! The SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich came to the island with a captured French bark in tow. The Germans put the captain and crew of the French ship on shore, as well as some men from an English ship that had been sunk near the Horn. Two months later, a Swedish steamer appeared and took the English crew and most of the Frenchmen with them. Some, however, elected to stay and one married a Rapanui vahine.

The Chilean Bishop Rafael Edwards heard of the plight of the islanders, and came to see things for himself in 1916. He found the conditions desperate and shocking, and he laid responsibility directly on the sheep company which had given all the good water to stock, deprived the islanders of land, confined them to the village, and extracted forced labor from them. Edwards exposed these problems and his efforts resulted in termination of company rule.

As a typical visit from the outside, the ship Carnegie arrived at the island in the early 1920s. A ship had not been seen for six months. Islanders wearing cast-off clothing traded stone fishhooks, spear points, and woodcarvings for clothing, soap, and cigarettes. The Rapanui had no use for money — there was nothing to buy on the island. At that time houses were described as having dirt floors but made of lumber from wrecked vessels; windows were a rare luxury. As a rule, several families occupied a single house, living as one big family. Gourds were used as water vessels where the family had not acquired tin ware from trading. Stealing was punished by one hard day’s labor in the company garden. This punishment was an improvement over that meted out by a former governor who constructed a tight sentry-box and placed the culprit inside for a day. This torture chamber was so small the victim could not move enough to shoo away the flies.

It was during these years that significant changes were made to the island’s ecosystem. The sheep (at one time there were over 70,000 of them) denuded the island. Alien trees, mostly eucalyptus, were planted for shade and windbreaks. Although a fast growing tree, eucalyptus trees shed bark, creating an acidic dry litter beneath the trees, and the roots draw the moisture of the soil away from less hardy native plants. Nothing will grow under them. By making such “improvements” on the land, sheep masters caused the final demise of the indigenous woodland. Various birds were introduced, such as a Chilean partridge and hawks. The latter were brought in to kill off rats and sparrows (which previously had been introduced and had become pests). However, the variety of hawk that was imported lacked an interest in sparrows, and seldom encountered the nocturnal rats. Without natural enemies, pests and predators all flourished.

An ethnologist, Alfred Métraux, came to Easter Island as part of the Franco-Belgian Expedition (1934-35). Accompanied by Henri Lavachery, an archaeologist, Métraux gathered legends, traditions, and myths—along with information on the material culture; his work has become a standard reference for the island’s past. Métraux’s books resulted in focusing the world’s attention on the island (See Ethnology of Easter Island, published by the Bishop Museum Press).

In the wake of World War II, the Chilean government exerted increasing state control, expecting to develop Easter Island as an agricultural supplier for the mainland. Little thought was given to its potential for tourism. Naval authorities took control of the island in 1952 because of its “overwhelming geo-strategic importance for national defense”. Naval rule simply perpetuated the method of keeping the island under the same autocratic administration that it had experienced since 1888. The Navy ran the island as if it were a ship. Military control was arbitrary and any hint of “mutiny” was quickly dealt with. Islanders were still restricted to the village and the Navy had the necessary personnel and firepower to enforce the rules. Rapanui were frustrated and angry. Overbearing and often arrogant Naval Commanders had little regard for their Polynesian subjects, flogging wrongdoers and publicly shaving the heads of men and women who displeased them.

The Chilean Navy became only link the islanders had with western civilization. Instead of a regular supply ship, it was a Navy ship; a Naval commissary replaced the company store. Some islanders were determined to leave their island prison. In 1954, three Rapanui men escaped in an open fishing boat. They planned their escape by hiding food and water at various places around the island and, when all was ready, they “went fishing”. Twenty-nine days later, nearly dead from thirst, they arrived to an atoll in the Tuamotus—2,130 miles [3,428 kilometers] away. Others who tried this method of escape were not so fortunate. Most were never heard from again.

The Norwegian Archaeological Expedition came in 1955; it was the first to scientifically excavate sites and attempt to obtain absolute dates. The expedition was headed by Thor Heyerdahl, who previously had rafted from Peru across the sea to the Tuamotus Islands, near the Marquesas Islands. Heyerdahl’s work had an effect on scholarship for his books triggered much scientific research by others, determined to clarify the archaeological record. [See Thor Heyerdahl and the South American Connection.] One of the members of the Norwegian expedition, William Mulloy, returned to the island and was instrumental in re-erecting statues, restoring sites, and initiating an island-wide archaeological survey. (See Archaeology of Easter Island. Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, edited by Thor Heyerdahl and E.N. Ferdon Jr., 1961); and The Easter Island Bulletins of William Mulloy, 1997, published by World Monuments Fund and Easter Island Foundation.)

In1964 a Canadian Medical Expedition (METEI) came to the island in time to witness another revolt. By this date, some islanders had been to the mainland, received an education, and knew that other Chileans could vote. They complained bitterly of Navy rule, travel restrictions, suppression of their language, unpaid labor, inability to vote, and arbitrary Naval decisions that could not be appealed. One islander, Alfonso Rapu, became a leader of this discontent.

News of the political unrest reached the outside world. Then, on the second day of January, a French frigate just happened to appear off the island; she was on the way back to France via Valparaíso. The Chilean Navy, convinced that the French were about to take over the island, sent a warship with 40 marines. In the village, rumors spread that Rapu was in danger, and so he was swept up by a crowd of Rapanui women who ushered him into the METEI compound. Shots were fired by navy personnel, but Rapu escaped. Two days later new elections were ordered. Rapu won handily. These confrontations between islanders and the Chilean military were followed by an uneasy peace.

The Americans came to build a tracking station, supposedly for the surveillance of artificial satellites (rumors persist that the station was for monitoring French nuclear explosions in the Pacific). Weekly flights from Panama dropped materials by parachute and the US provided jobs for many islanders, and paid them money. Islanders became exposed to western ways and were allowed to purchase things from the post exchange. For the first time, currency became sought-after as the Rapanui were able to buy radios, American cigarettes, and other foreign items.

The airfield at Mataveri (just south of the village of Hangaroa) was completed in 1967, and then commercial flights began. It took nine hours from Santiago to Easter. In 1968 the route was extended to Tahiti. More than anything else, it was regular flights to and from the outside world that brought the most significant changes to the island. Today’s flights average five hours from either Santiago or Tahiti. Easter Island’s runway is the longest in Polynesia, having been extended to function as an emergency landing place for the U.S. Space Shuttle.

The village had piped water in 1967 and electricity by the 1970s. Hotels replaced the tented hotel of the early days. Today the village is western rather than Polynesian and stores sell a variety of items. Such modern touches as telephones, fax machines, video games, email, and direct TV from Chile mainland have appeared. Increased tourism and more islanders traveling abroad have expanded the horizons of islanders. Changes are apparent, and continuing.

But despite the modern changes, shipwrecks continue. In 1983, the Regent Oak was wrecked on the island. After a terrific storm one night, islanders awoke to the astonishing sight of the huge ship on the rocks at the tiny bay at Hangaroa. A salvage crew was flown in but despite all their efforts, the Regent Oak could not be refloated. The only recourse was to sink her at sea. The ship was practically new and so islanders began a series of night raids to remove usable items in an orgy of scavenging. When the ship finally was towed away to her watery grave, she had been picked clean of everything but the engine. Nearly everyone on the island had something from the ship, and a lot of bartering went on as items were exchanged back and forth.

Other recent shipwrecks include the annual supply ship to the island which ran aground on the island’s rocks in 1999 and, shortly before that event, a supply ship sunk at sea with loss of some crew and all the cargo. —

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