“Our Stolen Friend”: The True Story of Easter Island

Easter Island. Moʻai (statutes) facing inland at Ahu Tongariki, restored by Chilean archaeologist Claudio Cristino in the 1990s.

Few people have not seen this image, which has become something of a global icon, popularized in travel magazines and websites. They are Mo’ais, colossal effigies made by the ancients of Easter Island (or Rapa Nui in the Polynesian language).

Easter Island is a speck on the vast Pacific Ocean, a treeless and windswept desolate place, which adds to the forlorn image of these giant statutes. Popular accounts (largely made up by the rich countries of the West) tell of Easter Island’s downfall as the islander’s own doing; they outgrew the island’s resources, were obsessed with building moa’is, and in the process, denuded the island of trees to make rollers to transport the statutes to the coast. And there were constant outbreaks of inter-tribal warfare, decimating a population that was already small to begin with. But this account is wrong on many fronts. Read the account below for the true story for the fall of Easter Island, which has also robbed humanity of a precious and unique cultural heritage.

The Fall of Rapa Nui: Unveiling the Truth

On Easter Sunday, 1722, an expedition under the command of Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen was exploring the vast expanse of the southeast Pacific when they sighted a small volcanic island. Although unaware of it at the time, they were probably the first vessels to touch its shores in more than a thousand years.

Land of Giants

When a landing party went ashore the following day in search of water and provision, they encountered an art and culture that had been developing in virtual isolation for centuries. The sailors marveled to see gigantic stone figures called mo’ai – some reaching heights of up to thirty feet and many crowned by massive cylinders of porous red rock – standing in silent rows along the shore. The presence of the colossal figures in what appears to be a treeless land, whose inhabitants appeared to lack the means to create them seemed an unfathomable mystery. The mo’ais themselves have remained an enduring image in global popular culture ever since.

The Dutch left the island with little but the name they gave it – Easter Island though the islanders themselves have long called their homeland Rapa Nui. After them, Easter Island was next visited in 1770 by a Spanish expedition under Don Felipe Gonzalez de Haedo, followed by the famous English explorer, Captain James Cook, in 1774, and the French explorer La Perouse in 1786. Using rudimentary vocabulary culled from several Polynesian languages, members of Cook’s party were the first to document the identity of the stone images. In his journal, Cook noted that the images were of the faces of chiefs, who in turn, were the intermediaries between the Rapa Nui gods and the common people. These colossal images of the chiefs-gods were subsequently dated by archaeologists to have been carved between AD 1000 and the mid 1600s. In all, nearly 900 statutes were made. They range from 8 feet in height to an unfinished example that is 71 feet, the average being just over 13 feet and weighing 8 to 10 tons.

Death of a Culture

The first visits by Western explorers were occasionally violent, and almost certainly had a profound psychological impact on the islanders, even though all of the 18th century expeditions combined spent less than a month ashore. Beginning in the 19th century, however, contacts from Western explorers began increasing frequent and there were also more violent encounters. As early as 1804, slave ships arrived on the island, seeking to supply the growing demand for labor in Peruvian guano mines and plantations. In 1862, 22 slave ships raided Easter Island in rapid succession and an estimated eight hundred to a thousand natives, including nearly all the high chiefs and priests, were abducted and put to work, primarily in guano mines on islands off the coast of Peru. The dozen or so survivors brought smallpox to the island, further decimating the population.

As a result of the tragic events of the 1860s, much of Easter Island’s original artistic and cultural heritage was lost. What information remains was for the most part recorded decades later. Meanwhile, throughout the latter half of the 19th century, scientific expeditions continued to visit the island, collecting artifacts to ship to their home countries. Among these expeditions were the British, on H.M.S. Topaze in 1868 whose crew removed two mo’ais which were shipped back to Britain as a gift to Queen Victoria. These two mo’ais were then handed to the British Museum where they remain to this day.

Our Stolen Friend

One of the two mo’ais bears the Polynesian name Hoa Hakananai’a, which aptly translates to “our stolen friend”. Standing at about 8 feet tall, it is one of only 10 mo’ais known to have been carved from basalt (most were carved from volcanic tuff). Hoa Hakananai’a is dated to about 1000 to 1200, making it among the oldest known mo’ais. The back of the statue is covered with relief carvings, notably two facing birdmen (tangata manu), stylised human figures with beaked heads said to represent frigate birds. The birdmen are popularly interpreted as Makemake, a fertility god and chief god of the birdman cult which is said have replaced the older statue cult.

The statute Hoa Hakananai’a in the British Museum in London. It was taken from Orongo, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in November 1868 by the crew of the British ship HMS Topaze

The other statute in the British Museum is Moai Hava (translated as ‘dirty, repudiated, rejected or lost’). It dates to between 1100–1600 and is made of volcanic tuff mainly sourced from the quarry of the extinct volcano, Rano Raraku.

Popping the Myth

Popular “explanations” for the demise of Easter Island were that firstly, the population outgrew their natural resources, and secondly, that their obsession with the carving of giant stone statutes led them to cut down virtually all the trees on the island for the purpose of making rollers to transport the statutes to the coast, which in turn resulted in environmental degradation. To further add salt to injury, the popular account holds that constant inter-tribal warfare further decimated an already sparse population.

We now know that these “explanations” are fictions invented in the Western mind which could not understand how the “simpletons” of Easter Island, lacking in a metal technology and sophisticated stone tools, could make the imposing mo’ais, and by extension, how they could possibly be agile or inventive enough to ensure their own survival. Violent incursions by Western explorers, the slave trade and the spread of epidemics, and not stupidity on the part of the natives or “environmental degradation” were the true reasons for the demise of Easter Island’s enigmatic culture and its people, a people who certainly knew what it took to survive with very little resources, but ultimately, were no match against wave after wave of foreign destruction.

The making was so long,
the dying was so short.
Tell us, o treacherous ones

what have we done to deserve
this fall into the shadows,
into the core of shattered things?

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